City Briefs: A Walking Tour Of The Power That Made Vancouver

December 7, 2010.

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by Scott Daniel | In 1882, Vancouver went all-in for the new age of electrified living. As the late, great Chuck Davis points out, our city had the first electric lights on the Pacific coast north of San Fran. People living at the edge of a rainforest joined the Second Industrial Revolution and our neighbourhoods grew up around the electric streetcar network.

Perhaps we don’t preserve our history all that well in Vancouver, but there is a collection of surprisingly remarkable electrical substations and ‘rectifiers’ scattered around the city that tell interesting stories about our relationship with modernity.

Sperling Annex Rectifier | King Ed and Arbutus

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I’ve always wondered what this beauty is at King Ed and Arbutus, surrounded by a park, seemingly built in its honour. Well, it’s the Sperling Annex Rectifier, of course, serving your transmission needs and converting your ACs to your basic DCs.

Bodwell Rectifier Station | 308 East 33rd Avenue

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This bad boy is so conspicuously faceless you can’t help but stare. It’s surrounded by personality-less Vancouver Mohawks and according Jim Van Horne’s moustache, it wins the neighbourhood’s Ugly-in-a-Beautiful-Kind-of-Way Contest hands down.

Murrin Substation | 721 Main at Georgia

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And speaking of ordinary, the Murrin Substation at the edge of Chinatown has to be one of the most ordinary-looking structures in the city. But the art deco motifs surrounding its hideously functional doors give it some intrigue. The structure is designed by the architects of the Marine Building so the deco credentials are solid.

Adding to its fractured persona, the substation’s proximity to Chinatown is linked to “a legacy of historical anti-Chinese feeling” and was intentionally built in an area considered “unsuitable for habitation by white Canadians.”

Dal Grauer Substation | 944 Burrard

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For artistic merit, you can’t top the Dal Grauer Substation. The Canadian Centre for Architecture put this beauty bonza front and center in its exhibition (and the accompanying book) on The New Spirit of Modern Architecture in Vancouver. The only trouble is that it’s been covered over for decades by a crude, blast-proof, plexiglass exterior. Sure, the odd explosion can take the shine off any work of art, but everyone agrees, we need to restore the substation to its original glory. Busby Perkins & Will even have the plans all drawn up. But how do we justify spending limited public money re-beautifying when we have enough trouble housing and feeding our citizens? Good question.

For what it’s worth, the Parisian dandy, Stendhal, argued that beauty is “the promise of happiness,” or at least a “reminder of our full potential,” in Alain de Botton’s words. Seems a bit twee. But if you’re like me, you avoid arguing with Parisian dandies at all costs.

In this vein, what do you think the freshly announced Mount Pleasant Substation says about our current relationship with beauty and function?

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