Poetry, history on New Westminster's Plaza 88 facades
A line from a short poem inscribed on the facade of the Plaza 88 building in Downtown New Westminster is meant to evoke visions of the city’s history.
One of the final tweaks to the project currently being built is a line on the Columbia Street facade that reads, “In making Canada, a tented canopy set upon a hill ...”
It’s a line from a very short poem written by Graham McGarva, a founding partner of VIA Architecture, designers of the building.
McGarva said the line is about the city’s earliest days when the Royal Engineers designed and built the area’s earliest infrastructure.
“It’s referring back to Col. Richard Moody setting up the encampment up on the hill and they were laying out the communication network, the trails at first, and then the harbour, then the telegraph and then the interurban railway,” said McGarva. “It’s referring to those soldiers up on the hill.”
He said it also refers to other encampments from different workers and parts of society that emerged in the early years, including Chinatown. “I’m trying to capture both the noble and the modest parts of New Westminster’s history.”
McGarva said not many cities can say they were part of making Canada.
New Westminster played that role in 1859 when it became the capital of British Columbia when it was moved from Fort Langley.
“It was a key moment in making this country.”
A comment to Rhonda Larrabee from her mother is the inspiration for the Eighth Street facade which has a quote saying, “I will tell you once, but you must never ask me again.”
Larrabee is the Chief of the Qayqayt First Nation that lived in New Westminster along the Fraser River. A smallpox epidemic reduced its population from about 400 to less than 100. Many of those who survived were assimilated into other local reserves or drifted away, and the government seized the band’s reserve lands in 1916. One of its members, Marie Lee Bandura moved to Chinatown to live with her sister, and when she married raised her children as Chinese.
One day, however, she told her daughter Rhonda about her true heritage, and said, “I will tell you once, but you must never ask me again.”
After her mother died, Larrabee researched her heritage and is now recognized as the chief of the Qayqayt.
Over the years she has been able to find eight other members. McGarva said he saw the building as a raw canvas that could tell many stories. He said the tented canopy structure in the plaza with all its “weird angles” is a homage to the tents of a century and a half ago. The red and grey panels spell out New Westminster in Morse code. There’s also a reference to Yifao, which was the Chinese name for New West. It meant second city, because Victoria was the first city they encountered upon their arrival and New Westminster the second.
“There’s a whole bunch of literary allusions [on the building]. It’s bold. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but there’s a proud story to this building,” McGarva said.