The Surfers' Shack: Interim Housing in Vancouver

I'm not sure why I refer to this place as a 'surfers' shack'. Perhaps, because it reminds me of buildings I had seen along the coast of California with surf boards stacked up against their walls. This place is located at the end of my street on the corner of Cambie: two buildings stuck together, one an enormous lean-to like structure adjoining the other, a bungalow with a flat roof; a driveway in front circling underneath a 1950's style car port; a rusty corrugated metal shed appended to the carport; a blue tarp over part of the roof and ........ painted a ghastly yellow.

My mother would have called this place a 'monstrosity', nevertheless I formed an affection for it. In the early stages of my acquaintance I imagined it as the kind of place that is inhabited by a rock band. More recently, I noticed scuba diving equipment hanging around the carport and sticking out of the shed. There were always two or three eccentric vehicles parked in and around the carport, well-worn Nissan Pathfinders and a Volkswagen Van or two.

Thinking of the place's location on the Cambie strip near King Edward, you know its fate. About six months ago I noticed that it had been vacated and shortly thereafter telltale metal yellow fencing surrounded the shack's property and that of the two adjacent non-descript houses. A large strident sign appeared on Cambie showed up foretelling the multi-story development to come. So far the joint has held on, but a construction portable has moved into its front yard and two steam shovels are lurking in the back. It's only a matter of time.

Whether surfers, scuba divers or a rock band this kind of place had its use. It provided inexpensive housing for young people and a place where they could learn how to live with one another. It also provided an opportunity to learn house holding. I imagine scenarios like the following: the bathroom sink springs a leak. The residents know the landlord is going to take weeks to respond. One of the young occupants remembers watching her father put a new washer in a sink and a second recalls the necessity of turning off the water to the sink before dismantling the tap. A trip to the hardware store to purchase a washer is required. A wrench is borrowed from a friendly neighbor. The job is done with great collective satisfaction and celebrated with pizza and beer. Oh yes, it is important to return the wrench and out of respect for the neighbours keep the Saturday night music down. Two weeks after this repair another kind of leak occurred. This time it was the roof. This is where the blue tarp came from.

I call all three houses on this strip 'interim housing'. This kind of housing is marginal, messy, rental and typically found at the periphery of neighbourhoods; it can be a pain, but has a role to play. In addition to being inexpensive and providing a learning environment for young people it preserves the value of houses that have seen better days as middle class homes, as well as peculiar places like the surfers' shack.

Interim housing also reminds me of an idea from Robert Venturi's postmodern manifesto, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in which he advocates for the preservation of 'honky-tonk' in our otherwise increasingly bland urban landscape.