In his book, How to Look at a Vancouver Special, Keith Higgins, a Vancouver based artist and writer, offers an in-depth look at the cultural and historical significance of the boxy homes that dot the Vancouver landscape known as the Vancouver Specials. The book is a series of twenty five black and white images of Vancouver Specials that Higgins has photographed with text that describes the popularity of these homes as a way to address the needs of immigrants and lower income families who wanted to be able to customize their own homes. Higgins discusses specifics about the architecture of the homes as well as modifications that were made to the design over the years. Though ostensibly the focus is on the practical aspects of the houses in terms of affordability, strength of design for a wet climate and flexibility, there is a current of criticism that runs through the whole book as Higgins quietly attacks those who dislike the Vancouver Specials, suggesting their dislike stems from an elitist attitude towards home ownership.
I initially chose this book because of its appearance, wrapped with brown paper and a string with the title stamped on the outside. It appeared to be a humorous look at these ubiquitous houses. The wrapping, which is a feature of all books published by Publication Studio, creates the sense of a precious object, and requires the viewer to commit by purchasing the book if they wish to see what is inside. In the case of Higgins’ book, what is inside is serious, critical, and socially aware. The images are fairly consistent, front-on views, often with less than ideal lighting. The book is set up to be read from front to back, although the ‘tidbits’ of information could be read out of order. One image is no more important or memorable than the next however, so the order of these does not seem to be as important.
The book has a timeless quality, as these structures remain prevalent in this city, and the social issues just seem to repeat themselves in slightly different forms. The social history of these houses is not particularly unique to the 1970’s on, except for the blatant irony now that the housing problem has increased to a degree where these Vancouver Specials are no longer affordable to the more marginalized groups they were built for. Higgins’ book is relatively small and unassuming, but it has an important and long lasting message; it requires the viewer to see the trajectory of the housing problem and attitudes towards less advantaged groups in Vancouver. It asks the viewer to categorize and think critically of themselves as mirrors of these less than adored structures.