October 02, 1998 Features & Images » Feature Story

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Is Whistler too organized? Even planner Eldon Beck is looking to bring life back to the village By Stephen Vogler From its moment of conception, Whistler has had the blessing of being extremely well-planned. Like expectant parents arranging their baby’s room well in advance, the designers of the village thought out every foreseeable detail. They considered the view corridors from walkways and plazas, the materials to be used in construction, even the size and placement of signs. From the moment it opened for business, the village had bylaws to control the out-of-control, signs to direct the lost, and organized entertainment to keep everyone happy. Compare all this to one of the many towns in North America whose business district is a strip mall with fast food joints and gas stations, and you will agree that Whistler is extremely fortunate. Sure, we might have the fast food joints now, but even those have been well-planned: their signs are unobtrusive, their placement discreet and their colours muted. But has Whistler become too organized? Has the natural spirit of the place been thwarted by the controlling, codifying and monitoring of every aspect of existence? Planning and organization are essential in running a successful destination resort, but too much of it can make a place feel sterile and antiseptic. Combine all that organization with our glossy world class image and it can start to feel like we’ve been enclosed in some kind of communal shrink-wrap: a lifeless Danish waiting for consumption at the strip mall 7-Eleven. When Eldon Beck, the primary village designer, visited Whistler in 1997, even he felt that our village lacked some life. In his now infamous stroll through our town, he commented that everything seemed a little too in place, a little drab and lacking some indescribable element. I think what Eldon might have been looking for was simply some character. In many ways it is the unorganized element that allows the spirit of a place to take root and grow. Character grows not out of the planned and well thought-out, but out of the cracks in a place. It thrives in a kind of messiness, emerging from the chaotic, the spontaneous and even the foolish. Though it’s often overlooked, much of what colours Whistler today, and makes it so successful, is a tradition of irrationality, spontaneity and pure irreverence. The very act of sliding down a mountain on a piece of wood — the core of Whistler’s existence — is not a rational thing to do. It opens up all kinds of unpredictable possibilities. Dropping out of the rat race and orienting one’s life around having fun in the mountains is also not a particularly rational action. It is a quick break, an impulse that doesn’t originate in rational or organized thought. It is, however, the leading factor in the formation of our community. I can think of a few examples from Whistler’s past that seem to be a true expression of our community’s irrational side. In the mid 1970s, as the snow would melt away from the lower part of the mountain, an unusual activity used to occur at L’apres (Dusty’s) patio. While the bulk of the apres skiers sat in the sun nursing their beers, a few driven souls would hop into various motorized vehicles and see who could reach the highest point on the old T-bar line. It may have been illegal and downright stupid, but it emerged so naturally and was such great entertainment for the patio dwellers that it just seemed right. The Mayday Madness celebration was another event that fully explored Whistlerites’ fascination with mayhem and disorder. Occurring on the long weekend in May, it celebrated the end of ski season and the transition into spring and summer. At the centre of the festivities was the Great Snow, Earth and Water Race (a somewhat unruly event in itself), but apart from that one organized activity, it was basically a time to party and revel in drunken wildness. I remember sitting on the roof of the old Christianna Inn along with a couple of hundred other people while the Cement City Cowboys played naked on the patio prior to the belly flop contest and the completely politically incorrect wet T-shirt contest. Needless to say, it made quite an impression on my 13-year-old self, and helped to cultivate my healthy appreciation of disorder. In the 1980s, the Mayday Madness celebrations were deemed too unruly and the word "Madness" was dropped from the moniker. The Great Race became a serious sporting event before finally dwindling away, and the weekend was generally downplayed to discourage such drunken revelry. Today, Whistler’s festivals are much more civilized. They’re organized by the Whistler Resort Association and are designed to entertain the guests, attract the most tourist dollars and keep the local businesses happy. That, after all, is the job of a resort association. Maureen Douglas, Festivals Co-ordinator with the WRA, says they have gone away from bigger weekend festivals in the summer because they’re no longer necessary to draw the tourists. They are now offering ongoing entertainment in the form of A Little Night Music, which provides live music almost every night of the week and helps to draw mid-week visitors. In terms of creating a more spontaneous, less organized approach to village entertainment, Maureen says, "we’ve done some research into the busking issue, from both the WRA membership and the resort visitor, and it was all really negative." She sees no reason to change what seems to be working fine. She does, however, believe that having artists creating and selling art in the village would be a benefit to the resort. The Whistler Village Enhancement Strategy, being worked on at the municipal hall, is looking at that idea, among others, to help revitalize the village. They are also considering introducing food kiosks and have relaxed some of the restrictions on signs to create a somewhat livelier ambience. But to read some of the letters from the village merchants in response to these ideas, one wonders if they will ever see the light of day. The Commercial Core Committee, a group of village businesses, agreed unanimously that the kiosk program was a bad idea. In a letter to mayor and council they said it was "an affront to those people that have invested considerable amounts of money to open and remain in business." They also stated that kiosks would "run the risk of creating a disjointed carnival like appearance in our resort. Too many businesses are already allowed to spill out onto sidewalks and common areas, detracting from the overall appearance of the village." At the suggestion of local artists selling their creations in the village, a local art gallery owner wrote to council: "The merchandise offered by temporary vendors hardly qualifies as art. It tends to run to velvet paintings of matadors and worse." And the Whistler Food And Beverage Association opposes kiosks partly because of "economic tension" due to an increase in the number of restaurant licenses. They also pointed out that the municipality has rightly opposed food vendors previously in the village "citing litter and smells as a detraction from the atmosphere." While the squabbling over what belongs in the village might best be left to the shop owners and politicians, there still remains the important question of how a community can truly express itself. Without anything resembling the old Mayday Madness festival, what does Whistler have left to call its own? For the last couple of years, the resort has created festivals around the World Cup in December and the World Ski and Snowboard Festival in April, but so far neither has really taken on a spirit of its own. Organization seems to reign supreme at these festivals as each scheduled event follows closely on the heels of the last — as though simply having a chalk-full timetable will cause a festive atmosphere to emerge. The local element is squeezed somewhere in between the corporate sponsors and the vast media coverage, and the whole thing ends up feeling contrived. The festivals which have proven most enduring throughout history are the ones that allow a society to revel for a time in disorder. Carnival, in Catholic countries, is a time devoted to revelry, riotous amusement and indulgence. But don’t think the early church was out to promote such actions; the Romans were simply too attached to their old fertility festivals to give them up. The early Christians wisely incorporated the Pagan festivals into their own observances, allowing carnival to precede the 40 day period of Lent. During carnival, men and women exchanged clothes, masked themselves as spectres, danced, paraded and enjoyed excesses in honour of Bacchus (God of wine) and Venus (Goddess of love). Chaos and disorder may have reigned during these festivals, but that is exactly the point. By expressing the chaotic aspect of existence for a week, order and reason could then regain their throne for the rest of the year. The Romans knew that those festivals were more than just a good toga party. They were a chance to flirt with chaos, to allow it into their lives and pay it its due. Like an individual, a society that doesn’t acknowledge a bit of mayhem in life quickly becomes neurotic. Which brings me right back to Whistler. With the World Cup guaranteed here for the next eight years, perhaps a real festival will eventually begin to take root. Not necessarily a festival that is good for PR or for business or media coverage, but one that is healthy for the community — a simple celebration of winter. It doesn’t need to have a long list of scheduled events. Good festivals take on a shape of their own. They let chaos and unpredictability reign, and they allow the spirit of the place to emerge. So instead of a huge organizing committee with a budget to match, perhaps we just need a simple recipe: 40,000 people music in village food (with wafting smells) drink STIR!

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