Steam Work


Surely, my proximity to one of Vancouver’s biggest, and most baffling, tourist attractions, the Gastown Steam Clock, which of course is no longer actually powered by the steam it emits- would be the impetus for my brief fascination of the ambiguously iconic steam vents that dot our city. But I’ve been paying close attention to the material makeup of this mill town cum millennial hideaway for a decade now.

Images and Statement by Sean Orr

The steam vents themselves recall a mid-century modern pragmatism; the big pre-cast stone obelisks have a sort of federal efficiency to them. And yet each is unique. Some have healthy Westcoast evergreen shrubs sprouting from the top. Some are used as garbage receptacles, and more often than not, used for their warmth by the many homeless people that make-up the population of downtown Vancouver.

This is my first project where I’ve deliberately set out to photograph a specific object, in this case a banal artifact of industrialism becomes an aesthetic figure. Most of my photographic encounters are chance. Since then I have found myself reading all the different manhole covers and more aware of engineer’s markings. This kind of deliberate attention to detail is one of the aspects that make up Flaneuring, or the practice of the urban stroll.

It was with this that I decided to document the vents. I knew little of them other than I knew they serviced The Hotel Vancouver, St. Pauls, Pan Pacific, and the Post Office. The route I chose, and my lack of research on the subject resulted in an interesting climax- a sort of urban prospector’s bonanza. It was only afterwards did I realize this was a perfectly logical place for them to be.

Turns out, the Steam Clock and various vents are the work of Central Heat Distribution Ltd. (CHDL)- a private district heating company located at 720 Beatty Street in Vancouver. Indeed I had noted and photographed these letters on manholes adjacent to the vents. I had begun walking towards their building, thinking that the massive plumes of steam it emitted might be related, but to be honest I thought the building was a linens company for some reason. I turned west up Georgia where I continued to plot the vents [Photos 1-13].

I had read that an extension of the steam line had been granted so as to heat the new Shaw Tower but I couldn’t see any steam vents. The base of the Shaw Tower emits a mist, but I am not sure if this is an homage to steam or a reference to the bow of a ship. Then there is the vent at Canada Place which I assume is an homage to steamships. I then doglegged back to Pender and back across the city eastwards. I then traversed backwards to Burrard and up to Saint Pauls [Photos 1-25].

After such a long stretch without steam vents on Nelson and since I had reached the bridge decided to head home down Cambie Street. Along the way I peeked around behind the steam factory. I had found some sort of steam vent graveyard! I scrambled down the steep embankment next to BC Place and snapped away. Some of them look like they were never used, some were in advanced decay. Some had gravel in them, other’s their original shrubbery [Photos 26-33].

Not all strolls will have such definitive endings, indeed the idea of an endpoint seems anathema to the concept of Flaneuring. Nevertheless, the point I want to leave you with is, that by paying attention to a seemingly mundane detail one can usurpthe dominant narrative of Vancouver and create a personal connection to the place they live.

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Sean Orr is perhaps most widely known for his outspoken views expressed on the local bog Beyond Robson, where he deconstructs the daily news in a column called Morning Brew. He’s also active in the local music scene as a singer in the bands Taxes and Kidnapping. But it is photography where his passion lies as his 6000+ photo stream on the popular photo sharing site Flickr attests to. Orr’s recent show at Hotel Gallery saw the release of a self-published photo-book called Pretty Drifted. His previous solo outings were at Antisocial and Dadabase, and has shown in group shows at Misanthropy, Midtown, Butchershop, Little Mountain, The Peanut Gallery, Access, and at the Cheaper Show. Sean has been wandering this city for a decade now after dropping out of third year geography, and has been using photography mainly as a means of understanding how the city affects his psyche, and conversely how the psyche affects the city. He describes his recent photograpghy as, “the semiotics of the city of Vancouver; its materials and built environment, speak in a hidden language, readable to those who drift around, camera often in hand, ducking in and out of back alleys and brick buildings”.