by Joseph Roberts
In1976, Alan Clapp was inspired to create Habitat Forum, a grassroots gathering of people who were passionate about creating communities and cities that fostered a sense of belonging and, at the same time, honoured the environment. Habitat Forum, which took place at Jericho Beach in Vancouver, ran alongside the UN Conference on Human Settlements, which, in contrast, was hosted at various downtown hotels. Clapp, with the help of artists and thousands of volunteers, created outdoor amphitheatres, using beach logs. Thirty years later, Clapp, whose DVD documents Habitat Forum 1976, looks back at the experience and talks about the World Urban Forum taking place in Vancouver this month.
JR: What inspired you to create Habitat Forum in the old Jericho Beach seaplane hangars?
AC: I was working on a project to convert Canada Woodpipe at the bottom of Richards Street. It was a beautiful sawmill that made wooden pipes and water tanks that you used to see on the top of buildings, and it was being taken apart. CPR’s Marathon Realty asked me to create something out of that space, which I was busy doing. That’s basically what Granville Island was – that's where the idea for Granville Island came from.
Terry Tanner, the architect working with me, told me the UN conference was coming to Vancouver and I thought that was incredible. I've always loved Jericho, the five hangars. I'd done a number of different kinds of projects there like Greenpeace send-offs and taping of sports car races. So I really wanted to turn that into a free convention an ordinary person could go to, and I have a lot of good friends, who are very creative people, and that's what we did.
JR: I see pictures on your wall of some incredible people. Who really stands out for you from Habitat ’76?
AC: Well, that's hard. In the building of it, Bill Reid and Evelyn Roth. Painters and sculptors whose names I've forgotten. Michael Malcom and Chris Blades. So many people.
One of the conditions that the government put on the funding for Habitat Forum was that I had to use unemployed people. That wasn't a big problem because most of the people I know and have worked with are what you'd call “unemployed.” They're artists and craftspeople, who aren't what we'd call conventionally employed anyway. So it was a nucleus of some of Vancouver’s most incredible artists. They had to stay within the parameters of what we were building – no plastic, just wood. They couldn't come in and just set up their own little trip. It was to do that overall feel, which we accomplished. I was very proud of it.
JR: In taking a look at some of the artists, there were some incredible banners produced.
AC: Well, of course there was Evelyn Roth, who was responsible for putting together the team that created all those beautiful banners, especially the one in Hangar Five, the plenary one, that covered the whole ceiling. It had a Bill Reid design on it. It was incredible, just beautiful. There was also Karen Halfnight and Hannah Lorey, who did all the batiks.
JR: I think the best way for people who weren't there to have an experience of it would be to get a copy of your DVD documentary Revisit Habitat Forum: the 1976 UN Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver. This is something we should be really proud of. It happened in Vancouver. I've watched the documentary and it's amazing.
The conference was about human settlements and here we are 30 years later. What does the report card look like? How have we done: the commitments and the conversations, the government agreements? I'd love to see a real debriefing about the last 30 years and a reckoning of what we need to be doing to make this planet more sustainable.
AC: I wish I could answer that question. Reading the news, it looks like we still have all the same problems. I think one of the difficulties with these conferences, including the new Habitat, is that it gives people a false sense that something is being done. It's just not true. The conference happening here is really heavily regulated by the federal government and the UN. There's little input from the ordinary Joe Blow.
JR: Which speakers had a big impact on you back in 1976?
AC: Well, Mother Teresa for instance. People were just in awe of her. She stood in the plenary hall, which held about 2,000 people, and she had about 2,500 in there. Buckminster Fuller was another. Pierre Trudeau and his wife were very active; the former prime minister visited the site twice and attended the conference. There was also Barbara Ward and Margaret Mead.
There were such amazing numbers of people and incredible films and videos that half the people didn't see. We couldn't find everything we recorded in our mobile with Gene Lawrence, but I understand they've been found and will be converted to disk from 3/4" tape. We also recorded every speech and I have a lot of those tapes. We're going to use some of them when we do an anniversary of the Forum.
JR: I want to thank you personally Alan for inspiring me. That conference woke me up to being a global citizen.
AC: You're not alone. There are people who belong to the '76 Club, who went through a change, either in their attitude or in their personality, as a result of Habitat Forum.
JR: The Peace Forum encountered some speed bumps.
AC: That's no different than Habitat Forum along the way. The City of Vancouver – Art Phillips, and May Brown of the parks board didn't want it to take place because they said the PLO would come in and blow up the city, or whatever their paranoia was about that. The forum was successful because Dave Barrett and the NDP were in power at the time and Davey really got behind the conference. He got us the lease for the land at Jericho, gave us a sawmill to cut our own wood and gave us a log salvage licence to pull logs off the beach to create all the incredible things we made at the forum. They were very supportive and it happened because of them.
When Bill Bennett came in, he continued to support the event. He got us the liability insurance and gave us $50,000 to make a film about Habitat. There were people who were for it, who were very strong, and people who were against it, who were very much against it. The parks board was so against it that they ripped down every hangar once it was complete. The hangars would have made incredible studios for filming and an incredible convention centre, but they were torn down.
JR: I was very sad when those buildings came down. I was one of the people who supported their protection, including the priceless Bill Reid mural that was painted on the back of Hangar 6. There's a great picture of that in your film.
AC: The hangars were built in the shape of Native longhouses. That image fit perfectly. At night, we just put up a crane and projected the image on the wall and filled it in. But it fit perfectly, like it was made for it. It was quite incredible. No doubt, it was one of the most beautiful murals that happened.
JR: The metaphor of the longhouse: I saw those hangars as townhall meeting places, for people to get together and sort out the issues. That's where our democracy exists.
AC: I agree. I'm a firm believer that what was interesting to people was that, in putting a conference like that together, here was an opportunity for the first time, probably, in their lifetimes to do something that would aid the UN. I think that's what the majority was feeling. We put some 10,000 volunteers into that project. School kids loved it and came down and worked. So I think that was the big motivation behind why people felt it was good for them to be part of that.