Vancouver artist Ken Lum, renowned for his sculpture of a large sign that says "East Van" in the shape of a cross, has created a new exhibit consisting of a small replica of a Vancouver Special, a common home design.

The first Vancouver Specials went up after the Second World War to accommodate an influx of immigrants coming to Canada looking for a better life. They were designed to maximize square footage on relatively small lots.

Lum's exhibit, called Vancouver Especially, is a commentary on current real estate, wealth, and building style in Vancouver.

"I'm interested in trying to tap into something essential about the time we're living in," said Lum, "as well as the culture of the city as determined by the new money class."

Ken Lum Vancouver Especially

Vancouver artist Ken Lum's latest exhibit is a small replica of a Vancouver Special (Stephen Quinn)

Lum came up with the idea when he was given $45,000 to create the project. 

"I started thinking about real estate," said Lum. "It was quite evident to me because I saw this empty lot and I could well imagine a new edifice going up in its place."

A bit of research led him to discover that in 1970, a Vancouver Special would have cost $45,000 to buy. So he decided to build one for the same price, but at a scale that would be relative to its cost today.

The result, he discovered, was so small that it wouldn't be noticeable to most passers-by. Instead, he built a larger one and placed the tiny replica on a nearby pedestal.

Vancouver Special a symbol of affordability

Lum had proposed the project earlier, but it was "unceremoniously and quickly dismissed." He waited until the project would be better received before proposing it again.

"Today, affordable housing, it's a crisis category," said Lum. "I think there's may be lessons to be drawn in terms of the culture that spawned the Vancouver Special." 

Lum grew up in a Vancouver Special in Strathcona, the neighbourhood adjacent to Chinatown. His mother was able to buy it even though she worked in a sweatshop.

Lum doesn't put himself in the same category of hip, urban professionals who exalt the home design for its retro qualities.

"I think the more important question is what it stood for in terms of affordability, especially in the context of today," said Lum.

The exhibit opens on Feb. 21 at 271 Union Street in Vancouver.