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In Vancouver's City of Glass punchy designs and a little showmanship go a long way

New top-heavy towers set to make conspicuous statements in a city known for skinny buildings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2015, 12:20am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2015, 3:24pm

When Douglas Coupland called Vancouver the "City of Glass" in a 2000 book of the same name, the moniker stuck - not because the author/artist was making some kind of metaphorical statement about the city's character, but because it was literally true.

Vancouver's housing boom, which started in the mid-1980s and has continued until now, with few interruptions, has left it with a thicket of glass-walled apartment towers that seem almost apologetic about their intrusion into the city's beautiful natural surroundings.

Things seem ripe for a change. In recent years, some of the city's developers have made an attempt to break the mould with residential towers that stand taller, punchier and more eccentric than anything before.

Vancouver architecture lacked "really special moments", developer Ian Gillespie said last year. He seems prepared to put his money where his mouth is: his latest project is Vancouver House, a 59-storey apartment tower designed by Bjarke Ingels that twists its way up from a narrow space between two elevated roadways. It has nearly twice as much floor space on its upper floors as it does at ground level, which will make it a conspicuous presence in a city known for its skinny towers.

On the other side of Vancouver's downtown peninsula will be another top-heavy tower, the design for which was recently revealed by Beijing-based architect Ole Scheeren. The 51-storey structure's protruding apartments have already earned it comparisons to the block-stacking game Jenga.

"There seems to be quite a lot of readiness in Vancouver to go beyond where they are [now]," says Scheeren.

 

Vancouver often tops surveys of the world's most livable cities. "But what does that mean?" asks Scheeren. "I like the challenge of building a place for living in a city known for good living."

His strategy was to design a boxy tower with apartments arranged along a simple grid. He then extracted certain apartments to create dramatic projections with huge rooftop terraces. He says he wanted his building to appear as if it was reaching out to mountains, water and rainforest.

"Vancouver's appeal is the incredible presence of nature," he says. "There are few places where this proximity is so explicit."

Reaction to Scheeren's 1500 West Georgia design has been mixed. In a blog post, former city planning boss Ray Spaxman dismissed the design as an improbable gimmick that would be "fascinating on someone's coffee table" but not "as a residential building in an existing neighbourhood".

Unlike Hong Kong, Vancouver enforces strict design controls on new developments, and unusual buildings do not always survive the evaluation by a design panel made up of planners and architects. Last year, the design for an angular waterfront office tower was sent back to the drawing board because planning officials felt it was too imposing.

Ingels' design for Vancouver House has so far survived the design panel, earning praise not only for its honeycomb facade but also the way it promises to transform the empty space beneath the Granville Street Bridge approach into a lively commercial district.

"It's an urban living room. It's very exciting," says Gordon Price, a former urban planner and city councillor.

He is more sceptical of 1500 West Georgia, questioning how it will relate to its surroundings, most notably a 1976 office tower designed by Peter Cardew that sits next to the new tower.

Scheeren's tower will replace part of a plaza designed by Cardew; Scheeren says he will enhance it by adding pedestrian pathways and a black box cultural space at the base of the new building.

Although the novelty of Scheeren's design attracted international attention when it was announced in May, he insists its form reflects a commitment to high-quality apartments, not show-stopping architecture.

"A lot of architecture these days is no longer produced to be lived in but is produced as an investment product," he says. "They are silhouettes, external shapes without internal logic. The time of paper architecture is over."

For his part, Gordon Price evokes architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who made a distinction between "background" and "foreground" buildings. "Do we have room, stylistically and economically, for [buildings] that perform a foreground function? The answer is yes, sure," he says. "But there's a lot to be said for a city that has reasonably good quality background architecture that provides harmony and continuity."

Price points out that neither Ingels' nor Scheeren's designs are revolutionary - the curve of Vancouver House is reminiscent of Santiago Calatrava's Turning Torso, and 1500 West Georgia brings to mind his own work on buildings like the Interlace in Singapore and MahaNakon in Bangkok. "They're both derivative," he says. It's just that, in the City of Glass, a little bit of showmanship goes a long way.