Mid-rises break monotony

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN MACKIE

The Van­cou­ver sky­line is be­ing trans­formed with a new gen­er­a­tion of res­i­den­tial tow­ers that twist and twirl into the sky. But many of the most strik­ing new de­vel­op­ments are lower to the ground.

“It’s kind of a well-kept se­cret — for a city known for its tall tow­ers, and un­for­tu­nately in many cases, (for) the monotony of its tall tow­ers, we’ve been do­ing pretty good mid-rise build­ings,” said Brent Tode­rian, Van­cou­ver’s for­mer head city plan­ner.

Case in point: South Creek Land­ing, a six-storey build­ing at Sixth and Cam­bie.

De­signed by Arno Matis Ar­chi­tec­ture, it fea­tures metal span­drels that an­gle down the ex­te­rior, in a big ‘L’ shape. The an­gled span­drels give it move­ment, like a stream­lined car from the 1930s.

The span­drels aren’t just or­na­men­tal — they’re part of the sup­port struc­ture of the build­ing and are strate­gi­cally placed.

“They’re shaped to cre­ate pri­vacy, to deal with sun an­gle, and to cre­ate a kind of shape to the build­ing it­self,” Matis said.

“If you stand down be­low on the side­walk and look up, you can see that ev­ery floor kind of ta­pers in — there’s a curv­ing sec­tion to each fa­cade. We mod­elled it us­ing dig­i­tal mod­el­ling tech­nol­ogy.

“So the pro­file of the build­ing, when you vis­ually con­nect one floor to the next, kind of cre­ates a sub­tle curve as the build­ing rises up.”

From some angles, the build­ing looks a bit like a ship.

“We like to dig a bit deeper than the sur­face of the con­text,” Matis said. “We look at his­tory, we look at many dif­fer­ent as­pects of the con­text. This par­tic­u­lar site was the orig­i­nal wa­ter­front of False Creek — ev­ery­thing from First Av­enue north is ba­si­cally fill.

“That orig­i­nal shore­line was the home of a ma­jor ship­build­ing in­dus­try in the city, so we wanted to bring a sub­tle metaphor into the build­ing, to make peo­ple think a lit­tle bit about how the city has trans­formed. (So) there are these kind of nau­ti­cal themes that run through the ar­chi­tec­tural el­e­ments of the build­ing.”

A cou­ple of blocks west is Sixth and Wil­low, a three-storey town­house de­vel­op­ment with an un­usual fea­ture: rust-coloured steel slats in front of a white body.

The slats are made of a spe­cial “weather­ing steel” called corten, and were added by ar­chi­tect Michael Green to break up the “vis­ual and noise dis­trac­tion” of the thou­sands of cars that zip by each day.

“I sort of thought about that build­ing like an egg,” said Green.

“It’s got an outer shell that’s made out of the corten steel, and then this in­ner sort of white­ness that’s very pure. That in­ner court­yard is very dif­fer­ent from the out­side.”

The steel slats were added to deal with the traf­fic on Sixth Av­enue, with­out los­ing the view.

“It’s got trees across the street on the north side, which are re­ally lovely, and it has views to the city,” Green re­lates.

“I wanted those units fac­ing the street to get a great view of the trees and of the city, with­out the vis­ual dis­trac­tion and noise dis­trac­tion of all the cars rush­ing by on Sixth Av­enue right in front of you.

“Those slats cre­ate this kind of vis­ual buf­fer, so when you’re driv­ing along you can’t see into some­body’s unit, even if their win­dows are wide open. From in­side you can’t see out to all these cars rush­ing by, it kind of blocks them. You see the car just in front of you, but you don’t see this con­stant stream of cars, and you don’t hear the cars.”

Green knows the slats aren’t ev­ery­one’s cup of tea. But he thinks Van­cou­ver ar­chi­tec­ture needs some fresh ap­proaches.

“I think one of the big­gest risks that Van­cou­ver is fac­ing right now is that we have a real cookie-cut­ter kind of qual­ity of build­ings,” he said.

“We’re see­ing all our tow­ers start to look and feel the same. They don’t have a lot of colour to them, it’s kind of all the same — cold and concrete and glass and green.

“The same is true in smaller build­ings. There’s a risk that they start be­com­ing too much of the same. Or that they be­come car­toon­ish, that in or­der to be dif­fer­ent, they be­come so car­toon­ish and gre­gar­i­ous, a kind of al­most silly ar­chi­tec­ture that’s try­ing too hard.

“There’s a sweet spot in-between that says build­ings should be con­tex­tual. They should work with their con­text. That doesn’t mean they have to look the same as the build­ings next door and around them, but they should some­how suit the feel­ing of that neigh­bour­hood, and not try to blow that apart.

“Ev­ery­body’s go­ing to have a dif­fer­ent opin­ion. For Sixth and Wil­low there will be a huge range of opin­ion about whether that was suc­cess­ful or not, but the in­tent was to do some­thing spe­cial for the lo­ca­tion, that made sense for that lo­ca­tion, that con­text.”

A good ex­am­ple of build­ing in con­text is Bo­heme, a block-long de­vel­op­ment at 1588 East Hast­ings by Mil­len­nium, the Olympic Vil­lage de­vel­oper.

Many peo­ple still think of that stretch of Hast­ings as gritty and in­dus­trial. Ar­chi­tect Joey Stevens de­signed a build­ing that takes its cue from that in­dus­trial past, but brings a bit of ele­gance to the street.

“Mil­len­nium re­ally liked the old in­dus­trial build­ings that are re­pur­posed into lofts, that was kind of the ini­tial start­ing point,” said Stevens, who works with GBL Ar­chi­tects.

“Do­ing some­thing in that vein, but also rec­og­niz­ing it’s a new build­ing, it’s not an old his­toric in­dus­trial build­ing that’s re­pur­posed into lofts. (So we were) kind of meld­ing that ver­nac­u­lar in­dus­trial feel­ing and throw­ing some more con­tem­po­rary el­e­ments into it, and treat­ing it as one build­ing.”

The build­ing is ba­si­cally di­vided in two, with a smaller white brick ware­house-style side on the east and a larger con­tem­po­rary side on the west. But there’s white brick on the base of the con­tem­po­rary side, and some mod­ern touches on the ware­house-style side.

“We went through a ton of dif­fer­ent schemes to try and suc­cess­fully break down the block,” said Stevens. “There were so many schemes where it felt op­pres­sive, or it felt re­lent­less go­ing down the street. It took a lot of work to get to some­thing that felt like it be­longed, but also filled that block, and feels hu­man-sized.”

The key was putting in a deep lobby, which makes it feel like two build­ings.

“The lobby is de­fined by a deep slot that goes in with the canopy, and that breaks up the side that’s all brick from the side that’s pri­mar­ily metal and or­ange glaz­ing,” said Stevens.

Mil­len­nium is known for high­end de­vel­op­ments, and didn’t scrimp on ma­te­ri­als.

“They’re ac­tu­ally very keen on mak­ing sure it was a qual­ity build­ing,” said Stevens.

“They wanted to use brick and metal panel, and not a lot of cheaper prod­ucts.”

It worked. Joe Cha­put runs Les Amis du Fro­mage cheese shop at 843 East Hast­ings, and thinks Bo­heme has brought Hast­ings up a notch.

“That’s a re­ally good-look­ing build­ing, es­pe­cially with the white and the light­ing,” he said.

There will prob­a­bly be a lot more to come, all over the city.

Matis has de­signed an­other build­ing, Aper­ture, which is be­ing built at 795 West 41st Ave., near Oakridge.

An aper­ture is “a hole or open­ing through which light trav­els.” In this case, Matis de­signed a se­ries of white rec­tan­gles that look like the viewfinder in a cam­era.

“The aper­ture boxes are shaped in a way to try to ad­dress the sun angles and so­lar ex­po­sure on each of the four main build­ing block fa­cades,” he said.

“If you walk around the build­ings, you’ll be able to see that each fa­cade has a dif­fer­ent kind of re­sponse to the way sun­light is be­ing ex­posed on those edges.”

It’s a very dis­tinc­tive build­ing, just the kind of thing for­mer city plan­ner Tode­rian tried to en­cour­age at the city.

“There are mo­ments in a city pat­tern where ar­chi­tec­tural risk­tak­ing is most important,” said Tode­rian.

“But when you’ve got those key ar­eas that ter­mi­nate a view com­ing over a bridge, or frame a view, it’s par­tic­u­larly important to be a lit­tle more ad­ven­tur­ous.

“I think the mis­take we’ve made in Van­cou­ver is not in be­ing mo­not­o­nous with ev­ery build­ing, be­cause great cities all over the world have pat­tern build­ings. But in those spe­cial mo­ments where more ad­ven­ture would be war­ranted, we’ve done some­thing typ­i­cal.”

Arno Matis’ de­signs for both South Creek Land­ing and Aper­ture are most def­i­nitely not typ­i­cal. Nei­ther is Michael Green’s de­sign for Sixth and Wil­low.

Which is why peo­ple will prob­a­bly be dis­cussing them for decades to come.

But in those ... mo­ments where more ad­ven­ture would be war­ranted, we’ve done some­thing typ­i­cal.


Sixth and Wil­low, a three-storey town­house de­vel­op­ment, is an ex­am­ple of a fresh ap­proach to de­sign seen in mid-rise build­ings around Van­cou­ver.


South Creek Land­ing at Sixth and Cam­bie, de­signed by Arno Matis Ar­chi­tec­ture, fea­tures a se­ries of metal span­drels.

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