From the Ground Up

Though the Van­cou­ver sky­line is rapidly evolv­ing, it’s not ac­tu­ally star­chi­tect projects or record­set­ting sky­scrapers that make a city great: the change that cre­ates an en­gaged, ac­tive com­mu­nity and im­proves the qual­ity of life hap­pens on the ground level

Vancouver Magazine - - DESIGN CITY - by Frances Bula

Ask an ar­chi­tect or ur­ban plan­ner about the chang­ing look and feel of Van­cou­ver, and they’ll usu­ally talk about build­ings. The sen­sa­tional Van­cou­ver House, climb­ing to the sky next to the Granville Street Bridge—an ag­gres­sive alu­minum-tinted flower that starts on a slim stem and blooms out­ward on the upper floors. The pa­rade of ever-more-ad­ven­tur­ous tow­ers on Ge­or­gia and Al­berni Streets, as de­vel­op­ers flock­ing to (mostly) in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tects try to outdo each other in bold­ness af­ter three decades of fill­ing down­town with uni­form glassy condo build­ings. Among them, West­bank’s Kengo Kuma tower, Bosa’s Buro Ole Scheeren Jenga-like build­ing, and lo­cal ar­chi­tect James Cheng’s pro­posed monas­tic-- look­ing obelisk for Bril­liant Cir­cle Group which will sit where Ge­or­gia meets Pen­der.

But ask reg­u­lar Van­cou­verites the same ques­tion, and the view changes abruptly. No more imag­i­nary cran­ing of the neck to look up. No as­sess­ment of the sky­line or sil­hou­ettes or mass­ing or ma­te­ri­als pal­ette. Ask on Twit­ter what they love, and it’s the small de­tails at ground level. The new chil­dren’s play­ground next to Sci­ence World, says one. Benches along the Co­mox bike route in the West End, from an­other. The grow­ing num­ber of lin­ear parks through the city: the new Ar­bu­tus Green­way, the routes along the Kit­si­lano beaches. They verge on the po­etic. “The land­scap­ing, pedestrian realm and cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture around the new Emily Carr is very high qual­ity. Seems like some­one scat­tered wild­flower seeds around the ad­ja­cent empty lots as well, and they’re

all in bloom. Great idea,” tweeted soft­ware en­gi­neer Tavis Mc­Cal­lum, who cy­cles through the area reg­u­larly, about the best new things in Van­cou­ver. And there are also the small changes they hate. “The white mono­lithic vault-es­que style of houses go­ing up in Dun­bar/Oakridge/ Ker­ris­dale,” is ur­ban-plan­ning stu­dent Laurel Ey­ton’s top vis­ual an­noy­ance.

So when any­one talks about de­sign in the city, it’s clear that it lives in dif­fer­ent places for quite dif­fer­ent sets of in­hab­i­tants. There are the in­creas­ingly no­tice­able tow­ers that get Van­cou­ver men­tioned in the ar­chi­tec­ture mag­a­zines and at­tract the tourist pho­tos. But there’s the al­most sub­lim­i­nal de­sign in the city, the kind many peo­ple barely no­tice, ex­cept for a mist of plea­sure or com­fort that comes over them as they ex­pe­ri­ence it. That di­ver­gence in as­sess­ing the city’s tex­ture is not sur­pris­ing for those who have an­a­lyzed it. Re­searchers who study the way reg­u­lar peo­ple use cities know that what mat­ters most to them is the en­vi­ron­ment that they can see and en­joy right around them. And the de­sign of that en­vi­ron­ment pro­duces pow­er­ful so­cial im­pacts. “The feel­ing of psy­cho­log­i­cal own­er­ship in pub­lic spa­ces is very im­por­tant,” says Colin El­lard, a Univer­sity of Water­loo neu­ro­sci­en­tist who spe­cial­izes in study­ing the psy­chol­ogy of peo­ple’s in­ter­ac­tions with cities. “And we need those when we have to live with thou­sands and mil­lions of oth­ers. How do we solve those prob­lems of fail­ure of so­cial cap­i­tal in cities, of lone­li­ness? It’s pub­lic spa­ces and green spa­ces. They’ve been po­tent to the way peo­ple feel.”

It’s not that ur­ban cit­i­zens re­flex­ively hate tow­ers, says El­lard. “Gen­er­ally, we like iconic land­mark build­ings.” But that’s not ac­tu­ally what most peo­ple look at as they nav­i­gate the city. “As an ur­ban pedestrian, what you see is in the bot­tom two to two and a half me­tres. What mat­ters there is com­plex­ity and va­ri­ety. And even a small par­kette with a bench and a tree can be re­ally ef­fec­tive in chang­ing your mood.”

Of course, some no­tice and as­sess both Van­cou­vers: the one in the sky and the one on the ground. Late on this sunny af­ter­noon, at a time when the con­struc­tion crews have gone home and all is quiet again, boomer cou­ple Bill and Kathy Moore sit at a side­walk ta­bles out­side Tar­tine Bread and Pies with their out-of-town visi­tors, fac­ing one of Van­cou­ver’s big­gest

The way to keep pro­gress­ing our scene in Van­cou­ver is to keep the tal­ent here and make sure that we help each other grow.”


con­struc­tion sites. Van­cou­ver House, the city’s most dis­tinc­tive build­ing in the mak­ing, looms over them on Beach Av­enue.

Their vis­it­ing friend, Wis­con­si­nite John Reid, has taken pic­tures of Van­cou­ver House from sev­eral an­gles on his hol­i­day, in­trigued by the way the build­ing ap­pears to be a con­ven­tional square from some an­gles and an en­gi­neer­ing-de­fy­ing curve from oth­ers. His pal Bill, an en­gi­neer who moved to Van­cou­ver about half a dozen years ago to work on ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture projects, jokes that he hopes the build­ing’s engi­neers have done their work prop­erly and noth­ing will come fall­ing down.

They agree with what some of the city’s pre-em­i­nent vis­ual an­a­lysts say about the tower’s strik­ing pres­ence and what that means for Van­cou­ver. “It lessens to some de­gree the glass-city per­spec­tive,” says Bar­rie Mowatt, the man who brings pub­lic art to the city through the Van­cou­ver In­ter­na­tional Sculp­ture Bi­en­nale. (He’s brought art to un­usual pub­lic spa­ces, like the Trans Am Totem near Sci­ence World, the A-maze-ing Laugh­ter stat­ues in English Bay, the painted si­los on Granville Is­land, and, com­ing soon, a three-di­men­sional piece that looks like a large red anvil to the un­der­used Leg in Boot Square.) “It changes from what­ever an­gle you’re look­ing at it,” says Mowatt.

Lance Berelowitz, an ur­ban plan­ner and au­thor of Dream City, the 2005 book that plumbed Van­cou­ver’s built-form iden­tity, calls it “a game-changer, with its com­plex­ity and the way it’s so self-con­sciously boast­ful.” It will no­tice­ably al­ter the sky­line, to the dis­may of some Van­cou­ver res­i­dents who re­sent the in­tru­sion of tow­ers into moun­tain views or the de­vel­oper’s rep­u­ta­tion for sell­ing heav­ily to off­shore buy­ers.

But the Moores and Reid are just as in­ter­ested in what will be on the street some­day around the tower. Will there be any shops? What kind? What is go­ing to go into that space right across the street? Will there be a gas sta­tion to take the place of the one that used to be here, its his­toric pres­ence marked by an an­cient small neon sign?

The long-term plan from Ian Gille­spie—the West­bank Corp. founder and CEO who ob­ses­sively cu­rates ev­ery­thing that ac­com­pa­nies his de­vel­op­ments—is to cre­ate a hip re­tail hub that will ri­val Granville Is­land across the water, com­plete with a chan­de­lier de­signed by artist Rod­ney Gra­ham that will hang from the un­der­side of the bridge. That’s what is likely to charm and pull in pedes­tri­ans, not the tower above.

There’s much more in the works or on the hori­zon, at both the sky­line and ground level, con­tin­u­ing this city’s trans­for­ma­tion from what it was only four decades ago: a dumpy Pa­cific

We want to show the city what we’re ca­pa­ble of— break­ing down bar­ri­ers of what we do and the way we al­ways do it.”


North­west vil­lage at­tached to an in­dus­trial har­bour; a larger, slightly warmer ver­sion of Port Hardy or Prince Ru­pert, with hectares of sprawl­ing, un­re­mark­able mid­dle-class hous­ing sur­round­ing a tat­tered in­ner city. A place that wasn’t so far re­moved from the Ethel Wil­son Van­cou­ver of the 1940s: rain-soaked streets filled with sag­ging small shops and work­ing­class bun­ga­lows. The city’s de­sign, if it could be said to have one then, was its or­derly grid of streets and its def­er­ence to its back­drop of moun­tains. There was no dis­tinc­tive ar­chi­tec­ture that ad­ver­tised, as has hap­pened else­where, that one was un­mis­tak­ably in Montreal or Bal­ti­more or San Fran­cisco.

Now, close to the end of the sec­ond decade of the 21st cen­tury, that’s no longer true. There are un­mis­tak­able iden­ti­fy­ing marks on the city’s body. The ubiq­ui­tous glass tow­ers and podi­ums of down­town Van­cou­ver. Bike lanes and walk­ways along var­i­ous waters’ edges— Bur­rard In­let, False Creek, the Fraser River— that are rig­or­ously bu­colic, where com­merce (or any place to even buy a bot­tle of water) has been ghosted. The view ob­ses­sion: condo tow­ers that are built to max­i­mize them; the on­go­ing pub­lic com­plaints about too many tow­ers in front of moun­tains. The hun­dreds of sim­ple-rec­tan­gle Van­cou­ver Spe­cials—a builder hack that cre­ated the af­ford­able hous­ing of the 1960s.

Green is now part of the city’s de­fined iden­tity. Trees on the tops of build­ings, a nod to former forests and to the city’s as­pi­ra­tion to be the green­est ever. Green­ery ev­ery­where, re­ally, in­cor­po­rated into bal­conies, in­ner court­yards, street boule­vards, cre­at­ing a level of lush veg­e­ta­tion that noted ur­ban­ist Richard Florida once said made him think dif­fer­ently about what is pos­si­ble in even the dens­est ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment.

And then there are the city’s in­creas­ingly idio­syn­cratic pub­lic spa­ces. Small parklets, streets shut down to form open-air hang­out spots—the Jim Deva Plaza on Bute, the new plaza planned for 14th and Main, Rob­son Square’s ex­pan­sion—and car-free fes­ti­vals.

But there is more change to come as Van­cou­ver con­tin­ues to morph.

Van­cou­ver doesn’t re­ally have an iden­tity. It’s still a young city, so it’s kind of fig­ur­ing out where it’s sup­posed to be.”


There are dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives com­ing into the city all the time, and there are op­por­tu­ni­ties for mashups, which I think are the most ex­cit­ing things in de­sign.”


Laneways are one part of the trans­for­ma­tion. Those streets that Euro­pean cities don’t have, the back­yard roads that pro­vide a sec­ond nav­i­ga­tion plane in the city. “For me, the most ex­cit­ing trend is the dis­cov­ery of the al­leys,” says Bill Pechet, an ar­chi­tect, artist and ur­ban plan­ner who par­tic­i­pated in the Venice ar­chi­tec­ture bi­en­nale in 2006. “Van­cou­ver doesn’t have to move hor­i­zon­tally, but we can thicken in­stead.”

More than 3,000 small homes have now been built fac­ing Van­cou­ver’s al­leys, bring­ing more life to these hid­den path­ways. Be­sides the laneway houses dot­ting Van­cou­ver’s tra­di­tional sin­gle-fam­ily-house zones, the al­ready dense West End is see­ing new small laneway apart­ment build­ings emerge, two and three storeys with a hand­ful of units apiece, fac­ing al­leys that are as wide as city streets, adding land­scap­ing and light­ing and even new names like Rose­mary Brown Lane and Eihu Lane, memo­ri­al­iz­ing the area’s ac­tivists of pre­vi­ous decades. And an ini­tia­tive by the Down­town Van­cou­ver Busi­ness Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion has re­sulted in two al­leys—one be­hind Hast­ings, one be­hind Granville—be­ing re­pur­posed as out­door party spa­ces, with vivid paint­ings on the as­phalt and build­ing walls, and pop-up dance events sched­uled for them. (These al­ley ex­pe­ri­ences even have their own hash­tag: #more­awe­somenow.)

The idea of the laneway is go­ing to ex­pand, if the am­bi­tious and al­most utopian plans for North­east False Creek are re­al­ized. That un­de­vel­oped swath of land be­tween Chi­na­town and the water, the es­carp­ment and Main Street—the last big un­de­vel­oped piece of down­town—is sup­posed to be trans­formed into the kind of cen­tral-city neigh­bour­hood that Van­cou­ver hasn’t seen be­fore. Restau­rants, bars and en­ter­tain­ment along the wa­ter­front, for the first time, at the foot of the new Ge­or­gia Street that will be en­gi­neered to come down to the shore­line. In the sec­tion west of a large new park, Con­cord Pa­cific plans to build a clus­ter of build­ings that have laneways run­ning through them, with small in­de­pen­dent shops. An­other new Van­cou­ver con­jured out of noth­ing.

And it will come with a park, part of the grow­ing net­work of green or leisure spa­ces that are be­com­ing part of the city’s iden­tity. The park in North­east False Creek, while not


Green Rush Once the viaducts are re­moved, land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture firm James Cor­ner Field Op­er­a­tions will be swoop­ing in to re­shape the False Creek wa­ter­front with 13.75 acres of new parks and open space as well as an events dis­trict.


The Hub Olympic Vil­lage Plaza is a prime ex­am­ple of de­vel­op­ment that ac­tu­ally af­fects dayto-day life: a bustling pub­lic square with peo­ple cross­ing paths en route to the sea­wall or Tap and Bar­rel, or kick­ing back with their food-truck lunch in the sun.




Up in the Air Bjarke In­gel’s Van­cou­ver House de­sign may be strik­ing from a dis­tance, but its true im­pact will be felt on the ground level, where re­tail and restau­rants will frame a pedestrian square be­neath the Granville Street Bridge.

Pedal Power Though bike lanes have long been a hot de­bate topic for NIMBYs, the fact is that de­sign­ing a city with cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans in mind im­proves qual­ity of life for ev­ery­one, sup­port­ing pub­lic health (men­tal and phys­i­cal) and re­duc­ing con­ges­tion.




Laneway Love More than 3,000 laneway houses (and some laneway apart­ment build­ings) now ex­ist in Van­cou­ver’s back al­leys, cre­at­ing much-needed hous­ing op­tions that are “thick­en­ing” our city rather than forc­ing a sprawl.

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