Needless to say, Ray Spaxman has an opinion on the proposed ‘Jenga’ tower at 1500 West Georgia:


1500-west-georgia-Ole-Scheeren-27When The Sun called me on Friday and asked what I thought of the proposed building at 1500 Georgia Street, I had only seen the photo of it in the Globe and Mail; and The Sun reporters are correct in reporting that I had nothing positive to say about it. Now that I have seen the photo in today’s Sun I do have something positive to say  about it: It is an interesting sculptural composition of different-sized rectangular blocks arranged randomly to evoke, like so many cubist studies of yesteryear, a fascinating study of three-dimensional sculptural relationships. For those people enjoying that form of art, this object could look quite fascinating, perhaps built with marble blocks  and standing even 30 feet high among the trees in Stanley Park, as a piece of public art. A smaller version could be equally fascinating on someones coffee table. As a residential building in an existing neighbourhood, we should wonder.

I have spent most of my longish life studying urban design. I have wondered deeply about what Vitruvius’s “commodity, firmness and delight” mean to liveability  to sense of community, even to comfort and joy. As many of you know, when I was the city’s Director of Planning I stressed the importance of neighbourliness to develop confidence in the way the city inevitably changes over time. Even if you like the look of the proposal at 1500 Georgia, think of what the neighbours might think of it. Could it be a better neighbour? A building this size affects a very large neighbourhood, especially one that glories in the presence of our miraculous views of ocean, mountains and the whole built-up peninsula that has resulted from previous policies designed to share those amenities with as many people as possible. It was those policies among others, that led to the recognition of a product of urbanism called Vancouverism. Funnily enough, we were not striving for international recognition, nor to be the best in the world. We were just trying to be our best.

Also wonder what we can best do to lower the cost of housing and minimise the use of resources that are becoming scarcer by the day. In the context of all the issues we are facing globally, from global warming to major economic and political restructuring, is this the time to encourage the ostentatiousness that seems to be driving much of our development community? Is this what we want Vancouver to become?

Can you imagine the challenges and additional costs this concept presents for construction in a high earthquake zone, for the interlacing of servicing in all the projections, for dealing with run-off and weathering from our rainy climate, for the shadows cast and the views blocked? I guess the wind tunnel testing will be fascinating too.




Brian Jackson says there will be an open house. It would be good too to have a well-moderated public discussion so that the interested community can hear what everyone thinks and how the city and the developer respond to that. We have a planning department that deals with these issues all the time and advises development proponents how best to understand the community’s planning and design wishes, so it would be good for them and the developer to present their initial thoughts and advice to ensure the public is well informed by the experts at the start of this conversation. For one small example it would be good to hear what the city’s current policy is regarding allowing proponents to build out over the public street right of way.


More images and description at Vancity Buzz here.


  1. Too much soul-searching. It’s an apartment/condo building. And with a straight face you ask what can be done to reduce the cost of housing. Is this an as-of-right building? Is the developer covering or otherwise off-setting the additional infrastructure costs? If these and other fees and planning requirements are met, he should be able to build it without having to entertain every comment from every member of the pitchfork brigade. I contend that your aesthetic concerns and (probably correct) assumptions about the architect’s ego are entirely immaterial.

    1. And yet if you proposed putting up a 400 ft statue you can bet everyone would justifiably wish to have their opinions heard. Why should a building be any different?

      Ray’s comment that we used to plan for a better Vancouver for us strikes home. Why are some so desperate to put up starchitecture to attract the global glitterati? It’s the architectural equivalent of getting a Mohawk and piercings then putting the whole sorry mess on Facebook and Instagram. Look at me, look at me!

      1. Everyone’s free to voice their opinion, but the difference with a statue, presumably on City land, is that this is an entirely private development. I don’t agree that the developer should have to engage anyone’s aesthetic opinions or be under any obligation to listen to or alter the project to suit them.

        Public presentations on other elements of the proposal (infrastructure impacts, shadows, zoning compliance, developer contributions) are good in that they provide some transparency. And if people want to impose their aesthetic opinions on the structure itself during this process, they can’t be stopped. But despite your dislike of the architect’s egoism or emotionally-needy design, those opinions should not have any legal or procedural bearing on the project itself. Thinking that you are entitled to stop or alter a private development just because you don’t like how it looks is taking the concept of “impacts” too far.

        Your opinions may be valid, and your diagnosis correct, but they are (or in a more just world, should be) immaterial. To extend your analogy, expecting a developer to change a design purely for aesthetic reasons is like expecting that sorry mess on Instagram to use some shampoo for once and get a normal haircut – just because you’ve told him so. You’re free to tell him what you think, but he’s under no obligation to listen. Neither should this developer have to listen to anyone’s aesthetic opinions.

  2. It’s an interesting design, and I’m not opposed to unique designs to spice up our rather dull City of Glass as Douglas Coupland puts it. My only concern would be the same one raised about the Telus Garden, and I’m not clear if this building would fall in to as well – encroaching on the public spaces.

    Do these jenga pieces go beyond the property lines or in to existing view corridors? Are we yet again giving away public view corridors for a very small sub-set of private users? Perhaps a dangerous precedent has been set with the Telus Garden.

    Build unique, build distinctive, just keep it on your property, not in the public spaces unless there’s very very compelling reasons why and a clear public benefit (beyond higher values and higher property tax revenues).

  3. Does being a good neighbor = unremarkable design? Why are these things at odds with one another?

    Too much of Vancouver might have Commodity (and certainly IS a commodity), might have Firmness (now that the leaky thing is sorted generally), but I would challenge many to define how many buildings near 1500W Georgia have any great measure of Delight, or were designed in any way such that they were even aiming in the direction of Delight and failed.

    There are loads of externalities that should be dealt with with any building in Vancouver which aren’t. Thomas Beyer put it perfectly yesterday … why don’t we “monetize it enough for the benefit of local residents living nearby?”

    Pretty buildings don’t need to come at the expense of neighbors, sometimes I am in total agreement with Bjarke when he states ‘Yes is More’.

    If someone is asking the city’s permission to change zoning, the city can make restrictions to provide for the the city’s extra needs (affordable housing, etc) … if a building is allowed outright, its different – you can’t legislate altruism (or else it isn’t altruism), just make them pay the externalities of their development.

    If someone wants to sit on vacant property (whether a box in the sky, or a vacant parcel on Granville St.), they should be taxed for the privilege (or lose the right to build) wherever they might be – this money can then go to the city’s needs (however neighbourly those might be can be discussed elsewhere). So, the more a project relies on foreign money (using Ian Young’s definition of ‘Foreign’ here: ) the more benefit it should have for the communty. If priced/taxed accordingly, with externalities factored in.

    Many people CAN imagine the challenges of building this in an earthquake zone, hire them, and cease to be concerned. Ditto the servicing, and run-off. Shadows can be easily analyzed and if offensive the building can adapt – as can any building be adapted. Our rainy climate really isn’t that unique and scary. Any tower blocks views – should a funky shaped building somehow have to block them less than any other building? Finally, the bumpier a building is, often the less it creates crazy winds – the testing will be interesting but assuming it is tested, and doesn’t create a sidewalk tornado everyday at noon, where exactly is the issue?

    Where, really, is the real issue with this building? (+1 to djross2074’s comments)

    The following are extensions of the above, and not necessarily related to Mr Spaxman’s piece:
    I’m tired with the notion of not wanting to ‘compete with nature’. I’m tired with the notion that the nail that sticks up gets hammered’ … or … ‘the building which sticks out gets skewered’. I’m tired with the notion that change is intrinsically bad (it can be, or not), that old buildings are intrinsically better than new (lots of old buildings are horrible, lots are nice, lots of new buildings are horrendous, lots are nice), that views are sacrosanct (since when? … from what date are we fixing the views forever? … why does someone who’s 20 year old tower blocks the view of a 50 year old tower have more right to a view than a tower built 20 years from now?) … I’ll end there.

    1. I think that being a good neighbour means that need to “please” a broad range of people – which implies design by committee. So you’ll end up with something that no one disagrees with – and which may be “unremarkable”. That’s probably why so many towers are painted beige.

      The most significant thing that sticks out about this tower is the complete absence of wide open corner views (from inside the suites).
      The composition is really a bunch of bowling alley units assembled together (even those on the corners).
      The “tubes” do have windows on their sides, but there are a lot of vertical blank (or textured) walls.
      I suppose the units are probably luxury units with perspectives facing multiple directions, but the design strikes me as creating dark interior spaces.

  4. The saddest thing about this proposal – other than the grossness of the densification planned for the site – is that Crown Life remains one of Vancouver’s finest office towers. I believe that its architect, Peter Cardew, is still alive and well.

    Would it have been too much trouble for the owner of this magnificent site – that would be Bosa – to discuss the addition of a condo to the site with Mr. Cardew (I’m presuming here that they didn’t).

    I’m all for going international with architects, but not when we diss one of our best in the process. As it stands, there seems to be absolutely no relation to the existing CL building nor its immediate neighbours in this proposal.

    The existing “lake” and waterfall element is also one of the city’s finest public spaces – it seems to have been severely truncated in the models shown.

    And if those jenga blocks extend past the the building site into the public realm like Telus Gardens, then this is a serious no-go for me.

  5. I could not help myself, I have to comment. I don’t actually like the design that much…..but it is different and interesting…..sometimes something a little ‘off’ can make everything around it better. The key to this one is it seems the street level public interaction is pretty well done so I don’t care that much that it has weird bulges up high. To me it may not be beautiful, but it looks like it should be ‘interesting.’ Close enough, we don’t need perfection everywhere.

  6. No matter how regretful we are about the proliferation of banal building designs in Vancouver, it doesn’t mean that we have to accept a radically designed tower because it’s starchitect wrought, and will break our habit of being boring. Disliking a design doesn’t mean not being strongly for modern and perhaps radical design.

    How can an architect, or a developer, be contemplating such a good view site, yet be purposely and eagerly proposing one-dimentional views for many units? Don’t they like the views? Many of these units, as pointed out before, do not have corner or even side views. “You want north? O.K. you get north. You don’t get west or east, you get north.” No cross breezes or any, deep-end natural illumination. Residential turnover might be fast.

    As eloquently mentioned above; the protrusions over the public realm call for clarity on policy. Is this a city and public, or private space. If it was given to the city, then were there any documented mentions of air-rights or similar? What is the policy that would cause designers to encroach like this? Why does this piece have to jut out aggressively over the public space? It doesn’t have to. It seems that it just wants to show off.

    I know that cubicle hotels and shipping-container homes can be really trendy. In them we expect and accept limitations in comfort and fenestrations but these down at Coal Harbour are for a different demographic. Has that style of closed in utilitarian habitation suddenly jumped to the mainstream and it’s marketable in neo form?

    If the market for this is considered to be hipsters then just wait a few months and that trend will be over. Their 15 minutes will soon be up.

    I’d rather have a clean Meis-like glass box, although I will willingly review other ideas.

  7. Vitruvius on Georgia?

    Conjuring up the ghosts of the stone masons from 2000 years ago – firmitas, utilitas, venustas – for lack of a moral code today?

    Perhaps the architectural profession should adopt a Hippocratic style Oath in the manner of the physicians:

    I will take care that my clients, the public and nature suffer no hurt or damage.

    I will comport myself in an upstanding manner and use my knowledge for good.

    I will not be ashamed to say, “I know not.”

    I will willingly refrain from doing any injury or wrong from falsehood.

    I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings.

    I will remember that I am part of the web of life on planet Earth.

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