There’s a provcative critique of Vancouver’s downtown architecture by Robert A.M. Stern in the Sun today. (Here for subscribers.)

“I think there are too many glass towers in Vancouver,” says Stern.
“That’s one reason they all look alike, there’s nothing to write on, so to speak. So you get funny little hats on these buildings, and sometimes you get strange balconies. There are more triangular balconies in Vancouver than anyplace else I’ve ever been. I wonder if they’re storing arrowheads on these balconies.”

I have to agree with him on this. Every generation produces its version of the Vancouver Special (highrise edition), and this one has built a lot of ’em. (115 on the downtown peninsula since 1986, excluding the West End).

“They try to look different, but somehow they all look exactly alike. So I think there’s a kind of boring uniformity. None of them are really bad, they’re not ugly, but [there are] too many identical things.”

We achieve, as I’ve said before, a very high level of mediocrity. Our urban planning is, fortunately, superior to our architecture. In that respect, I don’t agree with Stern:

… [Georgia] is so pedestrian unfriendly and uninviting,” he says.
“It could have been done, should have been done in a very different way. Could have had the high buildings, but should have had more street texture below.
“And no retail. Those people don’t eat,” he chuckles, “they make reservations.”

This suggests Stern has been doing too much drive-by analysis, without understanding the specific reasons why, in this case, we kept the view corridors open at the ground plane on the north side of Georgia (to see the park and mountains), and created ‘green courts’ on the south side. Georgia has its own guidelines, so that unlike most other downtown streets (which have that mix of low- and highrise forms) it retains its special character as a ceremonial boulevard.
Stern is certainly not the only one to feel that Vancouver, while admirable in many respects, lacks signature buildings, or that our planning processes constrain if not prevent great architecture outside the mold the planners have prescribed.
PT reader Timothy Thomas asks:

With all our progressive public policy, why don’t we have more progressive public architecture? … it does seem that we should have more imaginative buildings than we do. Are we underachievers in building fascinating new architecture? Do we discourage aesthetic innovation, preferring architectural comfort food?

Do we?


  1. As been said time and time again, the uniformity is largely due to the City’s buildings being “designed by committee” – the Urban Design Panel. When time costs money, the developers will submit proposals that they know will get approved quickly – nothing awful is proposed nor approved, but nothing exemplary is either.
    How many times have developers been forced to massage floorplates to allow views from upland condo owners (i.e. Classico). Try to build a clean, modernist tower with a square floorplate and a characteristic look (in the Toronto Modern style of, say, 18 Yorkville) and you’d get shot down.
    How many times have I read UDP comments to “warm up” the colour palette?
    The result: countless biege, biege, biege condo towers in downtown south. Everyone knows a biege tower won’t be opposed – unlike, say, a red, yellow, green or blue one – not to mention that colour of modernism – black! I’d like to see someone propose a tower with significant elements in black – at least that would provide contrast! Many of these towers (i.e. Metropolitan Towers or The Hudson) looked better when they were raw concrete than after they were painted.
    Then there’s the issue of glass. Developers will have lots of glass on their towers to counter the gray winters and maximize the views, but when a facade is mostly glass, clear glass adds little to the character of the tower other than giving that “bombed out” look that magically appears when blinds are drawn open and the window appears as a dark square against the building – as if it was hit by a missile. Buildings with tinting in the glass would provide a more uniform look to the building by reducing the impact of the window blinds and the interior contents of the suites (i.e. Carina and Callisto on Coal Harbour with their blue tinted glass; 930/ 950 Cambie with its brown tinted glass; the Westin Grand with its aqua tinted glass that hides curtains). Tinted glass would also set off or emphasize the few opaque elements that do exist on these towers, and produce a tower that more closely resembles the renderings developers present to purchasers. Tinted glass need not be mirrored glass, nor would the tint have to be very dark – just dark enough to de-emphasize the window blinds. But the culture at City Hall probably wouldn’t entertain tinted glass – and the developers know it.
    The reason that all the towers look the same, is because you’re looking at banks and banks of window blinds through clear glass!!
    One of the only ways to make these condo towers more characteristic would be to increase the amount of opaque wall on the facade – like on the Grace Tower. And I don’t mean ugly opaque spandrel panels (like on Yaletown Park or the St. Andrews Residence) where the architect or developer can’t lay out the interior floorplans to meet an opaque exterior wall, or can’t design an exterior facade to match the interior floorplans. Unfortunately, having more opaque facade doesn’t work if the floor is occupied by micro-suites with little window frontage to begin with, and purchasers paying upwards of $500 per sq ft wouldn’t want their views minimized in favour of exterior walls.
    At least we don’t have row upon row of faux heritage brick towers.
    We need a few towers with horizontal banding (though the views would necessarily be compromised to create a band wide enough to make a visual impact). Or how about a clean modernist tower that uses the gray composite brick seen in the 1960s modernist buildings out at UBC (such as the Belkin Art Gallery or the Buchanan lowrise).
    The first step is to move away from the biege.

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