This Friday,  I’ll be interviewing Ray Spaxman – Vancouver’s City Planner from 1973 to 1989 – as part of the City Program’s Paradise Makers series. 
[November 2 at SFU Harbour Centre (515 West Hastings) at 7 pm. Email or call 778-782.5100 for a reservation.]
This should be an extremely informative evening for anyone interested in how the Vancouver of today came to be.
I also talked with Ray last week – and wrote a few comments as a result:

These days, developers and their marketing departments all want something iconic – at least the imprimatur if not necessarily the architecture.  Some will simply name the building after the I word and call it a day.  But assemble a gaggle of architects and be sure that they’ll bemoan our icon deficit.  Too much green glass, not enough titantium. 
Some architecture students even held an international competition – ‘pototype’ – to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the ‘Vancouver Style.’  At a panel discussion, all agreed: Vancouver may be good at background buildings but how about something gutsy in the foreground?
Or at least something taller.  That was the option Vancouver pursued at the beginning of this century, when the traditional downtown height limit was shattered in return for a commitment to more adventurous architecture.  You’ll be able to judge for yourself on Georgia Street, when at least three new super-talls open by the Olympics.
But one voice is already urging caution – and it’s a voice worth heeding.  It comes with perspective.
Ray Spaxman was recruited as the City Planner by Vancouver’s leadership in 1973, when the public was in full flight from the excesses of modernisn and out-of-control development.  Only a decade and a half previously, the tallest building in the West End was the Sylvia Hotel.  (“Dine in the Sky” said the sign on the roof.)  And not many people thought several hundred concrete slabs had really improved our urban ambience all that much.
Spaxman was responsible for changing the way planning and development was done in this city – and he summed it up in one word: “neighbourliness.”  A building had to be respectful of its neighbours, and of the citizens on the street.  Nothing expresses it better than the canopies which now make it possible to walk downtown on a rainy day without having to take an umbrella. 

Buildings, in other words, had to be more than sculptural objects on vacant plazas – ‘pigs in space,’ as some planners still call them .  It didn’t matter how ‘iconic’ a building was if it selfishly ignored the urban environment in which it dwelt.  The best bad example: the original Eaton’s at Pacific Centre, with its acres of blank white walls.  Very iconic, very unfriendly.
Spaxman fears that ‘iconic’ may be just a shorter word for ostentatious.  As we pile on the density though bonusing and well-intentioned transfers, we may lose the all-important sensitivity to site that becomes increasingly difficult as the scale overwhelms through sheer massing, no matter how well articulated.
Spaxman’s contributions to Vancouver are, as they said of another English architect, all around us if we only look.  He served at City Hall for a quarter century, he transformed a bureaucracy, and he trained a generation of planners who carried on his legacy.  By any standard, he deserves the title of ‘Paradise Maker’ – one of those leaders from the 1970s and 80s who not only felt an obligation to maintain the quality of life and the environment in the Lower Mainland but to make it better. 
In the next City Program interview, scheduled for November 2 at SFU Harbour Centre (515 West Hastings) at 7 pm, Ray Spaxman will discuss his life and times – and the challenges that face this fast-changing metroplis. (Email or call 778-782.5100 for a reservation.)
There’s a good chance the word iconic will come up in the conversation.


  1. Interesting perspective. I am not even sure what “iconic” means from this perspective except perhaps to stand-out and be different.
    We really lack high caliber, world caliber architecture in Vancouver. There are only four or five buildings (maybe) that would even qualify for consideration. With the downtown filling in so quickly I worry that there will never be a place for some signature architecture that is both world class and fits in with its West Coast surroundings.

  2. i agree with brad that vancouver lacks some high quality architecture. however, i’m not a big fan of buildings that are “iconic” but does not match the environment or isn’t very functional to its users and/or local community. personally, i find whats happening at street level more interesting than looking up.
    and i have faith that vancouver can/will produce good buildings, but i would start off by blowing up that huge “urinal” on the corner of robson and grandville. ugh, that eaton/sears building is ugly.

  3. I don’t mind the the Sears building. It’s one of the few examples of a large scale building in the core (the others being the Main Post Office and the Law Courts). The white terrazzo precast panels look good compared to say the biege painted concrete and fake windows of the Scotiabnak Theatre/Paramount/Electric Avenue building. It’s also cleaner looking than the backside of the Law Courts building.
    Unfortunately, the renovations that were done to it when Sears took over Eatons (which were stopped halfway) were not sympathetic to a modernist style and moved the building towards thematic retail. In addition, the blackening out of the display windows along both Granville Street and Robson Street didn’t help either.
    The dark glass panels above each alcove entrance to the building were originally backlit – they light up. If the dark glass (which still bears the name “EATONS” in a repeating border at the bottom of each panel, but not visible when unlit) had been replaced with colourful glass, that would have updated the building while retaining its architectural style.

  4. It is strange to see so many people malign the the former Eatons bulding. Like it or not, its architect Cesar Palli (and If I understand well also the black tower on Georgia) is the one who designed it. If one were to pick the most famous international architect who has built something in our city Pelli would be the man.
    I would like to see Mr Price bring up the subject on how Paul Merrick’s CBC building (like it or not) is being hidden by more ugly dense stuff than I have ever seen before.
    And I would like to know exactly what they have been doing for over a year on Robson Square. It is not surely only fixing Erickson’s leaks?
    If the folks from Star Treck were to use their tele-transporter device to move the planetarium to the downtown waterfront, Vancouver would have its iconic building.
    Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

  5. And furthermore re the Urinal. When I have coffee at the Starbucks on the Granville/ Georgia corner of the building I like to sit and sip and look up. Pelli without even knowing designed something (it was originally the entrance which it still is) that now as a coffee shop has one of the nicest soaring views (look up) in town.
    Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

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