From Ray Spaxman:


I have had numerous comments from people asking me to look at the 555 Cordova project. That is the one proposed to go on the parking lot that separates our beautiful CPR Station and the wonderful heritage Landing building at the entrance to Gastown, our own national heritage site. …


555 - 2

One of the biggest challenges is in the way very talented architects, some world renowned, seem able to push through fascinating designs but ones which have given insufficient attention to how they can best fit into the Vancouver environment.
In my time at city hall we took the following attitude to our responsibility in processing zoning and development proposals. We acknowledged that the project architect was, or should be, best able to coordinate the design of the building. The creative energy, especially around the overall architectural design, had to be the architect’s  prerogative. However, part of their mandate as a professional is to consult and learn from other experts. One of those experts is, or should be, the urban designer at city hall who has the special role of communicating with proponents what the city knows from its extensive study of all parts of the city and who, in consultation with the communities, has developed design guidelines, policies and bylaws to provide the community context for development proposals. …
Inside the planning department at city hall are acres of design guidelines covering just about everything you might want to know as a developer about being a good neighbour in the city. “Good Neighbourliness” used to be one of our mantras. Ranging from sunlight to noise, from views to overshadowing, from scale to proportion, from heritage to land use, from how a building could address the street to how it could improve the skyline, and so on.
So, when you look at the picture above, compare it with this statement from the architects submission  “ …and maintains a sense of human scale for the pedestrian experience.”
If 555 - 1you read the whole of the  architects design rationale and then look at the illustrations you may wonder who is smoking what. Now some will tell you not to worry that this is just the architect’s submission. I believe instead that the busy citizen should be provided with an initial commentary from our own (taxpayers’) urban design staff about their concerns.
But, come to think about it, the staff has already had (or should have had)  numerous pre-design meetings with the applicant and the proposal has already been developed to some considerable extent. So, presumably staff already have a good grasp of what is good or not about the project. Wouldn’t it be helpful if staff could outline their own advice. Perhaps they can explain why they support “the sense of human human scale” as illustrated above.
It would take much more time to review this design. Basically, it is clear that the principal architect is an extremely gifted and competent designer. But he needed the strong, competent participation of local urban design knowledge before submitting this design. Perhaps this will be forthcoming for there is still time. Or perhaps I worry too much and there are too few people who share my concerns.
PT commenters Michael Geller and Frank Ducote share his concerns:
Michael Geller: I fear the relationship between historic CP Station and proposed contrived Cadillac Fairview tower at 555 Cordova will not be successful. Check it out before January 22, which is deadline for written comments to the Development Permit Board on March 10.
Frank Ducote: Re 555 Cordova – When noted architect Michael Green goes public with similar concerns about scale and character as Geller does above, it is really worth our attention and comment. It is very rare to see or hear architects criticize their peers openly.
This parking lot space immediately east of the CPR Station is a significant and rare opportunity to do something wonderful, and that doesn’t compete with its two notable neighbours (The Landing is to the east). Preserving pedestrian-level views to the water and mountains and providing a public gathering place of reasonable but not excessive size are also very, very, important. (BTW, I understand the proposed height is double the 11 storeys proposed in the COV’s own “Hub” policy for this site.)
More here at Changing City Updates.


  1. I love the weird non-space that this parking lot provided, and of course the views. It became a strange tourist photo-op. That being said I think this infinitely more tasteful than the act of preserving a heritage facade. That trend has to stop.

    What would you rather see here? A park? A faux-brick warehouse style office complex? Something that looks “Gastowny”?

  2. The inherent coldness of glass-clad buildings usually requires that the architect play with unusual if not totally forced and strange forms. They may view them as sculptures or, as Corbu said, the play of forms in light. (See Patrick’s links above. Mainly all-glass structures.)

    It is about time architects of taller buildings in general abandon this immature and environmentally unsound approach. Further, in this particular instance, the stress on contrasting with the existing architectural and historical context, a generally acceptable design philosophy, has been taken to such extremes that, as Ray Spaxman notes, it does appear to have landed from Mars. (Gastown’s coherence and character lies in large part on its midrise scale and adherence to a strong streetwall, both of which are ignored in this scheme.)

    I’d ask others if they think this would have been a good location and opportunity for a design charrette that involved the local stakeholders, in order to set out possible priorities and directions in advance of detailed design. Maybe even get buy-in. It seems so to me, although much too late now. Maybe the Advisory Design Panel can workshop some alternate ideas with the applicant.

  3. I am reminded of a new building in Britain – well, it was new then, and in one of those heritage obsessed “jewels”. I cannot now recall which one: Bath, Harrogate, Matlock. But what does stick in my mind is the ironic tone of voice used by one of my planner colleagues who showed it to us, on our way past to the conference centre. “A nice sensitive bit of infill.”

  4. Apparently, the faceted side facing the CP Station will reflect the brick of the station and provide interesting detail that a flat glass façade would not provide.
    The glass also provides a lightness that would not compete with the CP Station in bulk.

    And personally, I like it much better than mimickery – like this project in Gastown:

    Largely because you can wish for historic detailing, but you won’t get it and it it may end up looking cheap. Better to go for quality modern materials.

    1. More pics here:

      BTW – the tower is next to the biggest transportation hub in BC,
      and cannot be built skinnier (and taller) because of the QE Park view cone.
      Future tower around the Waterfront Transportation Hub will be faced with the same height restrictions.

      See SkyscraperPage post for the view cone height limit (from 320 Granville report) here:

    2. And before anyone screams about it – yes, they have preserved the right-of-way for a connecting road to Canada Place between this building and the Landing.

  5. Tough site, coveted north shore views, public open space preserved, interesting response to the CPR Station. This building is the final spike for a mighty rail system reaching all across the land. How this building is understood by the public will emerge as a consequence of the owners’ decisions and the creative process of the design commission. Tough crowd, good proposal.

  6. I’m not a fan of the pedestrian realm on offer here, either.

    Does this space have value as a potential future expansion of the transportation hub that is Waterfront Station?

  7. I’ll provide a dissenting view. I’m so sick of the “This is just not Vancouver”…”it shouldn’t compete with the Station or the Landing”…”it doesn’t fit in with its neighbours”…”it’s double the 11 storeys in the City’s plan”…etc…etc…These attitudes have resulted in Vancouver having the blandest architecture anywhere. The City’s “urban design” is overplanned, always in the interest of trying not to offend anyone. So that’s what we have achieved…a very “inoffensive” City. Fantastic.

    I’m a huge fan of this proposal, and a huge fan of Adrian Smith’s work. We should count ourselves lucky to have an architect of his calibre propose a project here. My only complaint is that a tower of this level of architectural significance should be much taller.

    1. It’s an interesting tower and I agree that it should probably be taller, but in my opinion that means locating it somewhere else. It wraps around the station in a weird way looking both squashed against it and awkwardly disconnected as if it’s uncomfortable having anything in its personal space.

      I get the “let’s make it so small at the front that it doesn’t really impose on the pedestrian realm”, but that just amplifies the personal space issues and makes the building look insignificant until you get a block away and can take in the full edifice.

      The MNP building has the same miniature looking entrance, but it has been blended into the Marine building at street level rather than being standoffish. I normally object to heritage retention that keeps nothing but a single layer of stone, but that heritage facade allows new and old to blend together surprisingly well.

      The illustrations show a pedestrian plaza to the east, but I believe that’s really a right of way for a future road to the north. If true then an honest rendering would show a row of parking meters and a bunch of traffic instead. Yuck.

  8. I think it’s sad how Vancouverites have such a distaste for originality (yet simultaneously complain of cookie-cutter buildings).

    Overplanning leads to homogeneity. Frankly, I think the market can sometimes have a lot more wisdom than panels of expert bureautects. I’d rather allow the occasional lemon to be constructed if it means we get the occasional peach.

    By the way – laying down all these onerous regulatory hurdles increases development costs which are probably passed on to buyers. It’s ironic how the folks most concerned with affordability are most interested in imposing costs on development.

    1. Who are the Vancouverites you refer to? Who has distaste for originality and simultaneously complains of cookie-cutter buildings?

      1. Surely you’ve heard the (true) complaints that our architecture lacks uniqueness or color?

        Surely you also notice the perpetual yelps of dissatisfaction when an unusual project is proposed?

        Contrast our skyline with that of many other large cities:

        vs, say:

        Ours is BORING and the product of OVER-PLANNING.

        Vancouver is “livable” – but isn’t “dullness” a necessary component of livability?

    2. Does anyone else think this looks like an iceberg eating the CPR building?

      I won’t comment on the “original vs. cookie cutter” debate….I’m sure different folks feel strongly about this. But surely characteristics of “originality/uniqueness” and “sensitivity to local context” aren’t mutually exclusive and should both be important aspects in an architectural process, no?

      Vancouver House seemed like an original building in a reasonable location, not sure this one fits, in my view.

  9. I’d like to echo Guest’s comments about how mimicry degrades the neighbourhood and results in painfully bland buildings. Another example is the condo building going up on Main st. in chinatown, on the north corner of keefer. The old building there wasn’t much to look at, but the new buildling, by trying to fit in, just looks bland and tired before it’s even finished. Bring on this new design at 555 any day. If only they had done this kind of thing in chinatown too.

    The only question I have is how far it’ll wrap around waterfront station. Will it jut out above the expo line station there? Just curious.

    1. Bland and tired before it’s even finished. This is what I’ve been trying to articulate about the Main and Keefer building for awhile now. It’s not offensive but it’s just not exciting either.
      It could have gone futuristic or it could have gone retro pseudo-heritage but it just went bland.
      But it will function and it’ll be fine. It’ll be nice to have store fronts on Keefer there too unlike before.

  10. The larger architectural trends occurring worldwide deserve some discussion here.

    Increasingly new “signature” buildings are promoted and built in cities, often in an attempt to enliven them, or to help brand a city in a certain way. While I don’t want to call into question this value, I suggest that this enthusiasm often shields the parasitic nature of this process from public view.

    Good civic space is largely the consequence of hundreds of buildings collectively contributing to the formation of a shared public realm. This public realm is largely comprised of that most pedestrian of civic spaces (pun intended): the street.

    Spatially, street corridors are formed by the walls of the many buildings that line them, the distant terminus (be it a building or a vista), and, of course, the sky ceiling above

    In a “good” city, the network of street corridors occasionally gives way to expanded volumes for civic squares (we are under supplied with these) or parks and waterfronts (we have tons of these).

    The occasional signature building can also stand out in contrast to this fabric. The courthouse (currently the VAG) comes to mind. I would almost put the Provincial Courts in this category if it were more clear – Is it object or fabric? Hmmm.

    The Marine building somehow manages to do both. It thrusts out on its slight promontory where the grid turns, shouldering into key views while still attaching to its neighbors.

    But the point is that these buildings have fabric to “stand out against”. That’s why they are parasitic. They feed on the larger body of the city for their strength. If that word seems too strong you may prefer the phrase “iconic buildings in dialogue with their context” or “the fabric / icon dialectic” better.

    So most acknowledge the value of a signature building. Me included. The problem might come when a city gets too enamored of the sexy diva and undervalues the contribution of the choir. Certainly this has happened in Shanghai and Dubai. We are a long way away from that, but its worth talking about as the Martians begin to land. Do they come in peace?


  11. It appears to be an appalling intrusion rather than a tasteful juxtaposition between new and heritage. What’s more, it’s a mediocre glass box above the highly contrived twists and angles; a confusing design rationale. This one needs some serious rebuttal at the ADP. Visual spectacle is not a substitute for good architecture suited to its context. This area is too important to have anything less than a 100-year vision, and this area does not end at the lot boundaries. It continues to the port.

    Guest has a good point about the future uses in the area. Imagine instead of a building occupying what is now a parking lot, that a street or pedestrian way extends onto a very generous deck over the tracks toward a transportation hub even more important and heavily travelled than it is today. This is potentially the site for the terminus for Canada’s post cheap flight mid-century high speed rail service (branching to the US) as it was for the CPR, which helped build the foundations of the city. The site connects land to sea at the core of the city, and therein is the obvious site for connecting future Vancouver Island passenger ferries to a national railway and local transit once the cost of running car-carrying boats becomes too exorbitant.

    This site needs to be preserved for better uses and higher value for the common good and should not be sold off for a private and rather inelegant glass box. It also needs to be preserved for the best possible architecture, and yearning for better than the mediocre fair Vancouver has been given so far can lead to approving the first bit of progressive eye candy that comes along.

  12. Amazing feat of engineering with the upside down pyramid effect, but the juxtaposition is too outre… maybe replace one of the nasty parking towers downtown… or someplace out at UBC.. if it gets built. Not only does it dominate the local skyline, but it is so overpowering as to say ” I don’t actually care about my community, I’m making a statement here, get with my program or go away.”, I myself would not like being in said building… way too much like a fishbowl or large aquarium. Wouldn’t invest in it either. As to the boredom comment in someone’s reply… Boredom is a state of mind… who controls your mind? Another thing… some of the best books I’ve ever read, had apparently boring covers, plain with just the Title, Author and Publishing Company on the outside.. but the words inside, and my own mind didn’t find boredom’s address inside the books. my apartment had plain white walls… until I used my imagination and put up shelves and picture pleasing to my aesthetic sense. Cookie Cutter Architecture is not a good thing, but balance and belonging are… there is math here even an arts student like myself can do… can you? this design really does look like something from another planet… I wouldn’t stick with Mars though… it is angular and rather sterile or cold… so… maybe Pluto? I used to live in Vancouver … and basically in that area… not something I would have appreciated in my back yard so to speak. Also, this is Canada… The logistics of actually effectively heating that building are ludicrous, just because Vancouver doesn’t get mountains of snow, doesn’t mean it never gets snow or cold.

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