Ray has more to add on 555 West Cordova:
Have you noticed the special nature of this part of town?
Today it provides several of the few really good urban sequences in our young city. Try walking into the entrance to the CPR Station from the upper plaza on its west side. You will pass from the brightly day lighted plaza with its spectacular mountain views into a fine stairway leading down into the station, As you take the steps down, you will experience the descent into the really grand reception hall of the old station.
While not as grand as Grand Central in New York, nor Union station in Toronto, it is a happier, more colourful place. It has the humane architectural detailing of it’s century old styling. It also throbs at times with the crowds of different people passing between their numerous origins and destinations. Weaving through the throngs of people and past the ticket booths and coffee shops, you can either turn south and go out by the grand entrance or proceed easterly along the wide corridor to the easterly exit.
As you exit you may feel the sense of pleasure (Sorry about the parking lot!) at moving from the enclosed corridor out into wide open fresh air and sunshine and one of the more spectacular views this lovely city has to offer to visitors and residents. As a bonus you will also note the fine facade of the Landing, another exceptional piece of architecture in our city, that announces the presence of our founding neighbourhood – Gastown.
This is where the Martian intends to land. If it lands as proposed it will obliterate this open space, the expanse of the Landing facade, and the view and leave a mean, winding passageway entrance into the Station concourse.
But also see this. Look around and you will notice some very special features along this side of Cordova Street. Here are some of them. Firstly notice the scale of the buildings at this location. There is the grand scale of the station with its classical entrance porticos, the warm brick and careful detailing that is comfortable to the humans that walk past, as are the retail stores and restaurants. The war memorial sculpture is perfectly located at the transition to the open space, currently the parking lot. The east side of the building works with the Landing to create one of the great missed opportunities in the city – a real urban square. The Landing and the station encloses and define a space that is uniquely perfect for a small urban square. A square with two fine architectural sides and a spectacular view to the north.
Now let’s also look at the scale of design potential that exists here. There are potentially three levels that need special attention. There is the street level with the desire for activity, continuity, and pedestrian interest, comfort and safety. Then there are the street facades that define the street. They give us the sense of a cohesive place – like Water Street does so well. This can vary in height around 75 to 100 ft in this part of town. It has “eyes on the street” and one senses there are people living or working at their various occupations.
If we are to consider higher buildings we can wonder about this third level. These higher buildings stick up into the sky, cast long shadows, can be seen from afar as well as close by and begin to formulate our urban skyline. This is a skyline which has received a lot of attention in the past 30 years. With the significant density increases that City Councils have approved for the Downtown we need to monitor and revise our high rise and view corridor policies, not to obliterate them, as some suggest, but to bring them in line with current necessities. In the meantime higher buildings provide the opportunity for creating a recognisable and exciting skyline. Hopefully that can be something commensurate with our unique setting and not just a plethora of architectural exhibitionism that is happening in other parts of the world.
Urban design is so important to us. It is not a simple matter. I have simply described a tiny portion of the thought process that should go into this proposal.
All major proponents should illustrate what they are valuing or not valuing in their design. Any number of nice words are meaningless without specific illustration. Claiming human scale when it is obvious there is none, or heritage compatibility when there is none, or welcoming usable public spaces when there is none, just should not be accepted.
We want to be able to trust that our planning staff is providing the love and rigour needed to maintain the liveability and inspiration of our city. It is much more than higher densities and increasing the income from community amenity contributions.
UPDATE: Patrick Condon adds this:
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? Hmm.
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?