Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun opens up a conversation that is very timely: exactly what are we doing with landmarky twisty bending towers and jenga block buildings in Vancouver, and who are they really for?

In his article, Todd interviews Ray Spaxman who was Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver for sixteen years. Ray is originally from Kings Lynn in Great Britain (where George Vancouver came from) and is a very tall man who was known for a thoughtful approach to city planning and a strong advocate for public participation in planning. The term “livability” was coined by Ray and his team. An architect and a planner by training, Ray is also an artist, and during public hearings and meetings often captured  the entire room of people in one sketch. You can read a bit more about Ray Spaxman and his time at City Hall  here.

While his leadership of the planning department ended in 1989, his thoughtful legacy and staff choices led the department into the millenium.

When asked to define what “iconic” buildings are, Ray responded: “You either try to be iconic because you want to stand out, or you are iconic because you stand out.” 

Spaxman also bluntly pointed out that building developers want to sell condominium units to “wealthy people in foreign lands” and the term “iconic” has changed. Previously that term would be for places  where power and community melded in  “public gathering places,to the town hall, the church or concert hall” . The forms of those types of places are all recognizable and have deep symbolism to people.

Designers now want to imprint similar symbolism on their buildings for developers to sell a new kind of brand to a buyer that has not seen that type of product before.

But does it work?

New York City has several examples of Bjarke Ingels’ curving  buildings, and I’ve written about the bendy super talls and the proposed NYC “spiral” tower.


Labelling Bjarke Ingels’ Vancouver House as “sort of iconic” Spaxman broadens his definition of the phrase by pointing out that in the past that term was given to buildings and places that had special values to the community. In Victoria that would be the B.C. legislature. And in Vancouver where views across the city have been protected with  progressive view corridor protection guidelines, the views of the Lions are iconic.

Spaxman highlighted the fact that the design of Vancouver itself, how it fits into the bays and how the glass towers are oriented in the downtown can be called iconic. And that is true, as is it  easily recognizable in any air photo and has deep meaning to people from this place.

There’s a message in there too. I am reading that we don’t need one-off twisty bendy buildings to differentiate ourselves, but need to continually protect and strengthen what we already have~an extraordinary natural setting with a rhythm of towers. Ray Spaxman likened the glass tower similarity to the pattern created by Paris’ six-storey apartment form.

Here’s a YouTube video of Ray Spaxman talking about the planning history of False Creek South in 2017. In this short evocative talk about the history, form and environment of this place, you get a sense of the sensitive comprehensive approach this planner championed in Vancouver.

Images: Alex Hayward & Sandy James



  1. One of the most iconic buildings in Vancouver is the 3rd Hotel Vancouver. A French chateau style building geared for marketing to railway tourists of the day and showcased on billboards and [now] heritage marketing posters. It was certainly built to impress its customers and not blend in with its surroundings.

    The same can be said about other heritage buildings that were similarly built to impress their patrons – banks garnered the trust of customers with big imposing fortresses that exuded security, while government built edifices that garnered respect and authority.

    If Vancouver were old enough and big enough earlier this century, maybe you’d see Park Avenue style apartments here. Those apartments were certainly built to impress.

    Instead, Vancouver was left with smaller scaled yet still impressive residential buildings – the [now] heritage mansions in Shaughnessey, for example, built in transplanted styles. Building homes to impress still continues along Point Grey Road and other waterfront locations. If apartment buildings and condos were popular earlier this century here (as they may have been in New York City), perhaps you would have seen larger, iconic highrise heritage blocks of apartments in Vancouver, the way that current condo towers are trying to impress.

    I don’t think the construction of buildings intended to impress is anything new.
    I think the growth of the city just means that the scale of such projects has gotten bigger (at a time when Vancouver architecture was derided as boring and all sea foam green glass towers).

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