February 15, 2016

Are Vancouver’s buildings unnameable?

Ian and I were discussing a few months back about how talented Londoners have become at naming their iconic architecture. The Gherkin, The Can of Ham, The Walkie-Scorchy, The Cheese Grater, The Armadillo: all of these buildings can be found in London. Ian and I theorize that the funny names have two factors resulting in their origin.

First, these buildings share the commonality of being considered iconic. London has a recognizable skyline, and the character of the individual buildings allow each to be more likely of receiving a silly name. The homogeneity of our see-through city and the envelopment of any character buildings by larger condos has resulted in a city with a low potential for silliness.

Second, the dry British sense of humour has bred a community which simultaneously satirizes and cherishes London’s icons. Our Canadian sense of humour, although equally adept at self-mockery, does not seem to carry the self-confidence to openly criticize our towers.

What would it take for Vancouver to get an icon with a silly name? Does the City first have to give architects the freedom to introduce such forms into our city? Do local architects have to become more convincing? Several speculative towers look like they have the potential for long-lasting, unbecoming namesakes. Do these projects suggest an architectural renaissance in our city or a post-modern disaster?

Last, and most curious for me, do the readers of Price Tags believe we already have buildings in Vancouver with silly names, and if so, which are they? The toilet bowl comes to mind, however it does not continue to exist.

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For my week as guest editor of Price Tags, I intend to view Vancouver from an architectural perspective. To this effect, I will be releasing an interview with an architect, planner, or academic each day. Each person has been selected for his/her unique and timely perspectives on the city. Our discussions will highlight each person’s practice along with their notions of city building and form in Vancouver.

I’m sharing lunch with architect Nick Milkovich at Epicurean Delicatessen on West 1st Avenue near Granville Island. By chance, Bo Helliwell and Michel Laflamme are also here. This appears to be the place to go if you want to find Vancouver’s West Coast Modern legends. Nick, one of those legends, has been practicing since 1968 with Arthur Erickson and Geoff Massey before starting his own firm, Nick Milkovich Architects Inc in 1991, receiving critical acclaim for projects such as the Creekside Community Centre and Canada House at the Vancouver 2010 Athlete’s Village. Nick has generously offered the time to talk with me about his firm’s recent work and his perspective on architecture in Vancouver.

JB: Your firm designed the plaza (now under construction) on the north side of what used to be the court house and is currently the Vancouver Art Gallery. Can you describe the design intent?

NM: We started by exploring plaza design up and down the coast. We did this study as part of our conceptual design process. A member of the city’s management team came with us to look at the layout, situation, function, and management of the plazas. We learned that although successful plazas had 300+ seemingly random events per year, these events were highly controlled. Public control was better, as private interest groups in control of plazas could make biased decisions about who could use the space. Even a publicly owned plaza will still be scheduled, and the Vancouver Police will do their best to collaborate with groups, assisting with traffic management and safety.

We also learned the value of open space. Our design includes the removal of the water fountain to privilege a large area with no built form whatsoever, and an open kiosk as part of the bus stop. The kiosk and other lighting installation will allow the plaza to be used later into the night. This layout is intended to support as diverse an array of occupation and use as possible for Vancouver’s citizens. In this way, the plaza can be whatever it needs to be when it needs to be it. This strategy took us away from previous design iterations.

JB: Was there any push-back when you decided to remove the fountain?

NM: There was some nostalgia for the fountain, as there is when you opt to change anything. Generally, people saw it as an encumbrance to the success of the plaza and were happy to see it go.

JB: Was there any inspiration taken from the nearby work of Arthur Erickson and Cornelia Oberlander, the Law Courts and Robson Square?

NM: Certainly. Erickson always described Robson Square as a three-block complex. We are completing the third block with our design. We worked with Cornelia Oberlander to move two trees and alter the planting plan, and she calls me from time to time to let us know how we are doing.

JB: Was there anything you saw in other plazas that you want to bring to Vancouver’s?

NM: I like the ways plazas tend to operate in Europe. Many people who live in Europe do not live in large homes, and inevitably they end up using plazas and cafés as their living spaces. So they use plazas in this way, and these spaces assist in achieving a sense of shared memory, stewardship, and attachment among citizens.

We hope our design of the plaza will achieve this phenomenon as well. We tried to give Vancouverites something that they can’t get on the internet or in their apartments – open community space. We hope that people will share this public realm with great affection.

JB: If the Vancouver Art Gallery moves to a new site and a new tenant moves in, are you concerned that the use of the plaza will change?

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Hello readers of Price Tags! I would first like to thank Gordon for the opportunity to participate as a guest editor and share some of my meandering ideas about Vancouver. My first post on the blog will be an introduction. I hope this short autobiography will help give a sense of how young designers feel about our city and its speculative future.

My name is James Aaron Volpé Bligh. I grew up in a West Coast Modern post-and-beam home in Deep Cove designed by architect John Porter in 1959. My entire family consists of three musicians: one in The Naden Band of the Royal Navy, one in the Little Mountain Brass Band and the 15th Field Artillery Regiment Band, and one has been the Principal Harpist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for over thirty years. I am the black sheep. I wanted to design architecture like the home I grew up in. I left Vancouver in 2005 to become a structural engineer at the University of Waterloo.

It did not take long to appreciate that it was architecture, not engineering, which was the field I had intended to pursue. I take solace in the knowledge that most students have drastically switched their degree paths at least once. One to finish what I had started, I completed my Bachelor’s degree and have been branded with the iron ring ever since. Following this, I continued my tenure in Ontario at the University of Toronto’s Daniel’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

Each passing year of living in Ontario left me more homesick than the last. I wanted to move home, and Vancouver was my only home. I could not imagine living anywhere else. By my tenth year out east I was obsessed with determining why I so sorely missed Vancouver. To complete my Masters in Architecture, I wrote a thesis dissertation aimed at analyzing how phenomena such as place attachment, genus loci, and topophilia were related to the rainy, coastal city I loved.

I learned that my birthplace had come to grip me in environmental, biological, psychological, and sociocultural ways. The environment of other cities (perhaps with Seattle or Portland being an outlier) could not be replicated for me. Neither could my biological acclimatization to the Pacific North West be changed, nor my memories, nor my association with the culture.

The immediate question for me as a designer was whether I could replicate some of these phenomena in the architecture that I worked on. Certainly the works of Arthur Erickson and the West Coast Modern movement have come to represent a fondness for the west coast. What can we learn from this work when we consider today’s architecture and urban form?

As my research continued, I turned from psychology and philosophy to urban studies. I read every book that I could find with the word “Vancouver” in the title. I made a massive model of the downtown city peninsula (which is now on display in the Museum of Vancouver’s latest exhibition: Your Future Home). The more I read about the city, the less rosy and nostalgic I became about what made the city great. I began to see only the mistakes our previous generations had made, or in some cases, luckily escaped making.

I moved home after finishing my degree last year and now my wife and I live in the Woodward’s complex. Today, I work at a design-driven architecture firm in the city. While I hone my skills, I try to advocate for the value of good design. I hope you will find some of my articles insightful, and I hope you think about how design might influence a sense of adoration and fulfillment for our city.

Here we go!

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