Recently the Planning Commission convened a series of workshops and an enjoyable public event reflecting on the major planning milestones of the past year. One of the ‘milestones’ identified was the recent boom in very tall (by Vancouver standards) towers with significant architectural pedigrees (many by international firms new to the city). While the planning for these taller buildings has been years in the making (most notably the recent view corridor review and the West End Community Plan), it does seem that we’ve entered a new era of the high design high rise. It is an interesting time for local architecture watchers (did we ever settle on a twitter hashtag? #vanarch?) and some of the towers are extremely compelling. But do they demonstrate exceptional urban design performance?
The principle of ‘urban design performance’ is an important one in Vancouver. Not only is it a standard by which development proposals are judged by (along with many others), the city incentivizes design performance by allowing for increased height and/or density ‘subject to urban design performance’. As a member of Vancouver’s Urban Design Panel (a privilege that I take very seriously), we are often asked to adjudicate development proposals based on urban design performance (although notably, the Panel does not approve or deny approval to projects, it only advises and decides whether it supports or does not support a project). Urban design performance is, to my mind, a very interesting concept in that it is flexible and inclusive, recognizes the variability of sites and neighbourhood contexts. Some of the performance variables are timeless but others evolve with the times (for example, livability or sustainable building performance). Many are well-documented in the City’s policies and bylaws while some are subjective. And one variable I often struggle with is architectural quality.
Clearly, architectural quality is an important component of urban design performance. A well-designed building does provide delight and, in composition with others, makes for a pleasing urban environment. But how much weight should be given to high-quality architecture? Although I do expect good architecture in all development, I personally tend to discount the value of high-end high-rise design because, while innovative architecture, I question whether it innovates and demonstrates exceptional urban design performance since it solves a challenge that Vancouver doesn’t have (high-end design for high-end condo buyers). Instead, I would ask all observers and commenters to question if the buildings pass the bar of good urban design by other metrics (quality of the public realm, neighbourliness, building performance, etc.). Notably, some of the new towers employ dramatic architecture to solve some key challenges (I was impressed by the Kengo Kuma tower proposal for 1550 Alberni Street and its use of an undulating tower to enhance neighbourliness in place of a standard 6500 sq. ft. floor plate and 80 ft. tower separation. I was also impressed by the Bing Thom tower proposal for 969 Burrard Street (the First Baptist Church) for its use of expanded lobbies on each floor (called ‘garden courts’) to enhance sociability among residents) and these innovations should be celebrated.
But above all, I want to draw attention to the concept of urban design performance. These towers are only some examples. The bigger question is, what should urban design performance mean for today’s (and tomorrow’s) Vancouver? Should the concept be fixed and timeless or should it expand, contract, evolve for a changing city (and why can’t it do both)? Should the City engage the public in defining urban design performance for a new generation? And what is the relationship of urban design performance to broader City objectives such as Greenest City or the Healthy City Strategy? Personally, I think urban design performance is worthy of a robust public discussion, hence I raise it here. And I would love to know what you think.