March 25, 2008

Cautionary note to the Art Gallery

From Architect Online

That the Bilbao effect became a wildly successful urban development strategy for resuscitating declining cities throughout the world, and then a de rigueur formula, is a familiar story, if one that is not completely played out. The “build it and they will come” approach still remains unsubstantiated by the evidence.

On a single day last December, The New York Times carried two unrelated articles in different sections of the paper. One reported on the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, a sprawling and costly—$461 million—complex by Cesar Pelli that opened in late 2006 to high urban hopes but which is currently struggling to find an audience. (Its propensity to devour the municipal budget has earned it the nickname “Carnivorous Center.”)

The other concerned a $66 million zinc, glass, and steel art museum scheduled to open in November in smaller Roanoke, Va., designed by the Los Angeles architect Randall Stout, a Gehry protégé, which is viewed by boosters and detractors alike as one of the biggest gambles in the city’s history.

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February 3, 2008

Everyone (at least who reads this blog) knows Portland has a dynamic urban culture.  Naturally, there’s an online site – Portland Spaces – that brings together sources and ideas.  And within that, they have the Burnside Blog.
Here’s a taste.

Urban Uprising: The Buildings

Take your average residential lot in Portland (That’d be 5,000 square feet), build a house that fills the space from corner-to-corner, stack it on top of itself 22 times, add some nice details, and you’ll have something that resembles this tower (West Burnside at 13th Avenue) being developed and designed by Skylab. Proposed for a site just behind the Crystal Ballroom, it’s skinny, it’s sexy – and in this market, very speculative – but I hope to God it gets built.

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Greg Hamilton sends along an article on the latest plan for St. Petersburg:

“The heart of the city quarter will be a new civic space under a unique glazed roof. ”

“This unique crystalline glass tensegrity structure will imbue the space with a delicate lightness and changing light, reflecting the weather, time of day and the passing seasons. This will be a major destination in the city where people can meet, shop, eat and be entertained whilst being protected from St Petersburg’s hostile winter climate.”

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Every urban-design and architecture critic I read has a highly cultivated cynicism. Christopher Hume, he of the Toronto Star, is always good for an articulate scathing of TO.
But his recent column on the competition results for a new park at the foot of Jarvis Street on the lakeshore is almost optimistic:

Ah, the waterfront, the waterfront. Does one dare believe in what it could be; or does one succumb to the cynicism of the day?
The latter may be tempting, but it’s too easy. Besides, there is reason for optimism, especially when one sees the final-round proposals for the Jarvis St. Slip. Chosen through an invitational design competition, the three schemes are so good, each one should be built. That’s unlikely, of course, but one can always hope.

This is interesting for two reasons: the results of the competition really are rather good. Check ’em out – and remember them for the SFU City Program discussion on the state of Vancouver’s architecture and urban design on February 1. Details here.
Secondly, there’s a video with the story on the Star’s website:

This is, of course, the best way to ‘read’ a visual story – and something newspapers are increasingly adopting for their online versions.
Two questions: why not more competitions in Vancouver for our urban design, and why not more videos in our newspapers?

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January 21, 2008

Sun writer Frances Bula has a blog – City States – where she can put pieces that don’t make it into the paper. (Which raises the question, why not? In cities that have papers which focus more on local issues and urban development, they would.)
However, in the case of her piece on Downtown South, The Sun gave it good play.

Vancouver’s new mini-Manhattan is here
I have a feature in tomorrow’s paper on a downtown neighbourhood that no one ever talks much about, even though everyone who comes to the central city drives through it. It’s just 34 blocks in total, but it will soon be home to 24,000 people.
Downtown South is fascinating because it’s a living laboratory that shows how Vancouver’s “Living First” model for a residential downtown works outside of the carefully sculpted megaprojects in Coal Harbour and False Creek North.
It’s home to more regular Vancouver folks and more young people than the new projects, but it’s also suffering from the pressure of success. Developers have gone crazy in the area, putting up towers faster than the city can nail down a little bit of space for parks or daycares.

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January 13, 2008

Interior designer Mitchell Freedland has an interesting observation in this Globe article when he was asked why Vancouver is at the forefront of condo design.

I think it’s the luck of economy and geography. In the fifties and sixties, our downtown was a dense cluster of high-rises and it was natural to go from the rental market to the condo market.
We started to develop the urban-condo concept a lot earlier than any other centre. Cities like Toronto, New York and Chicago have had great high-rise successes, but we were one of these little pioneers. It was a quiet city that kept growing vertically and suddenly everyone was paying attention.

In other words: we owe it all to the West End.
For another perspective on that eternal question – Does more space equal happiness? – check out Charles Montgomery’s take in this issue of Walrus.

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January 2, 2008

Last year, Sun columnist Miro Cernetig did a piece on the new convention centre expansion.

From a design perspective, the convention centre is esthetically underwhelming, more a triumph of engineering than architecture. The word mediocre comes up repeatedly whenever I ask people who watch these sort of things in the city.
“It’s not a terrible building,” says Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. “But it’s not a great building, either. We could and should do better.”

Actually, I was a bit more complimentary in the interview.  No, it’s not going to be great building, competitive with other ‘iconic’ structures going up these days.  But I think it’s successful in one remarkable way.

Large exhibition spaces are, unavoidably, big honkin’ boxes – usually with vast blank walls.  This new box, placed on a prime piece of waterfront, actually complements the verticality of the Coal Harbour skyline when seen from Stanley Park.  Seen from Coal Harbour Green, it plays well with the sails of the convention centre.  Seen from Burrard Street, its glassy facade respects the view corridor and doesn’t overwhelm the Marine Building or present a blank wall to the city.
Altogether, a difficult building on a sensitive site that fits in well.  Not great, but good.
But there’ll be more time to debate this point at the first “Paradise Builders” session the City Program is launching on Friday, February 1.  Joint City Planning Director Brent Toderian, Globe and Mail architectural critic Trevor Boddy and others to discuss “The Challenges of Today’s Vancouver” (and whether our dearth of iconic structures is really a problem), at 7 pm, SFU Harbour Centre.  Reservations are required. Email or call 778-782.5100.

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