January 16, 2007

Duany in Vancouver

The debate on Vancouver’s lack of iconic architecture does seem to be heating up.  Good timing, then, by The Tyee, the online magazine, for its interview with New Urbanist Andres Duany.  Here’s a quote:

The problem with architects who treat cities like modern art galleries:
“You cannot make a city with avant-gardist architects, because an avant-gardist architect is continually trying to do something new, and to stand out. The problem is that modern architecture at this moment — avant-gardism — is expressionist. It’s all about shapes and spikes and articulation, materials, and elbowing away things, and you can’t make a city out of it. You can make some great buildings: avant-garde architects are really good these days, no question. But you can’t make a city.”

Read the whole piece here.

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PT reader Timothy Thomas writes in:

Lisa Rochon hits the nail on its monotonous little head. Finally, after five years, I understand the paradox: how Vancouver can be progressive in livability but so maddeningly conservative in design.
If the Olympic Village architecture leaves another disappointing legacy, maybe they can install an explanatory plaque: “They didn’t want it good. They wanted it Tuesday.”

Rochon’s Globe and Mail piece – “Time to build outside the box” – critiques the architectural scene in Vancouver, now that previous planner Larry Beasley is off to Abu Dhabi.

Over the past decade, Vancouver has developed a culture of urban rules rather than a culture of great design. There are rules for just about any move an architect might want to make….

And now that Beasley is gone, architects speak up:

“It’s a huge challenge for the new director,” says Bing Thom, a prominent Vancouver architect. “We’ve become a victim of our own success. There’s smugness and fear of change. The planning department knows what it wants, the architect knows what the planning department wants and nobody dares to rock the boat. Everybody is in bed together. The podium-tower formula keeps getting stamped out in Vancouver, because everybody knows that will get quick approval.”
“The Beasley regime was so formulaic,” charges James Cheng, another of Vancouver’s major architects who designed the 60-storey Shangri-La luxury hotel and residence currently under construction on West Georgia Street in the city’s downtown.

Hmmm. The supposition seems to be that if the architects were freed of the Planning Department’s constraints, great, iconic architecture would spontaneously appear.
Sorry, don’t buy it. Market-constrained design is inherently conservative. Once the developers discern the minimum acceptable standards, they set the ceiling, not the floor.
I well remember an informal meeting I had in James Cheng’s office with one of the City’ Hall development-permit architects. They were responding to a concern I had, after seeing the model for Quayside – the Concord Pacific complex that now lines Marinaside Crescent, between Davie Street and the Cambie Bridge – that it was all too much the same. How about at least a little variation in colour?

Both of them assured me that, though it was subtle, it would fit well into the larger palate that was planned for the megaproject. I didn’t get any sense that the City was forcing a reluctant developer into a straight-jacket.
As a Councillor, there really wasn’t much I could do other than express my concern. Other Councillors didn’t like getting involved in design decisions – the job, they felt, of the professionals. And indeed, the development process in Vancouver keeps politicians out of the approval process once Council decisions have been made on zoning and general policy. It’s one of the reasons the quality of urban design is high: no deals are done to dumb-down projects; negotiations are done at the staff level, insulated from the politics.
Yes, there’s a need for more ‘iconic’ foreground buildings in Vancouver. But too often the suggestion is made that by negating, amending or ignoring some general policy – like height limits or view-corridor requirements – we would get brilliant architecture as a result. I just don’t think the record, the experience of other cities or common sense gives a guarantee of that.

Read more » – a daily e-newsletter indispensible for those into architecture – has a nice piece on the American Institute of Architecture’s Top Ten Green Projects Award. As one would hope, Vancouver is well represented – and, indeed, they’ve highlighted two winners from past years:
From 2004, the White Rock Operations Centre by Peter Busby.
And from 2000, the C.K. Choi Building at UBC by Matsuzaki Wright Architects.

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December 18, 2006

How did the proposal for the Hotel Georgia tower go from this:

To this:

PT Reader Timothy Thomas speculates:

Sadly, I find that the fascinating “Crystal Spike” design by Bing Thom, perhaps the most remarkable design for a downtown building in the last 40 years, has been junked in favour of another rectangular box, slightly altered. Why are we going for the same old tired design yet again? Are we afraid of brilliance? Intimidated by imagination? Is asymmetrical splendour threatening?  Put the two designs side by side and weep.  For all our purported hip, cutting edge sensibility, Vancouver seems to have the aesthetic instincts of a dull octogenarian.   

And then concludes:

After a cup of coffee, a thought occurs to me: the change in design of the Hotel Georgia condo/office tower reveals not so much a lack of taste and imagination as it does a love of money. A rectangular box maximizes sellable space but an irregular form, however brilliant, does not. (How naive of me not to have fully understood this before.) Who knows how many other beautiful designs were abandoned because of greed? But I wonder if it’s short-sighted for a developer to look only at square-footage when mulling a design. Wouldn’t people pay more to live or work in a one-of-a-kind gem, rather than in something formulaic? (An instructive comparison would be the two BC Hydro buildings built a couple of generations apart) Or are you and I in the minority when it comes to a passion for distinctive civic beauty?

You can find more on the Hotel Georgia plan (and a video of the Woodward’s demo) on at Pacific Metropolis, a great local site that tracks Vancouver’s urban development. (Thanks to Paul Krueger for the link.)

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Author Karrie Jacobs – the keynote speaker at mid-October’s Affordable Housing by Design conference – has some nice things to say after her tour of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver:

In these three Pacific North­west cities, the progressive power of urban planning is taken very seriously, and concepts like livability and sustainability dominate the local civic culture to such an extent that to visit all three in rapid succession, as I did in October, is to drop in on another country. It’s not the United States or Canada, but a more highly evolved combination of the two.

In her Metropolis Magazine column – Revenge of the Small – she was impressed with how Vancouver came up with a “a new menu of housing variety,” potentially creating 20,000 additional units.  Approved styles here and in Portland seem too traditional for her contemporary taste, but she recognizes the signficance of the move to smaller homes:

In an era when ever-bigger houses are the norm, Portland and Vancouver’s carefully vetted plans might help other North American cities and towns promote domestic downsizing. That would be no small accomplishment.

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December 10, 2006

Timothy Thomas, regular PT reader, sends the following plea:

Here’s a piece on the superb new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, with instructive parallels for Vancouver. It is hoped that this building, its compelling design matching its dramatic harbour-side setting, will spark a re-birth of progressive architecture there, in a city not not for its creative contemporary architecture.

Boston has done for brick what Vancouver done for sea foam green glass. Enough already! This kind of architectural kick-start is a fond wish many of us have for the much-rumoured possibility of a new site for the VAG. (Wanted: bold elegance. Please: no more polite pablum!). Any update on the plans for the new VAG (and the other new cultural sites in the offing, if possible). Is it still planned for False Creek?

I’ve recently heard that the cultural precinct planned for the old Larwell Park site (between Cambie and Beatty) is on hold. Any news anyone?
Update: Sources from City Hall say the project is still on track – but no details.

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December 6, 2006

This is the biggest construction hole in the Lower Mainland:
It’s at the corner of Ioco Road, between Murray and St. Johns Street, in Port Moody.  (Here’s the webcam.)
And this is what will fill it:

The Onni Group is developing this mixed-use complex next to Polygon’s Klahanie, across the street from the Port Moody City Hall and cater-corner from Newport Village – the precedent-setting Bosa development from the mid-90s.  (You can fine more on the village in Price Tags 63.)
Suter Brook will have 1,250 residential units, 200,000 square feet of retail, including a 30,000 square-foot supermarket (Thrifty’s) and 45,000 square feet of office.  Architect Larry Doyle’s design is very urban, incorporating many of the elements of the ‘Vancouver Style’ – point-and-podium towers, townhouses, underground parking, smaller blocks, hard- and soft public spaces, a regard for the street, and an expectation of transit.  (The Evergreen Line will run by the southeast corner.)
Port Moody is one of the Lower Mainland’s smaller communities – about 15 miles (24 km) from downtown Vancouver at the head of Burrard Inlet, only 10 square miles (26.21 sq. km) inarea, home to 29,000 people.  It’s also second only to West Vancouver in average income.  Not the kind of place you’d expect would embrace growth and high-profile urban design.
Perhaps because of its dynamic leadership over the last decade, Port Moody has become the precedent-setter for Vancouver suburbs.  Mayor Joe Trasolini just got back from China, there to accept an award recognizing Port Moody’s achievement: 

Port Moody captured first place in the international “Planning for the Future” award (over 50 competing cities included Honolulu, Seattle, Westminster, U.K., Camden, Australia as well as cities from Australia, U.S., Czech Republic, and Ireland). The city also captured third place overall in their population category for the “most liveable community in the world”.

Well, there goes Vancouver’s title.  And good thing too.  The future is in the suburbs – or what the suburbs will become as they evolve.  Port Moody is already there.

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While the ‘Vancouver Style’ (the so-called point-and-podium) has much to recommend it, particularly the way it relates to its neighbours and the ground plane, there are rather a lot of towers that look so much the same.  All that glass, so little distinction. 
Now that residential towers are becoming popular in other cities, we’ll have a chance to compare.  Here’s a building just being completed in Minneapolis.  Very much in the deco style, it has very pleasing proportions, and enough use of brick to give it weight.

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Last night, Brent Toderian, the City’s new Director of Planning, explained at an SFU City Program ‘conversation,’ why he chose to come to Vancouver.  It was the opportunity, said the ex-Calgarian, to help a city that was already heading in the right direction to really take off, to build on the successes already achieved in order to tackle the issues – affordability, homelessness – that confront it today.
While civic optimism is compulsary for planning directors, it contrasts with the gloom and despair one hears from commentators in bigger cities.  Examples: Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald (How could Sydney get it so wrong?) and Christopher Hume in the Toronto Star (Why T.O. isn’t on road to better future).  Wrote Hume:

There was an excellent example several weeks ago when the city refused to change its policy against laneway housing. The argument was that lanes are unsafe because they’re too narrow for fire trucks and garbage trucks. … It’s exactly this kind of thinking that keeps Toronto from realizing its potential, and, if not changed, will lead to its decline.

This backward step on laneway housing by Toronto (you can read the staff report here) must be a particularly bitter loss for the city’s design professionals , as The Globe and Mail reported:

The vision of revitalizing Toronto’s 311 kilometres of back alleys with tiny, cheap homes that has tantalized architects and city planners appears to have been extinguished by city officials’ concerns about the costs of utility servicing and garbage pickup.
A 2003 report by two Toronto architects financed by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. touched off a wave of excitement in the media and among architects and urban designers. It pointed to hundreds of potential sites for nifty new laneway dwellings, to replace ramshackle garages and abandoned industrial sheds in the alleys that crisscross the city.
The report by Jeffery Stinson and Terence Van Elslander included designs for four styles of compact homes that would not encroach on neighbours, and called for a loosening of city regulations so that building in laneways would entail a less arduous bureaucratic process.

Ironically, the City  had even given an urban design award in 2003 to architects, academics and students for their studio on ‘laneway architecture and urbanism.’  Said one juror:

Long overdue. This design studio recognizes and explores the unique opportunity the existing laneway network provides as a resource for the City, defining a new and important built form and open space framework within the existing fabric of Toronto.

These examples from Toronto were used most recently at the “Affordable Housing by Design” conference, cohosted by the Vancouver City Planning Commission, Smart Growth B.C. and the City Program, as an example of an achievable housing choice.  In fact, laneway housing is seen as one of the most viable opportunities for the Mayor’s EcoDensity Initiative. 
As it happens, CMHC is funding a study in Vancouver – “Livable Lanes” – by Joaquin Karakas, a planning analyst at Holland Barrs.   The City has an infill housing strategy that has resulted in many examples in Mt. Pleasant and Kitsilano.  And it has introduced a new zoning schedule – RT-10 – that allows for small-lot infill, which likewise allows for laneway housing in Kensington-Cedar Cottage.  Presumably, the Mayor’s Ecodensity Policy will encourage this form across the city.
Brent Toderian acknowledged how different the dialogue is in Vancouver, among politicians, staff, developers and the community, founded on the willingness to work together, to try new ideas, and, as he would say, ‘constructive candour.’  That contrast with other cities – and the success of both the Mayor’s policy and Toderian’s abilities – will be evident if laneway housing becomes a reality throughout Vancouver.

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