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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In this article in The Times, Tom Dyckhoff notes how “un-iconic” the Arhcitectural Review award winners are:

… in the age of unquestioning devotion to icon architecture, their winners — usually unstarry, un-gargantuan, but always damned clever buildings, addressing very human, social, environmental needs — have long seemed simply perverse, fogeyish, almost betraying the enlightened, but once rather unzeitgeisty proclivities of their sponsor, Architectural Review magazine. When there’s a fashionable rising superstar’s computer generated, megabucks art gallery to lavish awards on? Who’d pick a willowy community project or a tea house in Japan?

[Just another point of view for our local panelists to discuss at the City Program “Paradise Builders” event on February 1 at SFU Harbour Centre, 7 pm.  Save the date.]

Awards below the cut:

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December 16, 2007

Put February 1 in your calendar (7 pm, SFU Harbour Centre) if you care about the state of Vancouver’s architecture.  That evening, some of this city’s prominent voices (including Planning Director Brent Toderian and architectural critic Trevor Boddy) will weigh in on the debate that occupies, for instance, the front page of today’s New York Times ‘Week in Review’:

Let the ‘Starchitects’ Work All the Angles
By Nicolai Ouroussoff
IT’S hard to pinpoint when the “starchitect” became an object of ridicule. The term is a favorite of churlish commentators, who use it to mock architects whose increasingly flamboyant buildings, in their minds, are more about fashion and money than function….
But in general I find these attacks perplexing. For decades, the public complained about the bland, soul-sapping buildings churned out by anonymous corporate offices. Meanwhile, our greatest architectural talents labored in near obscurity, quietly refining their craft in university studios and competitions that rarely led to real commissions. …
Today these architects, many of them in their 60s and 70s, are finally getting to test those visions in everyday life, often on a grand scale. What followed has been one of the most exhilarating periods in recent architectural history. For every superficial expression of a culture obsessed with novelty, you can point to a work of blazing originality.
Full article here.

And while your calendar is open, include January 16 at the Four Seasons Hotel.  Planner/architect Andres Duany will be speaking that evening in an SFU City Program-hosted event.

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December 11, 2007

Brent Toderian sends along a book review:

In Architecture of the Absurd, John Silber dares to peek behind the curtain of “genius” architects and expose their willful disdain for their clients, their budgets, and the people who live or work inside their creations. Absurdism in a painting or sculpture is one thing: ­if it’s not to your taste, you don’t have to look­.  But absurdism in buildings represents a blatant disregard for the needs of the building, whether it be a student center, music hall, or corporate headquarters.

No doubt Brent meant to add another provocation to the discussion of “iconic architecture” (and Vancouver’s presumed lack of same) when we bring together a City Program panel to discuss the issue on February 1 at SFU Harbour Centre.  Along with an update on the City’s Design Studio, that will be the start of next year’s ‘Paradise Makers’ series on the first Friday of each month.

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This Friday,  I’ll be interviewing Ray Spaxman – Vancouver’s City Planner from 1973 to 1989 – as part of the City Program’s Paradise Makers series. 
[November 2 at SFU Harbour Centre (515 West Hastings) at 7 pm. Email or call 778-782.5100 for a reservation.]
This should be an extremely informative evening for anyone interested in how the Vancouver of today came to be.
I also talked with Ray last week – and wrote a few comments as a result:

These days, developers and their marketing departments all want something iconic – at least the imprimatur if not necessarily the architecture.  Some will simply name the building after the I word and call it a day.  But assemble a gaggle of architects and be sure that they’ll bemoan our icon deficit.  Too much green glass, not enough titantium. 
Some architecture students even held an international competition – ‘pototype’ – to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the ‘Vancouver Style.’  At a panel discussion, all agreed: Vancouver may be good at background buildings but how about something gutsy in the foreground?
Or at least something taller.  That was the option Vancouver pursued at the beginning of this century, when the traditional downtown height limit was shattered in return for a commitment to more adventurous architecture.  You’ll be able to judge for yourself on Georgia Street, when at least three new super-talls open by the Olympics.
But one voice is already urging caution – and it’s a voice worth heeding.  It comes with perspective.
Ray Spaxman was recruited as the City Planner by Vancouver’s leadership in 1973, when the public was in full flight from the excesses of modernisn and out-of-control development.  Only a decade and a half previously, the tallest building in the West End was the Sylvia Hotel.  (“Dine in the Sky” said the sign on the roof.)  And not many people thought several hundred concrete slabs had really improved our urban ambience all that much.
Spaxman was responsible for changing the way planning and development was done in this city – and he summed it up in one word: “neighbourliness.”  A building had to be respectful of its neighbours, and of the citizens on the street.  Nothing expresses it better than the canopies which now make it possible to walk downtown on a rainy day without having to take an umbrella. 

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Join me for this Friday’s City Program  “Paradise Makers Lecture Series – Those who shaped Vancouver in the Post-war Era”  This month, we profile Rand Iredale (1929-2000): Pioneer, Architect, Mentor.”
October 19 at 7 pm – Fletcher Challenge Theatre at SFU Harbour Centre (515 West Hastings).   Reservations required. Please call 778-782-5100 to reserve.

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October 15, 2007

Don’t forget: This Thursday at Robson Square, a panel discussion on the potoptype – the international competition to come up with alternatives to the standard Vancouver podium-and-tower typology:

Where UBC Robson Square Room C150 – (free admission)

When Thursday, October 18, 2007 6:30 pm

Who Moderator: Trevor Boddy

Jury: James Cheng, Oliver Lang, Patricia Patkau,

Brent Toderian, Dr. Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe,

also potogroup and competition winners.

Why As the podium tower typology becomes more than just a little typical in Vancouver’s

cityscape, a group of intern architects asks the world for their opinion of this phenomenon.

A successful exhibition attracted hundreds of interested onlookers to view the entries in the

AIBC Architecture gallery as it was displayed between September and October. As a follow

up, a critical discussion between the jurors, competition organizers (potogroup), and

competition entrants continues the dialogue. A brief introduction of the typology will be

given by moderator Trevor Boddy. Visit for the competition brief.

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