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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January 15, 2007

From a glance at the headlines in the newspaper boxes, the B.C. Place replacement story has legs.
PT reader Ron Chin responded to my post on the subject – but I fear his comments might get lost. Here’s what he had to say:

The best solution is to build up close to the existing stadium on all sides (though being careful not to prevent a future new roof on separate supports ringing the perimter of the dome. I understand that there was a plan to build a replacement for the defunct Robson Square Conference Centre adjacent to BC Place before the provincial government started to disband BC Buildings Corp., BC Pavillion Corp, or whatever it was called.

This website has a study that basically fills in the corners around the stadium (consistent with the extension of Smithe St. to the Cooper’s Landing project).

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I predicted a few months ago that the new sculpture park on the Seattle waterfront may be the next best urban space on the west coast. Maybe.

It’s due to open on January 20th – but the hype is underway. Here’s the latest from the New York Times, along with the picture above. Or this, in The Oregonian from Portland. And here’s Trevor Boddy’s review in the Seattle Times.
Hopefully the success of the park will persuade people that rebuilding the Alaskan way Viaduct, just to the south, would be a very bad idea if it foreclosed other opportunities like this. Seattle is worthy of so much better.
The Seattle Times picks up that point in its article:

… as civic leaders emphasize the importance of urban density to save the splendor of the surrounding countryside, they also recognize the need for parks and civic spaces downtown. As the Alaskan Way Viaduct debate heats up, some are hoping a walk in the Olympic Sculpture Park will open people’s minds to new possibilities for downtown.

“I think it will give people a sense of what we can accomplish on the rest of the waterfront if we take care,” said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. “I think people will see [the park] and they will want more … this will give them a flavor of what’s possible.”

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Go out and get a copy of the Saturday, January 13th Globe and Mail.  There’s a story in it that will make you feel good about being a Canadian – and give you some shread of hope for our beleagered planet. 
 The piece – A River Back from the Dead – is not available on the G&M website, unless you’re a print subscriber.  And anyway, this article by Val Ross is better read on newsprint, particularly to take advantage of the double-page spread with detailed map:

This is the story of the Wadi Hanifah, the river that runs through Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia.  Though it made human settlement possible a thousand years ago, the river had become a dumpsite for everything from automobiles to animal carcasses.
But six years ago, Saudi princes summoned the Canadians: Moriyama & Teshima – the Toronto architecture and environmental planning firm. The article details the work of George Stockton and Drew Wensley, and shows kilometre by kilometre what they’re doing to bring a river back from the dead.
The author, writing for the dead-tree media, knows that a lot of us will go to Google Earth to check out the context, and starts off his piece with that assumption:

You can give yourself virtual vertigo by swooping around on Google Earth, the 3-D computer program that offers aerial views of almost every place on the planet. Especially if you zoom from, say, Toronto to the barren desert of Saudi Arabia and then zero in on the tangle of housing and highways that is Riyadh.

The Wadi is the “intriguing dark line” running diagonally from the upper left. 
Maybe the fact that this is a Canadian-led project is why you’ve never heard of it before.

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You’ll know the bicycle is being taken seriously as a mode of transportation when Vancouver has a map like this – “… that shows all covered bike parking in the Downtown Portland area.  Put your cursor over any ‘P’ symbol and you get a pop-up with the number and quality of bike parking rack spaces, with details about access”  – Ron Richings.

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PT reader Dan F recommends the Beyond Robson blog: “a worthy endeavor that could use some more press.” 
If you like hip lefty, arty scene that dominates the SSM (Side Stream Media) in Vancouver, you’ll like the tone of Beyond Robson.  The best reason to check it out, though, is its Morning Brew – a quick survey of the local media/blog scene, with links to items you’d otherwise never know about.
[PT Readers: Send in recommendations you think are worthy to Link-up.]

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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.

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Don Buchanan cycled through the park a few days after the first big windstorm and caught this shot of the blowdown completely covering the road just to the west of Lost Lagoon:

The impact of the storm was very selective. I saw the Lumberman’s Arch area a few days later and it seemed completely untouched – not even much tree litter on the ground. I’m told that only one of the nests in the heronry next to the tennis courts looked to have been blown down – a testament to architectural and construction ability of birds – though I wonder how they weather such storms.
So far I’m ambivalent about the impact. This is part of nature, after all – and something to be expected given past history (Hurricane Freda) and the fact that we stop fire from doing its job. This is how nature regenerates.
Ironically, in some ways the park will be a more interesting experience – at least from a human perspective. The views through to the water will be enhanced around Prospect Point: blue glinting through green is more captivating than the forest wall which lined most of Park Drive. And it will likely encourage people to wander into the interior of the park and look more carefully at the actual fabric of the forest, something very few of us actually do.
And, as I noted in my column below, it will make the issue of climate change a very personal reality.

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What to do with this concrete white elephant?
[And why isn’t there ever any accountability for those who promoted and built it? B.C. Place was Socred Premier Bill Bennett’s megaproject: a toy for the boys. Build it and baseball will come, they said. The boys with the balls never showed up, and so every year the stadium loses big bucks. And yet still promoters push the idea that government should subsidize these things.]
There’s talk that B.C. Place will be demolished after the Olympics in 2010. Combine the deficit, the cost of the replacing the roof and the value of the land underneath, and it seems to make sense. And yet … if we are to take sustainability seriously, we have to account for the embedded energy in all that concrete. Are we to truck it all off to the landfill as though it had no value? But what to do instead?
How about Lucca on False Creek?

This Tuscan town is best known for its fortifications, a Renaissance tower with trees on top (Richard Henriquez’s inspiration for the Eugenia) and the remnant of an old Roman circus that evolved into the oval piazza you see in the picture.
How about building an Italian-style hilltown on the bleachers of B.C. Place, with a dense urban fabric, Habitat-like, cascading down both sides of the roofless stadium? In the centre, playing fields, the town square, a great urban space, maybe even a small lake. Narrow lanes wind up to the top, aerial trams go up and over, perhaps a highrise references the Lucca tower.
Surely we can do better than just imploding this sucker and turning out more of the same point-and-podium stuff we already have so much of.

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This just in today from Paul Krueger, a planner at City Hall, who got this shot from the roof at 12th and Cambie.

[For those who don’t get the title reference, locals refer to B.C. Place as “the marshmallow in bondage” – at least when the fabric roof is inflated, unlike at the moment when, due to wind damage and rather like stadium management, it’s very much depressed.]

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