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The future of the two-toned Wall Centre tower

Question: If the Wall Centre gets reclad to fix the glass issue, will it remain two toned or which colour will win out?

Answer: Oh, you sly questioner you. (This was from Joe Just Joe, for those too lazy/busy to look back.) You must surely know about the tussle at city hall over this the last few years, with some of us wondering whether the mercurial Peter Wall would finally get his way and, against city hall wishes, finally get the all-black tower he had dreamed of. Gather round, kiddies, and I’ll tell you.

First of all, for those who don’t know the history, Vancouver council approved the final tower for the Wall Centre back in the late 1990s, based on images presented by architect Peter Busby that the building would be a gleaming shaft of light, especially compared to the two other, shorter, dark-glassed towers on the Wall block across from St. Paul’s on Burrard. Then-planning director Larry Beasley was particularly insistent that if the Wall tower was to be allowed up to 300 feet on this high piece of ground, making it prominent on the skyline, it should look transparent.

But lo and behold, when the building started going up in around 2000, the glass looked awfully dark — nothing like the images. People started phoning city hall, complaining that it looked like Darth Vader’s house was being built there. After many in-camera meetings over what to do, the city decided to sue.

Eventually, it turned out that someone in the planning department, presented with a glass sample that looked whitish in the light it was presented, had inadvertently okayed a much darker glass than intended. But then Mr. Wall, who loves dark glass and the solidity it conveys, ordered a glass that was darker still than what had been officially approved. Which means he broke the rules, instead of just bending them. Ultimately, he had to pay the city a fine of a few million and architect James Cheng was brought in to come up with a solution. The solution was to put clear glass on the top third and leave the already mostly in place dark glass on the bottom.

All was quiet for a while. Then in about 2006/2007, I started hearing whispers from city hall that Wall’s people were at city hall saying that the clear glass was causing a terrible problem. The building’s mechanical functions were breaking down because the clear glass did not function at all like the dark glass, in terms of retaining or releasing heat. So air conditioners and heaters were working overtime.

The pitch to the city was: Since we have to replace the glass anyway because of all these problems, how about if we make the whole tower one unified dark building again.

I understand that our now recently departed planning director, Brent Toderian, nixed that idea. Apparently the problem was that, when the Walls were ordered to put clear glass on the top, they never changed the mechanical functions of the building to work better with the new glass. So of course it kept breaking down. City staff advised them on how to get better environmental performance out of the building, but did not okay any darker shade.

My understanding is that the building is going to get new glass, but it won’t be darker. It will just be a new kind that is more energy efficient.

If dark glass suddenly starts appearing on the top, do let City Plumber here know. It will mean either that 1. someone in planning got rooked again 2. someone made a political decision to allow the dark glass after all 3. you’re in an alternate universe.