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Playing with design in Vancouver: New visions from Formshift

April 15th, 2009 · 31 Comments

Just what Vancouver needs: A new kind of industrial building that stacks pre-fab floors into a zigzag tower on top of a podium whose leaf-like roof is a garden.

Or how about this: A new kind of laneway housing where small, two-storey, pre-fab rectangular cubes face onto back lanes that are filled with gardens, a street design that entices you to walk, and the occasional shop.

Those were a couple of the unusual ideas that won awards today at the FormShift competition run by the City of Vancouver and the Architectural Institute of B.C. I dropped in on the announcement at the AIBC offices on this perfect Vancouver day (blue skies, warm, everything in the city, even the grungiest shack, looks beautiful).

The competition is the result of an effort by local architects (Peter Busby and Walter Francl were very involved) and the city to stimulate ideas about new kinds of buildings for Vancouver. Something to push the city past what has become its conventional building pattern. Something that I know many people who read this blog will have plenty to say about. Vancouver’s boring architecture is the horse that everyone loves to beat.

The city’s planning director, Brent Toderian, said he’s trying to introduce the idea of competitions back into the city. Design competitions help boost young architects in Europe up the ladder, but they’re relatively rare here. The competition here was also used to encourage people to come up with ideas for the city’s EcoDensity plan — a plan has been somewhat stymied over the past couple of years by the fact that people couldn’t always envision what it meant, other than some horrid new form of overcrowding.

It ended up producing a massive book of entries — 82 in all — from both local architects and those as far away as Rotterdam and Santa Barbara. People were asked to design in three categories: a commercial/residential site along an arterial road; a residential site on the interior of a block; and a wild-card — anything you want.

A LOT of people submitted designs for new kinds of laneway housing — a sign that this is a fresh piece of territory in the city that is stimulating a lot of imaginations. (Not to mention builders. Just wait for that laneway bylaw to come in. There is going to be a small tidal wave of building by people panting to make a little more money off their property, house their relatives, and you name it.)

Scott Romses, a local architect, won in that category with a plan that he said was inspired by his visits to China and their hutongs (small enclaves of residences in the alleys, now being torn down as Beijing rebuilds). Instead of the peaked-roof houses that many people have been imagining for these laneway houses, Romses drew flat-roofed pre-fab-type houses whose rooves could then be used for gardens. In his drawings, a lot of them had large windows facing onto the lanes, which were cobbled — looking more like small pedestrianized streets in Europe than laneways. (I can just imagine the havoc some of our more testosterone-fuelled garbage collectors might wreak — but I digress.)

The local firm of go Design Collaborative won in the Wild Card category for its stacked tower of industrial uses. They envisioned the tower going near a SkyTrain station near the Fraser River, at one of the city’s many entry points. Pauline Thimm explained that her team wanted to explore the idea of creating not just residential density, but also industrial density. As she said, “we were returning to a model where we used to have intense activity along the waterfronts.” In a very evocative metaphor, she described the design for go’s building as being the equivalent of stacking Granville Island-style industrial uses into one building, where there would be commercial space, theatre space, or what have you (just no residential) on different floors.

Finally, a Calgary architect, Jeremy Sturgess, won the award for his design for a building along an arterial. As with all complicated visual material, it’s hard to find the words to convey it completely, but … it was a building where there were different levels of roofs and connected open spaces, so that the whole building, vertically, became a place for people to move around, grow things, or gather. Rather than having the typical residential/commercial building that now fronts most streets, where it’s a solid and impregnable rectangle, this is like a Habitat collection of blocks but connected by ramp-like gardens between levels and blocks.

Okay, I give up with the descriptions. You should really just go see the winners instead. The AIBC is going to mount a show of the winners and several honourable mentions and Simon Fraser University is going to, at some point, hold a debate about the ideas and what they could add to Vancouver.

I know many of you have strong thoughts on what’s wrong with current Vancouver design. I encourage you to take a look or go to the upcoming debate and let everyone know what you think. I should mention, by the way, that the competition was made possible by contributions from developers who helped with prize money and more. As Peter Busby pointed out, they’re developers who have a long history with the city — Wall, PCI, Grosvenor and ParkLane — not those who are here in the boom times and gone today.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Forthingham

    urban design and new living arrangements … nobel causes

  • Cool to see more design contests.

    Any idea if city folks are watching the VPSN where’s the square contest?

  • Some pre-announcement material…

  • glissando remmy

    Wow! I really prepared a lot on this subject. But just before pulling up my shirt sleeves I’ve checked out Urbanismo’s info link. Thanks a lot (really)! Excellent reading.
    Now, I am speechless; “I am without speech” as Elaine Bennis would say. The essay is so bang on with my own views on urban design that all I can say is “How did you get into my head?” to the writer.
    But of course it would seem totally uncivilized of me to not say a few words after all.
    I do not believe for a second that anything this “competition” came up with will come to fruition. Not only that the free advice and ideas were collected by the same people that ultimately will adapt them as theirs and for their only benefit, but there was no clear outcome in terms of a real development or strategy to be implemented anytime soon.
    I’ve found this exercise to be more like a marketing tool, a pooling tool a way to check the public opinion on some new “innovative” ideas that when implemented will put more green (as in US currency) in the pockets of the developers courtesy of Vancouver City Planning. More like taking the pulse of a training dummy and declare it to be normal.
    Let’s not forget that the architects involved and their developer friends are foaming profusely at the mouths only thinking at the commissions and extra profits to be made on the incoming gentrification of some parts of the city. And I also see, in the appropriate future, a new and innovative way for the land and home owners to additionally increase their property values. In easy lingo this would be, getting rich by doing nothing.
    The only good outcome after all is that some people got paid (I was told) for their effort. And by the way does anyone remember the “Space Agents” of some four, five years back, those new and upcoming Vancouver urban designers? Mortua est!
    We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy!

  • Yours is the first and only information I have been able to find on the Form Shift results.
    Any idea when the competition website will be posting the results and entries?
    Any links to any news releases, etc. about the results?

  • fbula

    The Tyee, which sponsored the competition, should have a story on its website soon if not now. Also, I’d check the AIBC website to see when it will have a display of the entries.

  • gmgw

    To riff on what Glissando said: Competitions like these are analogous to the major fashion shows held in Paris, Milan, and elsewhere , at which the top designers present their seasonal collections. When you look at a lot of the stuff that comes down the runway, you’re forced to ask yourself: “Yeah, OK, but… is there anyone anywhere who would or could actually *wear* that in public– or would want to??” Like those fashion shows, architectural design competitions are principally useful for exploring the possibilities of the medium. They have little practical application in any immediate sense, but it’s to be hoped that someone will be inpired enough by something that emerges from the presentation(s) to take that idea and run with it; ultimately, to turn it into something that has a *practical* application.

    So I guess these contests are worthwhile, but anyone expecting them to have an immediate and perceptible effect out here in the real world had better not hold their breath while they’re waiting.

  • Brent Toderian

    Frances, thanks for the post and your coverage of the design competition winners. Its been a great partnership between the City and AIBC, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the results – remarkably sophisticated designs, big provocative ideas, and a lot of positive buzz about the future of Vancouver design. The value for the city is significant, not just from the three winners (and 8 honourable mentions), but from the totality of ideas and examples from the 84 submitters. We have submissions that represent good practice, best practice, a few questionable (but provocative) practices, and many new innovative practices. Our thanks to all submitters.

    It speaks well of the Vancouver design talent pool, that of the 11 winners and honourable mentions, 9 ended up being local (the submissions were anonymous, of course). This despite submissions from across North America and as far afield as Paris and Rotterdam.

    The point of the competition was to translate the City’s significant commitments around climate change, into new built form ideas. This was at its core, a practical and applicable competition. There is a clear need to change our “business as usual” in terms of the way we build. The results can influence our future policy, our design review, and planning initiatives ranging from our Green Building Strategy to our Laneway Housing initiative. Ideas have power, and design competitions are a great way for ideas to be born.

    As well, competitions themselves are great for cities! For more on how competitions stimulate a culture of design and foster young design talent around the world, and the value of re-establishing a competition culture in Vancouver, this older blog post might be of interest to your readers. (

    AIBC is frantically working to put the winners and honourable mentions on their website, and the Tyee is aiming for an article with illustrations for Friday I believe. Stay tuned for the next steps on Formshift, including a public event on the winners (partnering with Gordon Price of sfu), an exhibition, and maybe even a publication.

    Brent Toderian

  • Brent Toderian

    And ps…. next up, we’re all anxiously awaiting the announcement of the winners of the “Where’s the Square” competition, a fantastic process being put on by the Vancouver Public Space Network …. cudo’s to them!


  • MB

    Design competitions are an excellent way to foster ideas, but they have an inconsistent record in Vancouver. I attribute that to an immature process and lack of consistant standards.

    A lack of standards for evaluation resulted in the embarrassingly bad Pomo Roman Coliseum facadism of our central library, and the treatment of the outdoor pedestrian areas as merely left over space. If I could paraphrase Trevor Boddy, there was very little architectural discourse represented in that process, and the project instead did the straw poll by mall crawl. It seemed Vancouverites willingly paid for a fake history.

    In some respects I can’t blame them after generations of a lack of representation of our deep and rich history in the bland corporate towers built by private powers, the ubiquitously mundane treatment of streets built by our municipalities, and until fairly recently, the lack of funding for cultural institutions of excellence by our senior governments. A fake Roman Coliseum seemed like a glinting bauble by comparison, and the masses reached for it like treasure. The deciding politicians merely followed the masses and ignored knowledgeable advice.

    The library does function well, and it helped boost patronage to the point of overuse. But it doesn’t take the great offense of providing a poorly executed false history to achieve success as a public institution.

    Anyone with a smidgeon of training can propose an ellipse, soaring interior atriums, and efficient spatial programming. But it takes a special set of talents and experiences to produce something deeply embedded in the history and attributes of the site, the surrounding culture, and currently relevant ideals like sustainability.

    Design competitions of the future should have a mature enough process to enhance these vital elements by the time the final submissions have been made.

    This competition seems different, and I’m sure that is attributable in part to the involvement of people with high levels of expertise like Peter Busby and Walter Francl. I would hope that the process of evaluation evolves, and certainly keeps the politicians out of the picture until a proper conversation and analysis on design have been fully completed. And that process in my opinion would not just foster diverse ideas and include public input, but would also encourage design excellence in all phases.

    Lastly, I couldn’t agree less with the above comments by Gliss and Urbanisimo with respect to developers and Dubai. If Vancouver was so laissez faire it would look like Dubai …. or Houston or Atlanta or Vegas. Proposing a link between Dubai and Vancouver is like saying San Francisco is Las Vegas. There is no depth at all to that perception.

    Moreover, wouldn’t a lot of us like to retire to soft armchairs outside of town and criticize the hell out of everything about Vancouver while using the thickest thesaurus available, pretentious references to one’s travels, and the loosest of sketches devoid of any detail except references to fantasy Hansel and Gretel Woonerfs. A nice lifestyle, that. But surely one of such mind would also rise to the occasion and actually enter the next design competition and be fully subjected to the opinions of one’s peers and the public, not to mention the rigours of producing something realistic and worth judging, wouldn’t one?

  • again…my favourite story about the Library competition…when Barry Downs suggested that the new library should incorporate the memory of the old library, Moishe Safdie shot back….”Barry, we’re not here to design a library. We’re here to win a competition!” And he did.

    That being said, I am a fan of design competitions and while they are a bit like fashion shows, (who would ever wear that?) they also can result in ‘concept cars’ at the Automotive Show. What seems extreme at the time seems somewhat commonplace two decades later.

  • shady sides

    acme, this is the only information i’ve found on the results so far. i called AIBC and they said they were trying to post the results on the formshift website “by the end of the week”. at the end of the day after the results were announced to the media, the entrants still haven’t received any word on the results.

  • Joseph Jones

    MB, with a big sniff:

    Our central library … did the straw poll by mall crawl … [but] does function well …

    A librarian by profession, I have spent much pleasant time in our central public library as a well qualified user (not as an employee).

    Far too many modern library buildings have catered to design snobs who clearly care little about anything besides architectural statement.

    A teleportation gizmo should be set to exile MB to Seattle’s downtown monstrosity, such device triggered by any proximity of MB to the Vancouver building that provokes such discerning distaste.

  • MB

    Note to JJ, the model of the library exterior won the competition, not the interior programming which, from what I’ve heard (and you confirmed), works quite well. This was much to the dismay of almost every architect I know or who have had comments on the project published.

    I find it interesting that the second and third competition choices respectively proposed a far superior treatment of the public space outside, more subtle facades, and a very deep process to uncover historical information on the site and local history which would have informed the design.

    These elements were not even on the public’s radar when they voted. I have to ask, Why not?

    Instead, we have the triumph of form over function, but where almost by accident the function still chunters along fairly. Conversely, the forgetable black TD tower demonstrates the triumph of function over form. The key is finding the balance between a building that people can love and want to preserve, and a facility that works well.

    I haven’t been to the Seattle library yet, but judging from the photos and from the reviews it’s boldness is less offensive than the permanent arrogance of a cartoon history imposed on Vancouver architecture. In fact, Rem Koolhaas’ design has stimulated an enviable level of dialogue on architecture, something we didn’t get here until too late.

  • Adele Weder

    FYI all: the official results of the FormShift ideas competition, and the AIBC press release with jurors’ comments, are now available at the competition website,

  • Joseph Jones

    Dear MB:

    Thanks for the dialogue. It looks like you gaze on libraries from afar, while I try to inhabit and use them. I think I am less sure than you are that outside can be so separated from inside.

    Briefly to go back to your Trevor Boddy reference. His “third and fourth rate” comment on Beasley-era Vancouver architecture in the documentary

    Giants Leap
    is priceless.

    Back to libraries. Seattle Public downtown is OK as long as you stay at least across the street. If you manage to find the entrance and crawl through like a bug, that is how you feel. Inside, the surrealistic marriage of the Dewey Decimal System to Piranesi is quite a trip, especially if you are out to blow your mind rather than develop it.

    As a peon who toiled in the bowels of UBC’s Koerner Library from its opening day, let me point out that the failure to complete Erickson’s original design leaves us with a building more than four times as wide as it is deep. With those dimensions and that provisional stucco cladding on the back, UBC has bequeathed us a quintessential western movie false front.

    I refrain from insider comment on the “learning centre” that superseded UBC’s library “planning” of the previous decade.

    Ye critics of VPL library architecture: Go West!

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Thank you Frances Bula for providing the ONLY source of news one day after the competition adjudication results were announced at the AIBC offices and –supposedly–one day after winner were posted on the FormShift website (as promised but not delivered).

    I am tickled pink to see that we are we still smarting about the Vancouver Library. Spot me a lion and a Christian in a short, smart toga…

    The Vancouver Library’s chief achievement is presenting a populist image. Plain folks can just pay it off with, “That’s Architecture!” And move along.

    I cherish the fact that the library comes complete with a strip mall alongside, and a sports bar on the corner. Mosche Safdie delivered to this rainy city a building in a color that could only look good in the hot desert light of the Middle East. That’s one better than he did to the Montreal Olympics, where his stacked concrete boxes created a structural impossibility recalling the first, load-bearing brick high rises in Chicago. Modernism came complete with ‘Big Lies’.

    But then, “Georgia south of Granville” is a kind of freak-show of Vancouver urbanism. Arguably the best part is the parking strip alongside the Federal Post Office, complete with a median with tree planting and a drive-thru letter drop. I’ve described the street fronting as “an open traffic sewer”, yet you can get away parking there free for a half-hour, or two.

    The FormShift competition that boasted in its Brief that “Good intentions need to be reflected in tangible urban design” was juried by a group plainly lacking capacity in urbanism. This is an overarching problem weakening our municipal halls and our design professions today. And what about David Miller, Architecture Chair of the University of Washington? Was he missing from the adjudication process?

    Yet, before making up our minds on whether this was really an opportunity to let our lights shine, or just light up BC-Bud, let’s look at what the website’s “coming soon — all entries” eventually delivers. Truth has a habit of standing up naked.

  • shady sides

    the press release states that “final selections” were made by the jury; so who made the initial selections?

    also on the press release is a statement by dorothy barkley that “the value of a competition
    such as this is the opportunity it provides for new and emerging architects and firms”. however it looks like the winners (except the wild card category) are both long-established firms.

    Brent T – when will we have a REAL competition, where a young architect/firm would actually be entrusted with building something? the establishment has cornered the market on architecture commissions in vancouver for decades, one of the reasons why the architecture is so stale.

  • Brent Toderian

    The Tyee now has an extensive article on the competition, with images from the winners and honourable mentions.


  • Claudia Laroye

    “In a very evocative metaphor, she described the design for go’s building as being the equivalent of stacking Granville Island-style industrial uses into one building, where there would be commercial space, theatre space, or what have you (just no residential) on different floors.”

    Indeed, this evocative metaphor is powerful. The idea of a mixed-use “Granville Island on the Fraser” has been raised and presented to the powers that be (or were, i.e. Ann McAfee) at City Hall by members of the Marpole community for the past 6 years.

    Capitalizing on community and stakeholder interest in creative ideas, in 2005 the Fraser Basin Council facilitated weekends’ worth of workshops for community and institutional stakeholders on the potential future for Marpole’s industrial waterfront:

    However, the City’s policy was and continues to retain I2 and M2 zoning for light or heavy industrial uses. In fact, the City actively removed many existing conditional uses, i.e. theatres, schools, gyms, from I2/M2 zones in Marpole in 2006.

    Today, the Planning department is undertaking a simultaneous Industrial Land Area Study along with its Cambie Corridor study. We already know that the Industrial Study will strengthen the City’s commitment to its existing industrial policy.

    What people interested in the future of the Marpole & Fraser River waterfront would like to see after so many years of dreaming the impossible dream is some of the creative outside-the-box thinking as provided by the FormShift competition actually coming to fruition.

    However, the real, on-the-ground (and at the Hall?) challenge will be to see how dreams can become reality, either in built form or in new thinking about what the future of our remaining industrial – or ‘job producing lands’ – actually means, and what it will look like, for this city.

  • Ms Bula,

    Becoming tedious! What does VPL downtown have to do with “Eco-density”?

    Accordingly may we conclude the FormShift discussion now before Mr. Paradise Price starts bloviating on what fun it will be to cycle up and down the ramps in the Sturgess contraption . . .

    The conversation has been enervating. Mr. Toderian, who’s ultimate urban knowledge appears to derive from attending the SFU UD course majoring in “how to dispose of doggie poop in the urban environment,” disappointingly, contributed little.

    Evidently few in local, high academia and professions have a clue about cities . . .

  • FormShift has had one resounding success. It has exposed the failure of the Vancouver Planning department, the AIBC, associated design professionals, and academics to understand, let alone implement the City of Vancouver’s


    FormShift (click on standouts) “chosen” designs describe a profession in disarray: indeed profoundly incompetent.

    I call for the immediate dismissal of

    VP director Brent Toderian for his lack of understanding of the city
    SFU City Program director Gordon Price for misleading his students.

    Senior planner NEFC Michael Gordon
    for his complicity in the, grossly misleading NEFC High Level Review A document showing a planning department that refuses to learn from previous mistake: glossy propaganda at its worst.

    We now know the reason for over crowding, trammeling traffic, lack of affordability, degradation of the urban environment and lip service to views.

  • shady sides

    urbanisimo, next time take your medication before posting. your rants are so cranky, incoherent and mean that nobody will take you seriously. you obviously have something to contribute so be reasonable and maybe participate in some kind of dialogue (unless this is not what you want).

    the agencies and people you attack may not be perfect but at least there is a general willingness to embrace new approaches and to continually rexamine them. toderian may be 30 years younger than you but that doesn’t make him incompetent; he’s aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world and isn’t necessarily stuck in vancouver’s problematic cycles of self-celebration. if he succeeds (if he’s really serious about it) in promoting new ideas, new talent and approaches through competitions, then we will all be better off for it.

  • Shady sides I do not take medication. I am a very healthy architect, planner, artist, author, poet, traveler, sailor of some 80 years. I love life and I do not appreciate impertinence from one who takes it upon her/himself to speak for someone else. Something is very wrong with Vancouver’s planning process that is easy to see and experience. If Brent Toderian has the answers let him out with them . . .

  • PS and I am not just talking to Brent. I am a grad of SCARP, a RCA and a MAIBC.

    The whole local planning/developer/design/bureacracy coagulation is teetering, crumbling from lack of integrity.

  • shady sides

    ^ i apologize for the meds comment.

    i’ve worked in half a dozen cities in canada, the US, and europe as an architect, and in most cases, the city planning process and bureaucracy have been chaotic, byzantine, and corrupt. in some ways its the nature of the beast and to be expected. vancouver has the most reasonable and least hopeless planning departments that i have experienced.

  • Apology accepted shady sides. Thanqxz . . . here is my take on the city

    FormShift failed to address eco-density preferring “thu cute.”

    Multi-building inter-relationships within the context of accessible public urban place: FormShift and Brent’s hyperbole missed that . . .

  • PPS what on earth does a pedestrian bridge to Sunset Beach have to do with Eco-density?

    Ojala dios bendice shady sides QED

  • Stephanie

    I must confess that I like the library – I have always read it as an extremely cranky comment on the appalling pomo “architecture” that was so popular in Vancouver at the time. It makes me giggle that one of our most important public building condemns the city it adorns.