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A meditation on Vancouver’s lovely modern buildings here

April 27th, 2010 · 13 Comments

Every time I drive around the region, I’m jolted again by some new architectural trend even more hideous than the last one in this city that is allegedly the envy of the world.

Each new version of the archetypal Vancouver special is so spectacularly more ghastly than the last one — decorative glass doors! wedding-cake tops! startling new colours! fake white bricks stuck on the front! — that it makes me long for the days of the original specials, with their simple, clean lines and restrained colour combinations of white and stucco.

Then there are the fake Tudor rowhouses, the suburban monster houses in all their varieties, the boring all-glass point-tower condos that litter the city. The past two years have brought some a new decorative touches that just make you puzzled: strange splashes of colour in the condo forest, as others try to emulate James Cheng’s lego-like touches on his Spectrum towers, for one. The saddest of all — those who’ve taken to trying to upscale their modest World War Two stucco bungalows by putting Whistler-style rock facades on them. A little Home Depot is a dangerous thing.

So it was nice to get a small book in the mail the other day that is a reminder of some of the beautiful buildings that have been built here the last 20 years. I flip through the pages and remembers it’s not all a horror show out there, as I see pictures of Bing Thom’s wavy-roofed Sunset Community Centre, the glass and concrete Salt Tasting Room in Gastown’s Blood Alley, the First Nations House of Learning at UBC, the simple and elegant Celebration Hall at Mountainview Cemetery, among many others.

A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver is a companion to similar books in Toronto and Montreal. (See reviews/links here and here.) The Vancouver version, overseen by UBC architecture prof Chris MacDonald, is filled with micro-essays by local architecture critics Adele Weder and Matthew Soules, two local writers who have been bringing playfulness, lovely descriptions and rigorous criticism to their observations about Vancouver for a while.

Some sentences might be challenging for those not familiar with architect speak (“inside, the surprising intensity of the space and its ingenious roof structure is thoughtfully withdrawn from the informal adjacent uses”) but many are not. And it’s delightful to tour around town, via this book, and look more closely (with thoughtful commentary) at the many buildings and structures that do provide us with visual pleasure.

It is specifically focused on 1990-2010, a period that is bracketed by Expo and the Olympics, so you won’t see references to Arthur Erickson’s Robson Square or SFU here, although there is lots of Erickson elsewhere and a Peter Busby-designed arts complex at SFU is included.

I appreciated seeing a wider range of architects and of buildings represented than was in Trevor Boddy’s recent Vancouverism show. This book does includes lots of Erickson, Thom, Cheng and Fast + Epp work, with lots of usual-suspect buildings: the Shangri-La, the Richmond Olympic Oval, Woodward’s, the Olympic village. But it’s got lots of little surprises, some that I hadn’t heard of: Acton Ostry’s Har-El Synagogue in the British Properties, Pechet and Robb’s Pier in North Vancouver, Woods Columbaria in West Van, and their GRANtable in downtown Vancouver (a 66-foot-long table in a Beach Avenue park), and the Millennial Time Machine at UBC, another Fast + Epp creation designed by superkul architecture.

I also appreciated the inclusion of modest buildings (and in my neighbourhood!) like Acton Ostry’s The Stella, the new condo complex at the corner of Kingsway and 12th that houses a car dealership on the ground floor, which lights up at night with the richly coloured panes of glass at the hall ends on each floor, and the so-restful modernist Sun1 townhouses that sprang up at Prince Edward and 15th amid the three-storey walk-ups all around. (And I see from the book that the architects were BattersbyHowat, which I didn’t know until this moment.)

And, when you want to ponder what it all means in the grand scheme of things, you can read Adele’s and Matthew’s essays that open and close the book. To end, as Matthew does:

“So ask yourself as you explore Vancouver and its architecture: In what ways has the city succeeded in building a benevolent utopia and in what ways has it built its inverse: an attractive and comfortable but ultimately disatisfying dystopia? Whatever the answer, it is clear that Vancouver’s architecture and urbanism is unique. As a relatively young city that at the outset of the 21st century is still inventing itself, it is exciting to witness so clearly in Vancouver the defining hopes, preoccupations, and struggles to realize the best possible city of the future.”

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