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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.

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