Architecture and city expression

Post by Eric Mang in

1 comment

Vancouverism 2.0: how about a future Vancouver City Hall (with a Geoff Meggs statue on top)?

Most of us know little to nothing about architecture, but we know what is meaningful and aesthetically pleasing to us once we see it. And sometimes we have only a vague conception of what moves us, a visual cue that plays out in our subconscious, evoking feelings that can’t easily be labeled or at least readily understood.

A city’s architecture is more than just utilitarian edifices containing people who are busy working, living or both. Urban architecture is about expression, about a city’s identity, about context and juxtaposition. An ugly building can mar the flow and appearance of a city even if that building maximizes whatever function for which it was designated.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For example, I like the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Some appreciate steel and glass cleaving the original Neo-Romanesque building. Some say it looks like mashed potatoes landed on old museum. And some think an alien spacecraft hurtled into the ROM. In other words, there are those who view the Crystal with joy (like me) and some with revulsion or laughter.

Vancouver is a young city and many of its buildings are relatively new. It has some architectural wonders like the Marine Building and some phallic, hubristic nuisances like One Wall Centre that, depending on your perspective, ruin a gorgeous view – assuming you’re not in the Wall Centre (I lived in BC from 1998 to 2003, so I missed the construction of the even taller Living Shangri-La. Having not seen it in person, I can’t comment on it).

While I realize that Vancouver doesn’t have much room to grow but up, and while I prefer high-density living to sprawl, can we change our skylines and explore and play with the character of our cities without erecting something dissonant and contrary to our urban spaces and senses?

In the Walrus, one of the best-written magazines around, architect Paul Merrick offers straightforward opinions on the city he helped to design and renovate:

[Merrick] glances over his shoulder at the massive shoal of the new Vancouver Convention Centre jutting out into the harbour, a structure he calls “a very sizable lost opportunity.” 

“They built out over the water, which I have no problem with. You put piles down into the water, and you can put thirty storeys on top of that if you want,” he says. “Instead, they put this big, ugly plug between the city and the water, and rendered its edges uninhabitable and unusable. Convention centres are great, they cause activity, but it’s very introverted activity. Why put it in front of the best view in town? They could have built the whole thing underground and doubled, or tripled, the waterfront, where people could go for light and air and pleasure.” 

We head east on Cordova Street, past the Woodward’s Building condos, with their handsome, forest-motif iron balconies. “An interesting idea,” he says, “though I’m not sure of its application — you’re on the twenty- seventh floor, and you’re looking out your window at that spectacular view through a silhouette image of nature?”

We drive into Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, and he likens the city to a teenager whose body is maturing after a long adolescence that has lasted from Expo 86 to next February’s coming-out party. As we turn up Carrall and shuttle along Hastings to Main, he says, “It’s really not that hard to imagine this as a conifer forest, with a few native settlements huddled at the water’s edge. Sometimes, I think about how [this is] a state only twice as old as I am now. When I was born here, the city was only halfway through its present life, and it has, like a lot of things, been growing exponentially. It’s this beautiful place [whose beauty] went very much unrecognized until halfway through its recent history. In inhabiting it, we’ve done more to malign the beautiful place than to enhance it. That is changing, but that’s where we’re coming from.” 

As we re-shape our cities, meeting needs of the present and future, imbuing each new project with more than a modicum of sustainability (many new condos in Toronto have glass exteriors and while these look visually appealing, highly conductive glass is not the wisest material to use in a climate where temperatures plunge deep and icily into the negatives and steamily soar into the positives) we need to think about how people move and live in urban spaces.

A city is organic and dynamic and should be celebrated and venerated with bold concepts and aesthetic ideals; not milquetoast design or pointless use of space.

Something to think about as our populations grow and our demographics shift.

1 Comment

No beef with Merrick, and I love architects, but every one of them I speak to likes to rip Vancouver for its various shortcomings, lack of height, etc. There's no doubting that we've scarred our city with a lot of architectural ugliness, and that we're making some progress. The Olympic Village is a good example of somewhat pleasing building design, although nothing that I would label as overly distinctive. What will make the Athlete's Village a great part of the city is its public square.

Merrick is all-wet when talking about the new Vancouver Convention Centre, and the suggestion that it lacks good public realm. I was walking on the seawall built just behind the Centre yesterday at noon and the place was PACKED. It was a bit like Seurat's paintings of Paris parks, everyone was quiet either reading books, staring at the North Shore, or in gentle conversation. I was so impressed that hundreds of people walked/hung out along this route I snapped a photo with my phone (see photo here).

While walking past the end of the seawall (which is still under construction while they build a new seaplane terminal) a bunch of 20-somethings ran out all carrying hockey sticks. Apparently they were playing street hockey on the new plaza during their lunch break, and had hit the ball too far (a good slapshot would put the ball in the ocean).

We continued to walk the seawall along in front of The Mill restaurant, which had a 10-minute wait for a table. Kids danced in the waterpark out in front.

Vancouver's edge was alive, in part because of the success of the Convention Centre's design. The city has really embraced this building, even if it may not make the A-list of any architecture critic. It also helps that the public are allowed to visit the building within, and admire up close the amazing green roof design.

We're making progress, albeit slowly, in the area of urban design. Hopefully more dialogue and the community of committed young architects who live here will push the envelope even further.

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