Architect Michael Green is having a busy month. Shortly after his wooden high-rise project was written up in The Economist, his first multifamily project in Vancouver, 6th & Willow, was unveiled to great applause.
Fittingly for an architect who marries a certain Canadian idiom to an internationalist style, the 25-unit townhouse complex takes Vancouverist values to the next level. At the crossroads of False Creek and the Cambie Corridor, the project respects both the urbanity of the area and its connection to the natural world. At the same time, it offers an intriguing interplay between the public and private.
Developed by Edwin Liang of Kenstone Properties, 6th & Willow offers the quality and gravitas of the single-family home, with the scale and massing of an urban dwelling.
The project’s Fairview Slopes locale is undergoing a second wave of densification after its Expo 86-inspired growth spurt, but to date the area has been without a clear design directive. Long filled with bland suburban-style townhouses and low-scale retail, recent zoning changes now allow for more urban-style mixed use and some sites are being redeveloped.
6th & Willow sits as a high-design anomaly in an area characterized by cookie-cutter condos and imitation arts-and-crafts style dwellings.
While traditionally, townhouses feature individual entrances or private balconies, this project presents a sinuous façade along 6th Avenue. The depth of the rugged, weathered steel screen allows residents to take in the street and city view to the north, while maintaining privacy.
The screen offers a sense of protection from the busy streetscape, but as suites are angled out along 6th Ave., the thin strips of steel also offer a surprising sense of delicacy, with the curvilinear line wrapping around the corner and up Willow Street, creating a flatiron effect.
From the inside, the north-facing suites looking out to 6th Ave. embrace the street, rather than try to repel it, as some of the fortress-like frontages of other buildings in the area can do. The glazing lets residents feed off the energy of the streetscape, but remain far enough above it to enjoy the continuous stream of silver SUVs and Smart cars that contrast with the weave of conifers across the street and the mountains in the distance.
An inner courtyard offers a different version of this river of traffic and green, with a winding, asymmetrical path offset by concrete benches that are illuminated at night. White aluminum cladding absorbs whatever colour the sky is; on an overcast day it turns luminescent grey, and at sunset, a bright ochre. The interiors, with a minimalist palette of oak floors, natural stone, white walls and clean modern fixtures, also act as a blank canvas where residents can add their own personalities.
One of the qualities of Mr. Green’s design is a sense of being in a series of articulated spaces. Looking out to 6th Ave., one feels in the street, and walking toward the courtyard from within the interior there is already a sense of being drawn in and then enveloped by it. For an area that has long suffered from a lack of definition, 6th & Willow offers a refreshing sense of place.
“The idea we had,” says Mr. Liang, “was to create an intergenerational yet wholistic community.”
Just as the demographic for the 25 units will shift from singletons to young families to empty nesters and adult children living with aging parents, so too do the units – while expressing a unified aesthetic – differ in size and shape. A one-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot town home on the south side off Willow St. stands out as the “bachelor pad” of the place – with its huge double-height living/entertaining area and ample balcony. Its neighbour offers more family-style living, with four bedrooms spaced over three levels. Here, children’s rooms on the bottom level are more than mere afterthoughts; they are deep, light-filled spaces where kids can dream and play. Other units offer a skylight hatch that opens onto a rooftop deck.
But while units express individual personality, everything is designed with a sense of community in mind. Citing the recent Vancouver Foundation study that named social isolation as the city’s leading malaise, Mr. Green says he “started with the courtyard as the central gathering space” and worked from there. Residents must exit from the parking garage through a common area that also leads to their mailboxes, and the courtyard is, in effect, their collective “front stoop.” Privacy issues are mitigated by the use of translucent coloured glass over bathroom and bedroom areas, while stairwells are glazed, allowing for light to penetrate deep into the space.
Mr. Green cites Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute as a seminal influence, and one can certainly sense an affinity in the long, narrow pathway that disappears not into a Californian horizon, but to the west into an overcast Vancouver vista and to the east into a sculptural wall.
“Buyers are more sophisticated and discerning now,” says Mr. Liang, who notes there is a growing market for multifamily dwellings that are aesthetic, as well as monetary investments.
While Mr. Green says he hopes 6th & Willow will “take Vancouver design into the next millennium,” it’s also a development that addresses Mayor Gregor Robertson’s concern, stated during a speech at last week’s Urban Land Insitute conference, that the city has a gap between single-family homes and condos that needs to be filled.
And if the excited mix of hipster couples, grandmothers and their grandkids, and downsizing empty nesters who flooded the courtyard at this week’s grand opening is any indication, the project may just be a prototype for a new kind of urban village.
Editor's Note: The print edition of this story misspelled the author's first name. This online version has been corrected.