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A condo on the rocks Add to ...

Shoal Point is named for the underwater rocks that guard the entrance to Victoria's Inner Habour. A new Shoal Point - the huge, and hugely-flaky 141-unit condo development of that name - now stands sentinel there, the latest in a series of bad designs that have come to disfigure one of Canada's most scenic cityscapes. This is one shipwreck of housing development.

There is, however, some glory in so eccentric a wreck as this. Lifting a number of its ocean and shore fauna motifs from the Vancouver Marine Building's Art Deco embellishments, the $110-million Shoal Point boasts the most lavish integration of representational sculpture into the architecture of a Canadian condo tower. Shoal Point's entranceways, cornices, window surrounds, garden walkway lights, and even bathroom exhaust vents are encrusted with marine-themed concrete casts, each of them mass-produced from Victorian Derek Rowe's clay originals.

It's as if some overdone Edwardian clipper has been raised from the bottom of the sea, dripping with barnacles of calcified mermaid and maritime life. At the conning tower up top, facing out to the open Pacific, is developer David Butterfield's own three-storey penthouse unit, "designed along cosmological lines," he told me. The Victoria developer went down with his ship once before - the rejected eco-village of Bamberton 40 kilometres north - but good will for that project's thwarted green ambitions helped smooth planning approvals. With a ratio of constructed floor space to building site area of 3.25 to 1, this is the densest large-site condo development Victoria has seen to date.

Shoal Point's architecture is so Neo-Edwardian it looks like it was conceived in the Bengal Room of the nearby Empress Hotel, having a Bombay Sapphire swagger to its lines and looking, for all the world, as if Colonel Blimp took up a late career in apartment design. Shoal Point has become the B.C. capital's 'love it or hate it' condo project - one that radically divides public and professional opinion. Architects, artists and residents in nearby James Bay tend to hate it, or else patronize Shoal Point with evaluations like "It's so bad it's good." Evidently, key swaths of the public love it - New-Agers, sustainability advocates, and empty-nesters from Alberta - as all that remains for sale is one $4.5-million penthouse.

The problem at Shoal Point is less the livability, sustainability and development ambitions of David Butterfield than the architecture, conceived by Vancouver's Paul Merrick. I have no problem with the high overall density of the project, because packing more people into key near-downtown sites will help transform Victoria into a true city from its current status as a provincial market town. But Merrick's design will only confuse matters, enforcing the lingering notion that Victoria's identity is Victorian.

I think the basic configuration of the building is fine - a large flat U-shape to catch the southwestern sun, sheltering a finely-landscaped public garden. Behind the symbol-laden facade, there is much to admire, including innovations in energy-conserving rain screen masonry walls. The planned use of seawater as a heat and cooling source got the kibosh from unsympathetic federal harbour authorities, but other green features did get built in.

Still, the package is a bizarre one. For a replanted prairie person, I have a remarkably high tolerance for West Coast flakiness: hitch-hiking from Edmonton for a Stanley Park Easter "Be-In;" visiting Fantasy Garden while Bill Vander Zalm lived there as Premier; even touring the glass house outside Creston constructed by a retired undertaker entirely out of the formaldehyde bottles he collected during a lifetime of embalming.

Despite this, Shoal Point's over-the-top ornament has made me a retroactive convert to early 20th century Viennese architect and theorist Adolf Loos.

In an early application of Freud's ideas to the visual arts, Loos shaped the Modern Movement in architecture by suggesting that "Ornament is Crime." If so, ever-embellishing architect Paul Merrick should be locked up.

For buildings of three stories and less, Paul Merrick is one of British Columbia's best architects. His Ron Thom-influenced library for the University of British Columbia's School of Medicine at West 12th and Heather is Vancouver's best reading room.

An earlier medically-related building was Mr. Merrick's first downtown high rise, and the source of the undoing of his critical reputation.

McCarter and Nairne's Medical-Dental was second only to the same architect's Marine Building as top Art Deco fave for Vancouverites.

Not only did Mr. Merrick serve as designer for the project that destroyed the Medical-Dental Building, but he played with its remains - salvaging elements for re-insertion into his inferior building, making casts of the demolished building's oversized nurse-as-caryatid sculptures.

The Georgia Street building's ghoulish post-modernism embellished with mass production ornament is the direct parent of Shoal Point's over-emphatic fawning fauna. Mr. Merrick is still doing high density housing, and was picked by Millennium Developments to replace New York classical revivalist Robert Stern for the design of nearly one third of South East False Creek Olympic athlete's village.

It is not clear if the world media and international skiers and skaters will be greeted in 2010 by prancing porpoises, ravenous ravens or mellow mermaids. Let's hope not.

tboddy@globeandmail.com

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