While the new bike lane project on Point Grey Road has caused controversy from a municipal planning perspective, there’s been little discussion about how it might affect new residential design in the area.
One of the city’s oldest residential neighbourhoods, it is now home to some of Canada’s most expensive waterfront properties.
The area had a reputation for being conservative – both in a social and a design sense – until a 1960s intervention by architect Arthur Erickson that inserted five modernist town homes on the north side of Point Grey Road.
Their orientation to the south, facing the street, broke with tradition, as most homes to that point had faced north to take in the view of sea and mountains. The project was also the area’s first multiunit development. Traffic noise was mitigated by a garage, which acted as a buffer to an inner courtyard garden that lead to the actual residential area.
In the late 1990s, Patkau Architects added the concrete Shaw House to the street; it has become a favourite pilgrimage site of archiphiles and students of architecture.
The newer villas have opted for south-facing façades, effectively walled off to the busy street. That tradition continues with a villa for Lululemon billionaire Chip Wilson designed by Russell Hollingsworth.
But some observers say the soon to be pedestrian and cycle friendly Point Grey Road presents an opportunity for cutting-edge use of public space that could liberate its residential design.
Vancouver architect Tony Robins, currently designing two houses on adjoining lots on Point Grey Road, says less traffic will be a design positive factor.
“Instead of the traditional walled off south-facing area, new residential design can now be opened up into more street friendly glazing and landscaping,” he says.
Since council voted in favour of the new bike lanes, he’s been able to alter his own designs for the two new modernist homes.
“A large façade deflecting noise has gone and the windows now face the street. The deck is also open to the street and a planned white-noise-producing water feature is no longer necessary,” he explains.
Previously, buildings turned their backs on the traffic noise, he notes, “meaning turning away from the street and therefore symbolically the ‘community,’ and focusing on the view and privacy.”
The design required to solve the sound issue, he contends, resulted in a sense of alienation, with “blank walls and no sense of occupancy.”
The new plan for Point Grey Road “allows for more windows and a possible street aspect to the frontage. It also increases the livability of the homes by providing south sun, all day.”
In addition, he notes that the tight road width and small front yards have meant “a dangerous need to ‘back out’ for these houses.”
For his own Point Grey Road project, a planned “car turning circle” to allow cars to enter the property and leave it facing forward, has now been eliminated.
“I have heard that the only problem living in the area,” says Mr. Robins, “is the lack of community.”
He hopes that allowing both sides of the street to share more of the urban space outside their homes, “instead of it being a manic thoroughfare for cars,” will help alleviate this sense of isolation.
Scot Hein – a planner at city hall – agrees.
“There are opportunities to open up edges on the north side of the street – humanizing and normalizing Point Grey Road. The more pedestrian friendly the street the better the relationship between streetscape and house.”
“When houses don’t back onto the street,” notes Mr. Hein, “you get more ambient light spilling from residences onto public domains – and a safer and surveillable environment.”
In many ways, the area is already on the vanguard of forward-thinking, public-space design – as it is distinguished by “pocket parks” that have ensured a public green space and waterfront view corridor.
While some critics of the new bike lane have made it out to be a private enclave for the rich, Mr. Robins sees it as a vehicle for crossing class lines – effectively uniting wealthy property owners with city cyclists and local pedestrians.
As for his own post-council decision redesign, he notes, “Architecture responds to the whims of such things, such changes of the rules” and says they can even be inspiring.
“Architects complain they are not free to do what they really want to do in Vancouver,” he relates, “but as James Stirling once said about L.A., ‘I can’t design a building there, there are no constraints.’ We thrive on nuances of the codes. Here’s a new one that makes the architecture there change for everyone’s benefit. Now the houses on the north side face two sides, the multimillion-dollar view and Kitsilano.”
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