Architecture reflects the consciousness of a society, where it's at and where it wants to go. So when an international sensation – the Danish free-styling architect Bjarke Ingels – comes along and lands skyscraper commissions in Vancouver on an intense triangular site next to the Granville Bridge, and in Toronto next to the modern-tony Shops at Don Mills, it's important to ask: Will he be allowed to soar in Canada?
For the corner of Beach Avenue and Howe Street, Ingels has been commissioned by developer Ian Gillespie – Vancouver's self-styled Medici of art and architecture, who hails not from Florence but Port Coquitlam – to create a skyscraper landmark on one of six freshly designated sites created in the city for extra-tall towers. BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) has proposed a twisting tower of deeply recessed windows, a kinetic building that resembles something chiselled out of Lego, a gateway rising – sashaying – above the Granville Bridge.
Gillespie's choice of Ingels is astounding, especially given the builder's long, unbroken loyalty to working with prominent architect Gregory Henriquez on complex social-fabric building projects such as Woodward's mixed-used development in Vancouver's Downtown East Side; and to creating, with point-tower man James Cheng, Shangri-La luxury hotels in Vancouver and Toronto.
For the assignment of the Granville Gateway, now proposed at 493 feet (150 metres), it was Cheng who encouraged Gillespie to look outside Canada. (James K.M. Cheng Architects will stay on as consultants.) Ingels is the founding principal of BIG, a hipster firm grown up, overnight it seems, to 100 architects in Copenhagen and another 30 innovating in New York. Their brand pushes off-the-wall ingenuity but also the need for intelligent, sustainable design, something Ingels himself has called "hedonistic sustainability."
BIG turns orthodoxy on its head – recommending a ski slope atop a waste-processing centre in Copenhagen, for instance, and shaping a proposed apartment building on the West Side of Manhattan like a pyramid hollowed out to offer a massive courtyard of greenery. With a boyish earnestness and rad-energy cool, something I noticed when I met him at his office in the Danish capital a couple years back, Ingels convinced the Danish parliament to allow him to actually move the Little Mermaid out of Copenhagen Harbour, through Chinese customs, and to the liquid heart of his Expo 2010 Shanghai structure, a crowd-pleaser for its bicycle ramp running around its double spiral.
In short, he's a cool guy. And even if you happen to be a blue-chip developer like Cadillac Fairview (which is wholly owned by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Fund), you want to get onside with Ingels and try out cool for a change – which is decidedly cool. And fun. Though the deal has barely been inked between Cadillac Fairview, Gillespie's Westbank and BIG, there will be an announcement this summer for a funky tower by Ingels to go up on the west side of the high-end Shops at Don Mills.
If Toronto planners were smart, they might wake up enough to truly engage Ingels and require him to bring all his Scandinavian intelligence on sustainability, and its natural connection to quality of life, to a city that could use it. As far as Gillespie is concerned, it's the Wild East in Hogtown, where there's no discernible requirement for an enduring material palette or, say, for thermal breaks in high-rise towers to lessen energy loss. "In Vancouver, we're way ahead of you. One-hundred and thirty-two condos going up right now in Toronto? What a wasted opportunity," says Gillespie, who together with his partner, Ben Yeung of the Peterson Group, is developing both the Granville Gateway and the glass-blade Shangri-La condo-and-hotel complex set to open on Toronto's University Avenue in August.
There are also wasted opportunities in Vancouver. Naturally breathtaking but architecturally placid, in many ways the city has long been a larger version of Whistler, without the ski bunnies. Rigorous urban planning and engaged – if conformist – review panels have produced a sensible-shoes approach to city-building in which brick or stucco townhouses anchor podium towers. "Yes, they should be talking about height, use and density," acknowledges Gillespie, who estimates the budget for the new Granville tower will be $400-million, thanks to a complex structure in which no two floors are the same, and because of expensive, highly efficient clear glass. "But they should keep their hands off architecture."
The Vancouver skyline is an amorphous, temporary-looking creation, dominated by a sea of green- and blue-glass condos. There's nary a great skyscraper been built since Arthur Erickson's deeply sculpted MacMillan Bloedel double towers were unveiled in 1969.
Here is the chance that Vancouver has waited for: unleashing architecture that does not capitulate to a planner's or review panel's notion of pat, feel-good formulas of urbanism, but is something as moody and powerful as the Coast Mountains. Vancouver boasts a well-educated and well-travelled population, one that has packed to overflowing lectures by the great Japanese modernist Tadao Ando and by Ingels, who will speak again at Vancouver's Chan Centre on April 12.
What I fear is that Vancouver's long tradition of handmaiden architecture may slay the dream of the BIG tower. Acclaimed Vancouver architect Bing Thom, who has landed important civic commissions in Washington and New York, understands my concern, but says that Vancouver is maturing past the time when there was a dangerous amount of inbreeding on the design-review panels – and an accompanying complacency for rule-bound forms. "There's a new direction in Vancouver," he says. "Everybody wants to loosen up a bit."
At 37, Ingels is considered young for a world-famous architect. He founded BIG six years ago after splitting from the Belgian-Danish architect Julien De Smedt. The two had worked together with Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam, and their designs share a love of towers expressed as stacked plates, elasticized Gumby-like buildings or structures that sprout iceberg peaks.
Vancouver, now is the time to bring it. Make this an extra-tall tower worth bothering to build. Allow its architecture to achieve the right kind of height and sense of proportion, even if it means breaking free of sacrosanct view corridors and height restrictions that require buildings to be lopped off, sideswiped or never built at all. Granville Gateway should likely go even higher, for an elegant curve of its torso. It's by building forgettable architecture and poking shards of insignificance into the sky that you damage the sublime profile of the mountains.
At the same time, get lyrical and get gutsy below the Granville Bridge, where the base of the tower should embrace a hybridized urban condition of street grit and human poetry. I'm thinking of the Meatpacking District in Manhattan, where the wildly popular High Line park hovers above a trim skating rink and the après-skate crêperie outside the lobby of André Balazs's Standard Hotel.
Why not use the BIG tower to step up the activation of the sleepy-time Vancouver waterfront? A beer garden under the bridge could work. Or a drive-in cinema. "We could create a really interesting scenario," says Bruce Haden, principal of Dialog, the Vancouver architect of record working with BIG as lead designers. "There's a possibility to create on-the-ground grit." These are words heaven-sent.
In 2010, Gillespie met Ingels for the first time at an Urban Land Institute event, where the architect was giving yet another public lecture. "We met, and compared ideas, and I showed him some of our work and I mentioned that I'd just moved to New York," recalls Ingels. " 'Ah, you're here,' Gillespie said to him. And he is – for what I believe will be a good long time.
For more on architecture and design from around the world, follow Lisa Rochon's blog, chasinghome.org .