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Controversial ‘origami’ glass tower design struck down by Vancouver panel

The original design of a proposed waterfront glass tower, by architects Gordon Gill and Adrian Smith, failed to gain approval from Vancouver’s urban design panel.

The design for a controversial glass tower on Vancouver's waterfront that has been called everything from "origami" to "the blob" to "the icepick" didn't get approval in its first pass at the city's urban design panel.

The panel, a group of architects and engineers who provide advice to the city planning department, said the 26-storey tower crowded too close to the city's heritage Waterfront Station, a former train station that is now a central transit hub.

The current design, by internationally renowned Chicago architects Gordon Gill and Adrian Smith, shows a glass building rising from a narrow base close to the east side of the station and curving over its roof, with windows angled like the facets of a diamond.

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"I admire your work and I'm very happy to see you working on a project in the city," Vancouver architect Matthew Soules told the two. But, he said, "the proximity and overhang of the tower to the station is ultimately a disservice to the dignity of the station. By positioning the tower so close, it appears that (a future connecting road on the other side) is more important than one of the city's civic structures."

Mr. Soules, like others on the panel, said the 1914 station is one of this young city's few historic buildings and needs to be respected.

As well, the building, on a site that is currently a private parking lot between the station and the Steamworks restaurant and pub, doesn't do enough to make the public feel welcome, the panel said.

They noted that, whether owner Cadillac Fairview likes it or not, the public has come to see that parking lot – along with the view of the mountains and water from it – as their space. Cadillac Fairview also owns Waterfront Station.

Architect Jennifer Marshall suggested creating a winter garden that would extend through the lobby of the building, turning the whole ground floor, as well as the plaza outside, into a public space.

In spite of the criticisms, almost all the panel members agreed that the building fits with the city's future waterfront plan to have an office tower of that height and density there.

They also didn't have a problem with the very modern design next to the station, saying that many cities have shown that the blend of old and new can be attractive.

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The office tower, which is not a rezoning because it fits within existing height limits, has generated considerable public debate in the last two weeks, after a couple of prominent architects and planners complained about it.

Former city planner Ray Spaxman, who referred to the building at one point as the "Martian" that had landed, said the architects didn't seem to have considered the sensitivities of the historic buildings around when they came up with their design.

The city's heritage commission approved the design in the fall in a 6-2 vote.

It's not unusual for a prominent building to get sent back to the architects the first time by the city's urban-design panel, which operates more like an architecture-school design studio rather than a court.

In fact, Mr. Smith sat as a guest on the panel years ago to review what is now the new Trump project on Georgia Street, which didn't get approval the first time.

The two architects said they recognized the building was going to be a challenge from the start, because it has to fit into the existing city, with the historic buildings around it, but also lead the way to the future city.

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"The building is a gateway to that future," said Mr. Gill. "It's a future most people can't see yet."

As well, they had to work with numerous city restrictions, including Vancouver's notorious view cones meant to protect mountain views, various setbacks, and city planners' concern about not having the building hang over a future connector road that will be run between the tower and Steamworks when the waterfront is built out.

In fact, it came as a surprise to some members of the public that, according to the city's waterfront hub plan finalized in 2009, the downtown will be extended over the existing tracks and down to the waterfront behind train station. Several new towers are envisioned for that area.

Vancouver's general manager of city planning has said he's considering holding an open house so the general public can comment on the project.

The city has received about 100 messages from the public, pro and con, about the tower proposal, said Brian Jackson.

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