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Under Granville Bridge: part of Vancouver tower designed by Danish rock-star architect Bjarke Ingels.

Vancouver's most distinctive tower project in a century got an enthusiastic endorsement from the city's design panel this week.

That paves the way for an open house next week and public hearings later this year on plans for a striking set of buildings that panel member Peter Wreglesworth described on Wednesday as a "whole composition that is urban art."

The 497-foot tower, designed by the firm of Danish rock-star architect Bjarke Ingels, would rise from a narrow base next to the Granville Bridge and curve up and out for its 52 storeys.

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In contrast to the glassy look that has become a Vancouver staple, the tower's exterior would be covered with a lattice-work of bronze-trimmed balconies. Surrounding the tower at the bottom would be pie-shaped glass buildings – "prisms," as some panel members called them – that fit into the crevices created by the bridge's entry and exit ramps.

Those buildings would contain shopping, social housing and market rental apartments.

Mr. Wreglesworth, who is an architect, called the project an exciting mix that combines energy, grit, crispness, and light. Another architect, Mark Ostry, said it would "raise the benchmark for residential mixed-use development in the city."

The project is unusual for Vancouver because of developer Ian Gillespie's decision to hire a foreign architect as a way to add texture to a city that has been mostly designed by local architects.

Mr. Ingels, whose company recently opened an office in Beijing, has skyrocketed to fame in a short time with his playful and unusual designs.

It wasn't just the buildings by his company, Bjarke Ingels Group, that attracted positive comments at the Vancouver panel. The plan to develop a Granville Island-like retail and public space around and under the bridge got as much attention.

The design team is looking at turning the road that runs directly below the bridge into a ceremonial street that could be used at times for festivals, markets and concerts, lined by wide terraced sidewalks.

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Mr. Gillespie spent much of his time talking about the outdoor art gallery he wants to create.

In an illustration done for the panel, he showed a space where the underside of the bridge and the walls of the buildings on either side were covered with dramatic art photographs in light boxes.

Mr. Gillespie, who buys work from the city's internationally acclaimed photo-conceptual artists, said he'd like to see the space used to showcase artwork that defines the city. "An outdoor art gallery would celebrate what Vancouver has developed an expertise in."

The project still has several stages to go through before it is approved by the city, although it has jumped a major hurdle by getting urban design panel approval.

The project sits on one of the few sites in the city designated to allow "higher buildings." As such, the team had to prove that the project would make "a significant contribution to the beauty and visual power of the city's skyline."

The panel, with one exception, agreed that it did.

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The latest version of the design will be shown at an open house next week at which Mr. Ingels will be present. Then it has to go through public hearings.

It may benefit from the fact that the neighbourhood isn't defined or established.

An advocacy group called CityHallWatch, which monitors developments, has already indicated concerns about the project.

The tower's height, especially close to residential False Creek and the bridge entrance, is a problem, spokesman Randy Helten said. "The 497-foot height of such a building really only belongs in the central business district."

But Mr. Helten, who became a vocal watchdog of development in response to proposals for new towers in the West End three years ago, acknowledged that many people in his neighbourhood aren't paying much attention to the proposed tower because the site is on the fringe of the downtown's residential area.

The city's downtown business association, while generally favourable to new developments, also views it as outside its traditional boundary.

"It's kind of a no man's land there," said Charles Gauthier, whose association represents many Granville Street businesses a couple of blocks away.

The project, which would bring 700,000 square feet of residential and commercial space to what has been the nondescript entry point to the downtown, would likely change all that.

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