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Vancouver's architecture under the spotlight

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA: January 16th, 2010 - Visitors explore displays as well as the unique interior space of the atrium at the new Woodward's building in downtown Vancouver on January 16th, 2010. The, exhibit, entitlted "Vancouverism," is currated by Trevor Boddy and promotes some of Vancouver's arechitectural gems.

Simon Hayter/simon hayter The Globe and Mail

When tens of thousands of Olympic visitors arrive in this city next month, they're likely to come with stories about the glories of "Vancouverism" ringing in their ears.

The media often focus on Vancouver's unique forays into building the city, with its dense collections of glass towers set amid parks, seawall walks, social housing and Jetsons-esque monorail transit. And with the approach of the 2010 Winter Games, that interest has accelerated. The Los Angeles Times had a story on the topic just last week.

But one local architecture critic has developed an entire exhibit on Vancouverism, and he's ready to show visitors what he believes is truly original about Vancouver's urban experiments. Trevor Boddy, whose exhibit opened Friday in the atrium of a building that exemplifies the best of Vancouverism - Woodward's, says it's not what you may think. And it's not the glass towers or the seawalls.

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"There are some things we do that no one else does," says Mr. Boddy, who took a smaller version of the current show to London in the summer of 2008 and Paris in the winter of 2008-09. "We have density, but it's not just 'how high does it go.' It's the density and complexity of use. The hyper-example is Woodward's itself."

Woodward's, designed by architect Gregory Henriquez, combines market condos, social housing, Simon Fraser University's school for the contemporary arts, a drugstore, a grocery store, a bank, a daycare and government offices in a single block.

Mr. Boddy's exhibit, which consists of wood panels with pictures of buildings, some architectural models and chunks of building materials, shows off other examples of Vancouver's creative mash-up.

One is Surrey Central City, the suburban complex designed by architect Bing Thom that put an SFU satellite campus on top of a mall and then an office tower on top of that, all next to a transit hub. Another is Arthur Erickson's small but well-designed Waterfall building near Granville Island that combines offices, condos and a computer server farm in the basement. Excess heat from the farm is recycled throughout the building.

Besides Mr. Erickson and Mr. Thom, the exhibit highlights the work of several other architects, one landscape architect and an engineering firm.

Among them: James Cheng's Concord Pacific Marinaside complex, whose glassy towers at the foot of Davie Street define the new downtown Vancouver in many people's eyes; Peter Busby's futuristic Brentwood SkyTrain station; John and Patricia Patkau's Gleneagles community centre in West Van; and the Stuart Lyon-designed social housing at the Olympic village.

Landscape architect Margot Long's seawall and public spaces at the Olympic village are the only examples shown in the 28 panels that aren't individual buildings.

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The panels also highlight the work of the engineering firm Fast + Epp, the structural engineers who made possible the curved roof at the Richmond speed-skating oval, made from pine beetle-damaged trees. Their work with wood defines Vancouverism as much as anything else, Mr. Boddy says.

The emphasis in Mr. Boddy's exhibit on buildings and materials, rather than city planning or urban fabric, stems from his efforts to bring back the credit for Vancouverism to architects and engineers.

He says people have too often assumed that Vancouver's much-praised new forms of urbanism are mostly the product of a collaboration between politicians and planners.

So, although many writers - including the New York Times reporter whose definition of urbanism dominates the exhibit - have described Vancouverism as the combination of buildings with parks, public spaces and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, the exhibit focuses almost exclusively on architectural details or hagiographic photos of individual buildings.

The one exception is a 1955 sketch by Mr. Erickson of a future Vancouver.

The simple drawing shows a comprehensive view of the central city. In it, three spectacular, stepped towers soar over a continuous base of low-rise buildings dotted with parks. The mountains rise behind and a single, elegant bridge connects the downtown peninsula to Kitsilano.

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It is, says Mr. Boddy, "the Rosetta Stone of Vancouverism."

Vancouverism: Architecture Builds The City is on display in the atrium of the Woodward's project, entrances at 100-block West Hastings or 100-block West Cordova.

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