The convergence of Main Street and Kingsway is one of Vancouver's most important intersections. Main Street follows the pathway of an old salmon stream named Brewery Creek and Kingsway was once the gold rush-spawned New Westminster trail.
Now the historically significant, culturally rich and rapidly gentrifying area is at the epicentre of a new real estate gold rush – as well as concomitant controversy about how (the "if" being a fait accompli) density should proceed.
But the first new mixed use development to be approved for rezoning in Mount Pleasant since the nearby Rize Alliance project (which has endured years of negotiating, public hearings and redesigns) may have solved the community conundrum in a neat architectural hat trick.
Arno Matis has designed a building that not only will engage with the community and provide much needed artists studio space and family-friendly housing, but also offers an aesthetically intriguing, if technically challenging, architecture.
For a neighbourhood known for its visual arts scene and quirky historical architecture, its contemporary built environment is sadly lacking. One hopes that AMA's (Arno Matis Architecture's) new nine-storey project – known as the Vertical Forest building – will become a neighbourhood design beacon.
Tapping into the energy of the city grid, the design reflects the meeting of the orthogonal and diagonal and the subsequent flatiron effect found at the intersection of Main and Kingsway. It gives the phrase "bringing the outside in" a whole new meaning.
Not only does it layer six different geometrical forms angled to produce passive solar heating and cooling and maximize view lines, it also filters light through a biomimetic skin of a unique wood veneered glass panel, designed especially for the project by AMA.
The rotational pull from diagonal to orthogonal creates a dynamic sense of movement in the building, but will also offer unique cantilevers transformed into landscaped terraces and tree canopies.
With a textured wood patterning layered into the glass – the building could read like an urban forest that filters light through the trees – or a contemporary façade with a pixelated microchip motif.
And with the likes of the new Hoot Suite (social media start up turned mini-empire) headquarters (converted from an old CSIS centre) in the area,Vertical Forest is very much about the intersection of the old and the new Mount Pleasant.
"I wanted people to remember that there was a pre-European history to this area," says the 48-year-old Matis, who studied at Harvard, and worked for Bing Thom, before setting out on his own seven years ago. "It was all forests and streams here – way before the Lee building [a neighbourhood landmark at Broadway and Main]."
But in many ways the historically important site is also a new gateway into the city. With north facing views opening up to downtown and the mountains, and Olympic Village spawned developments less than 500 metres away. While it's only a used car lot today, this is a site Mr. Matis is clearly enamoured of.
"When Amir Virani showed me the site," he recalls of his client – whose family fled Idi Amin's Uganda and went on to run a very successful Main Street foodstuff business called Golden Boy, "I knew it was the one."
While the one-and-a-half-year planning and approval process proved daunting, it did not dissuade either architect or developer from staying true to the aesthetic vision. Mr. Virani attended public hearings together with his architect, and listened to neighbourhood concerns.
"We did a walking tour with Mount Pleasant residents," recalls Mr. Matis, as he takes a Globe and Mail reporter on a similar one, "and one of their key concerns was that we avoid another 'cookie-cutter tower.' "
The innovative design of the Vertical Forest building is about as far from cookie cutter as one can imagine. And while it respects site lines and view corridors of neighbouring buildings, it also rather shows them up; It's not just their unimaginative design, but also the somewhat monolithic scale and massing that residents surely find offensive.
In contrast, while maintaining a contemporary edge, the Vertical Forest building has a feel for the fine grain of the area and the rich bohemian weave of the neighbourhood. It's one that includes, within a few hundred metres of the project, a heritage building converted into artist studios, a vintage clothing shop, the Main Street stalwart hang out The Whip, as well as residential and community development.
As Mr. Matis offers an impromptu tour of the east-facing back lane, which will house the four artists studios – set back to allow for privacy but also to engage with and animate the laneway – it's clear that the building opposite did not share his vision.
With brick walls, grills and loading bays facing the lane, it offers an indifferent shrug.
But soon, relates Mr. Matis enthusiastically, if current city plans are realized, laneways north and south of here will be pedestrianized.
And there is even talk of a park on 7th Avenue, which would stretch across to the edge of the library/community centre. Currently, three town homes are planned for this south facing side, envisioned as more family affordable units. And south and west facing residential and retail units – as well as a unique common area/roof deck – will benefit from glass canopies, allowing for outdoor social engagement in a city of rain.
The lucky few who score the penthouse suites will have the benefit of unimpeded north-facing city views.
But they might also be tempted to gaze out at the roof gardens and exotic cantilevers fashioned by Mr. Matis's geometrically intricate design that will offer a series of elegantly cascading terraces.
For the first time in a very long while, Vancouver may have a building that trumps the view, even as it embraces it.