When Richard Henriquez arrived in Vancouver in 1967 the old Sylvia Hotel in the West End was still considered a high-rise, along with the Marine Building and the Hotel Vancouver, and a few others.
There was no Pacific Centre shopping mall. Downtown Granville Street was mostly small storefronts. When the city helped the developer assemble land for the underground mall, there was an outcry that the mall would be turning the street inward. They weren’t wrong. Granville Street, once a vibrant neon district, fell into a state of gloom.
“That was game changing,” says Mr. Henriquez, who would go on to design some of the city’s most iconic architecture.
His narrative style of architecture, which considers history and context, is the subject of Richard Henriquez: Building Stories, a 30-minute documentary by filmmakers Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome, who also made the internationally successful 2012 film, Coast Modern. Their new film is featured at the fourth Vancouver Architecture & Design Film Festival held from Nov. 9 to 12, at the Hollywood Theatre and VIFF Centre. New York architect Kyle Bergman founded the festival in 2009 and several cities have joined since.
Mr. Bernard says the film festival will be of interest to the general public, which has an increasing appetite for design.
“Maybe as space becomes more compressed people are more considerate of it,” Mr. Bernard says. “I feel like people are clueing-in to how design affects your life. We don’t just unfurl a concrete carpet and everything is great.”
Mr. Bernard, whose great uncle was West Coast modern architect Ned Pratt, says that most Vancouverites recognize Mr. Henriquez’s buildings without knowing that he designed them.
Mr. Henriquez, who is almost 82 and perhaps best known for the mark he’s left on the West End, has a new project in that neighbourhood at 2030 Barclay St., a luxury 19-unit condo development near Stanley Park.
But his beginnings are more humble, and he says it took him nine years to start earning a decent income in his profession. His first project, a renovation of a little clinic in South Granville, is still there. He’d go on to design the city’s first condominiums and some of the first landmark skyscrapers, helping define the look of Vancouver.
But if he had a hand in transforming a small city on the coast, it was only the start. There’s little doubt the city will continue on a path toward much greater density in the next decades, with record-level immigration expected to arrive.
“In terms of where the city is going, it’s going to be a different place in the future, it really is,” says Mr. Henriquez, who is chair of non-profit Urbanarium, which offers a platform for architects, planners, and others, to discuss urban issues.
One solution to the affordability crisis, he says, is that people use their housing the way they used to; to house multi-generations, the way he did as a boy. A house could be redeveloped into several units and a community could be created, rather than putting seniors into homes, for example. Subsidizing should be done within families, not the government, he says.
Part of the problem has been in the inflow of global wealth, which has driven land costs.
“We have a package of amenities that are second to none, and so they bid up the price of the land.”
His first big break as a young architect was in 1975, when he designed those familiar red-roofed co-op housing enclaves at False Creek South. A brick condo building built by a Winnipeg developer followed, located at Davie and Denman streets – only the second strata building in Vancouver at the time. The 10 units were two storeys with three bedrooms and these were the days before the presale, so the units sold after the building was finished. Mr. Henriquez’s wife designed the interior of the show suite. The developer sold it, and then she designed another show suite, and sold that one.
“We kept selling the show suite, which is really stupid,” he says, laughing. “It took a while to sell.”
“They had just put out condo legislation where you could get a mortgage on a strata lot, and people were very nervous about condos in the early days. It didn’t take off right away, the condo. It took a number of years to get established, where people became comfortable that the strata councils would be okay to work with.”
He was involved in the design of many buildings in the 1980s so familiar to many. He helped turn the historic Sinclair Centre into an atrium, and he designed the BC Cancer Research Centre so that its wall of windows resembled circular petri dishes.
He added an apartment tower on the small parcel of land next to the Sylvia Hotel on Beach Avenue so that it kept up with the new definitions of high-rise. By then people in apartments had started to complain that their views were being blocked.
“That’s when I started to think about building skinny highrises with view corridors.”
Mr. Henriquez had grown up in rural Jamaica and felt at home in nature, fly-fishing and climbing mango trees. The Henriquez family, who are Jewish, had escaped persecution and fled the Iberian Peninsula for Jamaica in 1675. When he was a child during the Second World War, his father, a fighter pilot, was shot down. He eventually tracked down his gravesite in Poland. Mr. Henriquez is writing a book about his family, so that the next generation understands where they came from.
In his Point Grey home, he has a collection of animal skulls, driftwood and seashells among his treasures. Models of the buildings he has designed are kept on shelves in a tall circular room in his home that has a glass floor and round skylight. He calls it the Memory Theatre, or, “a microcosm of my world.” It was a solo exhibition of his at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the early 90s, a series of cabinets that formed a round room. The exhibition is now a part of his house.
His house, he says, is probably his favourite design. He renovated the 1938 home 36 years ago, lifting it so that it’s now several levels, a contemporary open main living area with the original living room up above. He has a fondness for old buildings.
“I thought architecture should be much more unique if it developed out of the actual site itself, and the history of it. The design resonated with the history of the site, then it would have more meaning to me,” he says.
“The idea is you want to make the building a unique place in the world, and you take inspiration from, it could be the people working there, the work done in there, or the site.”
He was making ecological statements at a time when the phrase “climate change” wasn’t part of the lexicon. When he designed Trent University’s Environmental Sciences Building in Peterborough, Ont. in 1991, he included a ground hog ramp so that small animals could find their way to the roof. The green roof is still used to grow produce for the student-run café.
Back in Vancouver, his Eugenia Place tower overlooking English Bay made headlines because he topped it with a 15-year-old pin oak tree. The pin oak was chosen because it could withstand the wind. Unfortunately, the original tree died, but has since been replaced.
“I wanted people to consider that we live in a historical continuum, rather than just in the here and now. When you live in the here and now you go for it and indulge yourself and the planet pays the price. So it’s an ecological statement if you like.”
The 80s were economically tough years for the city, and his firm was a small one.
“I wouldn’t say we took off,” he says of the firm’s growth. “It was tough to keep enough work. Our office was nothing like it is now, what Gregory has done with it,” he says of his architect son Gregory, and their firm, Henriquez Partners. Gregory, a well-known architect, also appears in the film.
Mr. Henriquez credits his son, famous for the Woodward’s Building and Telus Gardens, for taking the firm to the next level. They each have their own projects as lead designers.
Mr. Henriquez’s new project at Barclay is a 10-storey building with two suites a floor, and it will appeal to the high-income buyer. He’s also working on the Coal Harbour school complex, which has seven storeys of social housing and a daycare.
The film is one honour among many paid to Mr. Henriquez in his long career. He received the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Gold Medal and in 2017, he was made a member of the Order of Canada.