Tony Robins’ black steel cube and glass house at 3691 Point Grey Rd. incited outrage earlier this month, as it nears completion. The architect says he’s received hate mail and phone calls from people who don’t even live in Vancouver, including one man in the Cariboo.
“About half the phone calls and e-mails have been congratulatory. Others are awful. I’ve received anonymous e-mails saying, ‘you’re a disgusting person,’” says Mr. Robins.
Los Angeles-based Loren Dunsworth, the listing agent for the house, says she’s also getting angry calls and “crazy e-mails.” She wonders if people have taken a look around at other new houses in the Lower Mainland – houses decorated with faux black marble and Roman columns.
“When people are referring to it as the ugliest house in Vancouver, that’s extreme. “My parents live out in Richmond, and it’s disconcerting to me when I see a house that comes all the way to the edge of the lot and they fill in the grass with cement and put stuff on the outside that looks like they couldn’t decide what style they were going with – or it was a double dare.”
Ms. Dunsworth says the property is owned by a Point Grey Rd. resident who has been a developer in Vancouver for many years. When it came onto the market, he jumped at it. He also jumped at Mr. Robins’ design. Now that he’s decided to sell it instead of live in it, it’s become a highly unique spec house.
“I think there’s such a huge real estate mark-up happening,” says Mr. Robins. “But it is very rare. Usually I design a house and the person moves in.”
Mr. Robins has designed many houses, won several awards and teaches architecture. Most will know his Boathouse Restaurant in Kitsilano, which was also the subject of controversy before it became widely praised.
Ms. Dunsworth says she’s had “a ton of interest,” in the cube house and “most of it has been local.” Already, she’s had 25 parties view the house, and it isn’t even listed yet. She plans to list it for between $8.5-million and $10-million, and market it in Los Angeles as well.
Once the house is landscaped with a Japanese-style garden complete with a reflection pond surrounding the house, she says the house will be striking. The main floor is all glass, and the upper floors are flooded in natural daylight from a huge skylight. There is a glass elevator to a four-car garage.
What’s more unusual than the house is the extreme public reaction to an original modern design that is tucked away in a quiet enclave of opulent waterfront homes. Meanwhile, the trend for far more confusing design is transforming the look of the entire city. Also, the Robins’ house is only 2,280 square feet, which is modest compared to the massive new houses. And it isn’t covered in unsustainable Styrofoam-type cladding and plastics such as so many of the new homes.
“I’m living in an area where almost every house around me has been changed to a new home,” says Mr. Robins. “The houses I love in Vancouver are the old turn-of-the-century-to-1920s-traditional-Carpenter-Gothic, however you call them.
“I love those, and I also love the [designs of] half a dozen architects doing really interesting new ones.
“I walk around with my eyes shut. It’s all an offence to me, really,” says Mr. Robins. “It seems driven by developers who think they know what the market is. There is the French colonial look, the very large house with tall columns, whatever that is meant to be. Fake style, fake materials. People think houses can be made very cheaply and it’s essentially fine, but it’s not. If you look at houses in a place like Switzerland, they probably have a 100-year life span and are beautifully made for longevity. Here, it’s slapping it up to sell.”
Architect and former senior heritage planner Robert Lemon has been going past the Robins’ house regularly, and he applauds the bold design.
“I have kudos for whoever at city hall approved that, because it’s the kind of thing the city should be encouraging – interesting new approaches to housing for the 21st century,” says Mr. Lemon. “Craftsman houses were modern houses of the day. They were popular and fashionable at the time. But instead of encouraging something that reflects the 21st century, we tend to get these hybrid clumsy buildings that really speak to no era at all. There’s no reason we should be building a copy of a Tudor revival or craftsman house. It’s ridiculous.”
The problem is, the city guidelines encourage conservative house design, says Mr. Lemon, who used to work at the city. He’d rather see the city downzone single-family house zoning so that if someone does tear down a fine old house, they can only replace it with a higher density dwelling. But the opposite is happening.
They’re building bigger, inferior houses.
“We’re struggling in creating new buildings and the irony is every new building replaces just one other building. We’re not increasing density at all – just changing one house for another. It’s certainly anti-green and unsustainable. We need to have a serious increase in density if we are going to accept losing an old house – because the old house was better than what is getting built.”
Historian and author Michael Kluckner has been mildly critical of the Robins’ cube as fostering an inward, anti-neighbour vibe, comparing it to all the homes around the city with their blinds and curtains drawn 24/7.
“When you hear people talk about Tony Robins’ house as being a pure form, and thing of beauty, I think, ‘sure, but it’s also a reflection of a way that a family at that socio-economic level wants to live.’” He adds: “The refreshing thing about the Robins’ house is that it isn’t yet another neo-traditional mansion. At least it’s different.”
Mr. Kluckner believes we are in another boom-bust cycle like Vancouver experienced prior to the First World War. British immigrants showed off their wealth with big craftsman houses that they occupied for a couple of decades. Those houses eventually got turned into rooming houses as the wealth subsided. This current wealth cycle is completely out of whack because they’re even bigger and only semi-occupied. And there isn’t enough space for that kind of housing use.
“The curiosity now is the city is effectively built out. There isn’t vacant property here, but we have a flood of international money coming in that builds stuff that doesn’t seem to fit with people’s lifestyles.
“It’s lose-lose. If you’re saying we are going to tear down all these cute little character houses and replace them with small apartment buildings and bungalow courts, or stacked townhouses, or any form of housing that would provide variety and more density, I would say, ‘let’s look at that – that’s going in a direction of a real neighbourhood building for contemporary Vancouverites.’ But instead, we’re just getting another generation of crazy houses.”
As for Mr. Robins, he is confident his unusual sculptural house will sell to an appreciative buyer. At first, he thought the buyer would be someone that just wants the four-car garage, but he’s feeling more optimistic.
“It would be sad to be lived in two weeks a year, but I can’t worry about that really.
“I think with all my houses there may be a reduced market, but a strongly interested market. It’s like buying an Italian sports car – there are fewer people, but they are fanatic.”