Time to build outside the box

With a new planner at the helm, the city has a chance to shake up the way it builds. And as the 2010 Olympics loom, there's a new sense of urgency, writes LISA ROCHON in Vancouver (note that this is an updated version of the original that appeared in print)

LISA ROCHON Thursday, January 11, 2007

Beneath every shift in the ground, every calamity, lies goodness -- and some troubling truths. Vancouver's chief uber-planner, Larry Beasley, has resigned his post to become a special adviser to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. With Beasley gone, the city has lost its tireless, shrewd deal maker and the maker of many urban design rules which were becoming, frankly, oppressive. A rip in the fabric of the city has opened.

What once was a dense rain forest at the edge of Stanley Park overlooking Burrard Inlet has been demolished by wind. There's a feeling of unrest. Maybe now Vancouverites will start to yearn for urban grit and daring in design - for the unpredictable sleight of hand. Remarkable bones have been laid down; now architecture needs to start shaking up convention.

It's hard to imagine Vancouver without Beasley, its urban godfather. Actually, Beasley was the co-director of planning along with Ann MacAfee. He muscled his way into prominence, demanding what no other city planner in Canada could ask from developers, ensuring plenty of public amenities, spearheading major new high-density developments that were the envy of North America. MacAfee looked to long-range planning schemes and made the administration tick along. Now the co-directors have been replaced by one person. Brent Toderian, 37, a planner who actually always wanted to be a lawyer, with nine years working for a workhorse planning consultancy based in Kitchener, Ontario before becoming chief subdivision planner in Calgary, the Canadian city with the fastest growing suburbs.

Sounds crazy, I know. But Toderian is a good-natured player with a desire, he says, to create some iconic architecture in Vancouver. "Vancouver is in an ideal situation," he says. "The quality and consistency of architecture and urban design is there and yet we're in this fascinating discussion about the potential monotony of it." In the past, he has worked against overwhelming odds in small town Ontario and the fringes of Calgary to attempt to effect change. Most recently, he was Calgary's manager of centre city planning and design, a force behind a new centre city plan, and special downtown projects such as the expansion of the Calgary Stampede. He doesn't have the depth of experience nor the vision of a Larry Beasley. But, he's young and has energy to burn. Maybe that's what Vancouver needs, an upstart with a sunny disposition who'll let architects design. "I'm looking to positively influence the community here to positive risk taking."

Over the last decade, Vancouver has developed a culture of urban rules rather than a culture of great design. There are rules for just about any move an architect might want to make. Vancouver needs to loosen its attachment to the rules, and allow architects to design. There are endless view corridors or 'cones' that need to be respected. There is the eighty foot width between towers. There is the requirement to step back buildings to minimize shade, and the need for window walls to allow for natural light. There are areas zoned to height limitations of 250 feet, or 350 feet or, in rare exceptions, 650 feet. There was the favoured park of symmetry. Beasley saved the city from harsh, unforgiving developments. Maybe he also prevented astonishing, unbounded architecture from happening. The same kind of charge has been leveled against the chief planner of Berlin, Hans Stimmann, who, coincidentally resigned one month after Beasley after reigning high and mighty for 15 years. Stimmann's vision restricted building heights to about six to eight storeys high, established a particular ratio between masonry and windows and required the use of stone. The city is a gem of urban rigour - and sameness.

"It's a huge challenge for the new director," says Bing Thom, the prominent Vancouver architect. "We've become a victim of our own success. There's smugness and fear of change. The planning department knows what it wants, the architect knows what the planning department wants and nobody dares to rock the boat. Everybody is in bed together. The podium tower formula keeps getting stamped out in Vancouver, because everybody knows that will get quick approval."

Bing Thom should know - he's tried to rock the boat in Vancouver. His design for the Hotel Georgia Tower, one of the city's most coveted sites and historic properties, featured a sexy crystal tower, its upper levels sculpted like shards of ice with sharp angles and myriad corners
(photo). Maybe it was a matter of too much building program and an inability for the developer to finance the project, says Larry Beasley from his Vancouver home office. "It didn't surprise me when there was a sale of the property and new architects and new attitudes," he says, referring to the purchase of the hotel by its new developers, the Singapore-based Delta group with Goodman Real Estate of Seattle. Now, the proposed tower by IBI/HB Architects and Endall/Elliot Associates has been squared up and dumbed down. The promise of high-tech wizadry such as solar panels on the exterior doesn't help with the pain. The hotel closed on January 2 in order to prepare for the massive $275 million renovation. One of the city's golden opportunities to produce something astonishing has been lost.

"The Beasley regime was so formulaic," charges James Cheng, another of Vancouver's major architects who designed the 60-storey Shangri-La luxury hotel and residence currently under construction on West Georgia Street in the city's downtown. The sleek, minimal design will become Vancouver's tallest tower when it opens in 2008 and is expected to rise about 20 storeys above its neighbours.

Beasley himself agrees that the time is ripe for making great architectural statements in the city, opportunities that will present themselves through the reinvention of cultural institutions such as the Vancouver Art Gallery. But, all kinds of statements have been made with residential towers, from Chicago's Lakeshore Drive apartments (1952) by Mies van der Rohe to some of Calatrava's spiralling dreams. And Cheng argues that Vancouver needs to break the formula of townhouses and point towers and reach for a more expressive, exuberant architecture in residential design.

Iconic architecture can also come in small packages. And every commission in Vancouver needs to count. The design of the Olympic Athletes' Village has been a process fraught with kingmakers, loads of money and the inappropriate selection of the original architect. The Millennium Group purchased the 2.5 hectare site for the otherworldly sum of $193 million. Its owners, the Vancouver brothers Peter and Shahram Malek, have produced a portfolio of Beaux-Arts wannabes in Burnaby, Vancouver and West Vancouver and it isn't surprising that some of their buildings are designed by the American star of "modern traditionalism" Robert Stern who is also the dean of Yale University's School of Architecture. Shahram Malek says they asked Stern to take on the design of the village's signature building at Parcel 4 located directly on False Creek. Stern imagined, says Malek, a glass, modern building to fit within the small-scale of the masterplan. But, public perception was against Stern and his conservative architecture and Malek asked Stern to leave the commission in order to save the image of the Olympic Village. The profile of the village and its potential as an important statement about contemporary architecture was further damaged by Bob Rennie, Vancouver's real estate agent extraordinaire and the marketing force behind Millennium Group's village. He described the concept for the site as a "fishing village" - something, says Malek, that he regretted five seconds later. Now, Merrick Architecture and GBL Architecture is being put through the wringer to transform parts of the so-called fishing village into something that looks like it belongs to Vancouver. Two days ago, the architects submitted plans to the urban design review panel for a series of pavilion buildings with flat roofs that serve as heavily landscaped gardens. Things are looking up, says Scot Hein, head of the City of Vancouver's urban design studio. "An innovative and exuberant architecture has replaced what was there before. The French classical fishing village has gone by the way side." In fact, the city has approved rezoning of the site and most of the designs for individual lots have gone through design review panel and been approved.

But, the struggle is far from over. Since Robert Stern gave up the commission in the fall, Arthur Erickson Architect has been hired to take over the site Stern was going to work on, as well as a community centre in joint venture with Walter Francl Architect. "It's hectic," says architect Nick Milkovich, the long-time partner of the legendary Arthur Erickson. "I'm worried that we can't do justice to it and we'll be designing as they are pouring foundations." With Beasley, the city organized an environmental clean up of the site, which historically served not as a fishing village but as a place of industry and saw mill operations. An island in the shape of an egg, to be reached at low tide on foot, is being built. How to create sustainable water and energy infrastructure is being carefully studied. But, don't ask for remarkable architecture - there's no time for that. The city established the 6 - 13 storey massing of the Olympic Village long ago. And now drawings for development permits for Erickson's residential complex need to be delivered in one week to the city. "There's not much play there," says Milkovich. "It's so hectic that I don't know if design adventure is part of the game. It's just getting it done."