Vancouver skyline may take dramatic turn with proposal for innovative new buildings
This proposed Vancouver residential tower designed by architect Ole Scheeren has been compared to blocks from a Jenga game and features protruding horizontal units.
VANCOUVER — For all the accolades it receives for its quality of life, Vancouver can’t seem to shake its reputation for ho-hum architecture.
A viral video essay posted on YouTube this week by filmmaker and freelance editor Tony Zhou lamented the fact that Vancouver never plays itself in the movies and compared the city to a giant backlot filled with “anonymous buildings that can stand in for anywhere else.”
But this West Coast city appears to be on the cusp of a turning point in terms of its design aesthetics, some experts say. A handful of prominent local and international architects have recently proposed designs that break away from the sea of slender, glass-walled towers and could dramatically redefine the downtown skyline.
“It’s heartbreaking to architects and planners to be told all we have created is a generic backdrop for Lexus car commercials. But that being said, the public does often view these elegant glass towers as very boring,” especially when compared to more dramatic buildings in Sydney, Shanghai, Dubai and Moscow, said Michael Geller, a Vancouver architect and urban commentator.
“Even when I’m looking at them I don’t believe what my eyes are seeing. In Moscow, when a building twists, it really twists.”
A cluster of innovative new buildings has been proposed at the entrance to downtown Vancouver near the city’s iconic Stanley Park.
One of them, a 48-storey residential tower, seems to take its inspiration from the building-blocks game Jenga. Designed by German architect Ole Scheeren, the tower features protruding horizontal modules — a stark contrast to the clean lines of most high-rises.
“Like many cities today, (Vancouver’s) skyline is dominated by verticality — extrusions of generic towers that don’t engage their environment and create isolation rather than connection,” reads the project’s promotional materials.
Another building, a 40-storey high-rise designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, features exaggerated concave shapes that make it appear portions of the lower and upper floors have been hollowed out.
Developers have also turned to local architects to shake things up. A proposed 26-storey tower designed by Vancouver’s Gregory Henriquez has evoked comparisons to the Japanese paper-folding art form, origami. The actual inspiration came from the wings of seaplanes and hang gliders’ kites.
Meanwhile, Vancouver architect James Cheng has designed a 50-storey tower that is inspired by the obelisk design of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Instead of going straight up, his three-sided building tapers at the top.
Vancouver’s downtown has largely been built up in the last couple decades, using the same technology, materials and styles, Cheng said. Now, there’s a growing appetite to build not just “background buildings” but “foreground buildings,” he said.
“We’re reacting to all the boxes that have been created over the last 20 years.”
This departure should come as welcome news to Zhou, whose video essay, Vancouver Never Plays Itself, had received about 300,000 views by Tuesday afternoon.
Zhou, who is based in San Francisco but was raised in Vancouver, noted that the blandness of the city’s architecture has allowed it to stand in for countless locales, including Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., Oregon and Shanghai.
The city even passed for North Korea in the Seth Rogen/James Franco flick The Interview.
To Hollywood producers, Vancouver is a location but not a setting, Zhou said. It offers oodles of talent, scenery and tax incentives — making it the third largest film production city in North America after Los Angeles and New York — but “almost no film identity of its own.”
Not everyone agrees with the assertion that the city’s architecture is all drab and no fab. Just take a look at the world-renowned works of homegrown talents, such as Arthur Erickson, said Brian Jackson, the city’s chief planner.
“Vancouver’s architecture is very competent. It is just that there aren’t many ‘wow’ buildings in Vancouver right now,” he said via email.
“What is happening is that because Vancouver is one of the world’s most livable cities, it is attracting the interest of international architects and developers who want to take architecture to the next level in terms of adding a level of detailing, materiality, and design that we haven’t seen in Vancouver before.”
But before Vancouver gets too carried away, there are some things that should be taken into consideration, experts say. One of the reasons why designs have remained relatively restrained is to not inhibit sightlines to the surrounding mountains and water.
While there is a growing trend right now among developers to hire celebrity architects to help market their buildings, the focus can’t be solely on creating a spectacle, Henriquez said.
Vancouver mustn’t lose sight of how a building relates to the surrounding community. “We’re as good as anyone” when it comes to designing spaces that incorporate residential, retail and green space, he said.
Form should follow function, Geller agreed. “Sadly, that is an idea that is getting lost with some of these dramatic shapes,” he said.
“I do worry when we have too many look-at-me buildings.”
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