A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver
“To observe the city’s architecture is to enter into the optimistic vision of its planners and designers and so to engage in the work-in-progress that is Vancouver. The city’s sense of becoming can at times be palpable – an unusual experience in the face of architecture’s qualities of stability and endurance.”
- From the guidebook’s introduction
Edited by Chris MacDonald in collaboration with Veronica Gillies (Douglas & McIntyre Publishers - 2010)
Review by Sean Ruthen, re:place magazine
With the recent publication of two similar architecture guidebooks of Toronto and Montreal, A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver
(D&M Publishers, 2010) completes the trilogy with a bang. Guided by Helen Malkin (who along with Nancy Dunton also assisted with the other two guidebooks), and with the support of the RAIC and Canada Council for the Arts, UBC Director of architecture Chris MacDonald and architect Veronica Gillies have assembled a smart and current collection of contemporary architecture from Vancouver and its region. As bookends to the projects presented, two essays by local architecture critic Adele Weder and UBC professor and architect Matthew Soules round out the guidebook. In all, the 58 projects presented, as categorized by the 21 environs that give the book its structure, unequivocally represent Vancouver’s more recently celebrated architectural achievements, with each project having already received numerous accolades in the form of architectural awards and publications.
The book aspires to be more than just a guidebook of local architecture’s ‘usual suspects’, but this, as it turns out, is quite a difficult thing to do, especially when given the small time period in which the book’s editors have chosen to frame its content – between Expo ’86 and the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Of the book's 58 projects, 35 are by Vancouver’s usual suspects - including Arthur Erickson (5), Peter Cardew (2), Peter Busby (7), Norm Hotson & Joost Bakker (2), James Cheng (2), Paul Merrick (2), Bing Thom (6), John and Pat Patkau (2), and Richard Henriquez (6). But perhaps more importantly, the next wave of Vancouver architects and designers are here also, including Battersby Howat, Martin Lewis, LWPAC, Acton Ostry, AA Robins, and Pechet & Robb.
There is also an aspiration in the book to debunk the ‘starchitect’ myth by offering up collaborations side-by-side with the individual firms, such as those that brought about the realization of the former Expo lands, the stations along the Millenium Line, the new Canada Line, the buildings and urban spaces realized for the sites for the Olympics, as well as the reopening of Woodwards. Perhaps the book’s most revelatory offering is the collection of modest but important buildings that have recently been realized for the University of British Columbia at Point Grey. A new building each by both Henriquez Partners
and the Patkaus
can now count themselves among many of the other architectural gems that have appeared at Vancouver’s university over the years, including the late Arthur Erickson’s majestic Museum of Anthropology.
As a ‘contemporary’ guidebook, the editor’s admit that the time period of the book regrettably omits the aforementioned museum by this Vancouver based master-builder, along with his Robson Square and Law Courts. Instead, we get his more recent projects realized in collaboration with Stantec and Nick Milkovich, perhaps as an exploration of what it means to be contemporary. Arguably, no book of Vancouver architecture would have ever been possible without Mr. Erickson’s early vision, and the book’s editors say as much as they dedicate the book to him, adding that “in his distinguished designs for Vancouver he has taught us all much about architecture, and much about what it might mean to be contemporary.”
Also significant is the inclusion of Vancouver’s heritage architecture as its been upgraded for modern building code standards, such that the book features the Electra, Mole Hill, and of course Woodwards - it could’ve also included the Marine Building and Sinclair Centre. Also absent are the still existing Expo buildings themselves, as Canada Place and the new Trade and Convention Centre could've been featured in tandem, as well as the old Space & Science Centre alongside the Olympic Village. But without doubt the guidebook’s greatest merit is its honesty, as it unflinchingly portrays the downtown east side and the way architecture can perhaps have a role in the healing of ‘Canada’s poorest postal code’ (the UBC school of architecture
itself has its downtown studio in the base of the old BC Electric Building). The book also devotes 45 pages to Vancouver’s satellite communities, featuring such projects as the Richmond Olympic Oval, Brentwood Skytrain Station, and Surrey Central City.
As an added bonus, accompanying the 160 colour photographs in the book are 40 plans and sections provided by the architects themselves, offering a visually rich graphic counterpart to the photography of Vancouver’s urban scenography. As such the book succeeds in appealing to the Vancouver local, while an excellent guide for tourists in much the same spirit as Harold Kalman
’s Exploring Vancouver
(1974, 1978, & 1993). As interesting as the projects themselves, the geographical regions the projects occur in are well summarized, and introducing some never before categorized areas of Vancouver. I was happy to see Point Grey and Commercial Drive, places often omitted from more conventional architecture guidebooks.
The editor’s candour is likewise refreshing, not pulling back from the controversies some of the buildings have created since their opening. As an example, for Library Square they point out how “the exterior elevations bereft of the two primary galleria entries remain dismal.” And the inclusion of infill projects in the downtown east side shows the inherent possibility of architecture to create positive change in what could be otherwise forgotten and abandoned city areas. And lastly, no book on Vancouver architecture would be complete without some mention of sustainability and environmental design. Many of the projects featured are, not surprisingly, LEED certified, while the book itself provides transit stops for tourists visiting each building or group of buildings.
Overall, the guidebook does not disappoint either as a tourist’s guide to contemporary Vancouver architecture, or as a folio for the local Vancouverite, featuring some of its newest and brightest urban projects (including the new Informs interior and hip 'Salt' in Gastown, both by Busby
). Along with some older post-Expo favourites, it makes for an indispensable reference for local architects and designers, historians and educators alike. Most importantly, with A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver
completing the set on the nation’s three largest cities, these books contest to a continuing thriving industry of national architecture despite our current economic slowdown, and are a testament to the talent, new and old, that collectively defines our architectural culture.
Sean Ruthen is an architect working, living, and writing in Vancouver.