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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Paradise Makers 1 – Architects

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SFU City Program at Harbour Centre

Audio Podcast

In the programme this is entitled “The Challenges of Today’s Vancouver” but it seemed to be mostly about “iconic architecture”. I have used the title above because in the series that makes more sense – look at the list of the other lectures and it is all about different groups of paradise makers.

Gordon Price tells me that I am addicted to blogging. Well he may be right, but he started me on this – although he will not be aware of it. I was impressed by PriceTags and thought I should be able to combine writing and pictures in some way to further my own views. And the WordPress free software and web hosting made it a lot easier than the work that goes into his excellent publication. I am no designer. I am also relying too much on technology – as I found when my palmOne Tungsten E2 told me it was going to shut down to save its battery. I think I will go back to my Moleskin.

So I have decided to start writing now while it is fresh in my mind, as I do not have the copious notes I usually have.

The evening started with a slide show by Scott Hein of the City Urban Design Studio – which is part of Development Planning. He outlined the principles that the City of Vancouver uses to assess development proposals. These include, compatibility and fit, neighbourliness, livability, safety and security, view protection , open space, streets as urban realm, heritage conservation, waterfront access and tree retention. (You know if a building satisfies half of these criteria it cannot possibly be exciting too.)

He then showed a number of buildings to illustrate these principles at work. (At some future date I may try to find images to back up these bald words). Gastown Parkade, The Portico at Granville, Grace (Downtown South), Parks – which is seen as a “centre of excellence” for buildings like the restaurant at Kits Beach

And coming up – Woodwards. If I understand him correctly the secret of doing a whole city block is to make it look like at least four – and preferably many more – different buildings. With a courtyard and “a sense of playfulness” (no I am not making that up!).

He also referred to “iconic” buildings which included the Seattle Public Library, the Experience Music Project and the Guggenheim in Bilbao Spain as a “provocation” to the panel.

The Panel was composed of

  • Brent Toderian – who is not only the Director of Planning but a fellow blogger (I didn’t know that)
  • Trevor Boddy of the Globe and Mail
  • Hadani Ditmars “Writer at large” author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone
  • and Bing Thom – who designed SFU at Surrey Centre

Now at this point the Palm gave out so now we are into impressions not records. The good news is that Brent has posted to his blog already “Does Vancouver need (or want) Iconic Architecture?” So maybe I do not need to write too much here as he is obviously much better at telling you what he thinks than I will be. He wanted to recast the question a bit and thought what most people want to know when they talk to him is “Why do all the buildings look the same?” Fortunately all the panel members spoke in English and not in architecture. I am afraid Scott Hein left me fumbling – for I really did not understand half of what he said. All professions have their own jargon, and architecture is no different. Except that architects take existing words and give them quite different meanings to their everyday usage: like “articulate” for example. And not many other people use words like “fenestration” either (it means windows). At the GLC, where I used to work, I moved from Planning into Policy Studies, as I found most of the planners were actually frustrated architects, all stricken with the same communication issues. No wonder – they need drawings and models to make themselves understood.

Trevor Boddy was one of the better performers, and his “after dinner” speaking style appealed to everyone. He started off “I like Velveeta”. The reason the buildings all look the same is that they are the building equivalent of processed cheese. Perfectly safe, nicely packaged and convenient – nutritious but a bit bland. He has some very powerful views about why architecture in Vancouver is going wrong. And he is also very adamant that the Globe and Mail is a better paper than the Vancouver Sun. Which is not saying very much.

He was especially scathing about the view cone calculations that determine the both the size and shape of the buildings in downtown – but the views themselves may only be visible if you stand in the centre of a busy street intersection. He felt that it was more important that you be able to see the inlet when you drive down a street. (I think he may have been ironic, but it’s hard to tell with architecture critics.) He thought that Canadians tended to “sand each other down” – and he said that he gets more vituperative email when he says something nice about a building, than any criticism he makes. He also talked about what lack of affordable housing and the march of the condos eastwards is going to do to the “cultural creatives”. Or maybe that was Bing.

Hadani Ditmars has been travelling back and forth between the Middle East and Vancouver: she contrasted the experience of living in cities like Beirut or Baghdad – which seemed like an endorsement of bland to me. She showed images of two buildings both designed by leading architects, and now ruins: both loved by the locals, and both likely to be replaced by corporate Bahrain style buildings. She also talked about experiencing the city from the #22 bus, and the way innovations like a congestion charge change the everyday experience of moving though a city. But also about talking to people on the bus. I have not done her credit – there are not many people who quote ninth century Sufi poets so readily or effectively. Her presentation style played havoc with the sound, so Boddy took her beads.

Bing Thom spoke very simply. He used short words in short sentences. quikShift would like him. He thinks that the old grey hairs need to get out of the way and let the younger generation have a chance. The current code, which he wrote, and allows planners so much discretion, needs to be discarded. If only because the planners have not used that discretion. He also said he had been threatened by the planning department. An interesting argument developed with Brent – who said that the planners do not and will not “bonus for architecture” – good architecture being a basic requirement. He sharply pointed out that Bing’s “glass shard” had not been built – and went off on a riff on “bait and switch”architecture. There was general agreement that marketers were to blame for most of the failings of our buildings, though developers got a rough ride too – mostly because they use cost as a reason for not doing good design. This also provoked an exchange with Gord, who asked why good design necessarily meant “expensive”. Bing also had a very good example of what happens here – with the use of the site of the former bus depot in front of the Sandman Hotel. This could have been a major multipurpose centre but instead they are going to go for an international competition for a new Art Gallery. The VAG thinks it needs a unique building as part of its identity – picking up the AGO’s lead ( a truly dreadful building in my view by the way) of using architecture as a “brand”. And they are not willing to share the site with anyone else – even if they get the top bunk. Bing bemoaned the loss of 18 months work bringing various groups together for nothing.

Michael Geller had some ideas about what could have been done at the existing VAG building – and that prompted a lot of clucking about the Robson Square clam shell – universally derided. Bing also thought the convention centre extension a huge mistake likely to be replicated by the soccer stadium.

The microphone in the centre of the room was left open for anyone to come up and speak during the discussion. Michael Geller had a go – and accused architects of copying the “eyebrows” he had put on one Japanese inspired building but now appear everywhere. One young woman unwisely said “I don’t know about architecture” which brought the swift response that everybody experiences it, but being Canadian is too polite to talk about it. The example of the London “gherkin” was brought up – which, if it had not been, I would have. It is iconic all right – and very controversial. But perhaps that is the point. It gets “ordinary people” talking about architecture. The designers, apparently, did not want to build an icon, just a good building.

If I may go off on my thoughts at this point, it does need to be recognised that controversy and icons go together. The buildings of Richard Rogers for example, like the Pompidou Centre or the Lloyd’s building, are a result of form following function, and not just hiding all the services in the concrete pile at the heart of a glass tower. But the most iconic of buildings – the Eifel Tower – was not built by an architect and had no real function other than to display its own structure. At the time it was the centre of an uproar. European cities after all have had riots over operas. London had a sense of similar outrage over a building which neighbours St Paul’s cathedral (now there is an icon) “a carbunkle on the face of an old friend” said Prince Charles – one of the few occasions I found myself in agreement with him.

The discussion actually finally got around to this point. Do we actually want arguments and controversy? Brent felt that of all the things on his agenda, iconic buildings would be pretty low on the list. (applause) He also said that density is not the answer to all our problems. “It won’t cure the common cold.” Hadani thought that there should be more involvement of ordinary people in the decision making process. Bing just thought there should be better buildings and more new minds. Trevor spoke last and I think very presciently. He talked about learning to fly: about how you have to get the plane to climb to the point of stall. He thinks that Vancouver is at that point – shuddering just before plummeting. How you handle the descent is, of course, the test of the pilot. He thought that the 1989 Toronto crash had actually produced some good debate about what the city should look like. It seems to me that is a high price to pay for getting better buildings – but I hope he is right and he stiffened my resolve to sit out of the housing market a bit longer.

It wasn’t a lecture – but it would have made good television. I do not think it was videoed as a lot of these things at SFU are: but it should have been. Perhaps Gord should consider inviting Shaw tv over next time.

(WordPress servers shut down unexpectedly in the middle of writing this piece. I think you can probably see the join. Web based software has a number of failings: unpredictability being the worst.)

Written by Stephen Rees

February 2, 2008 at 6:02 am

Posted in Urban Planning

Tagged with

3 Responses

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  1. Wow; very nice recap! That was quite a lively tennis game of discussion. I should have known you’d publish as soon as you got home! Thankgoodness the post didn’t disappear midstream…Good stuff! I’ve just upped some photos

    jmv

    February 2, 2008 at 9:13 am

  2. Oh yes it did. WordPress went off line around midnight last night – after I had already done the Hadani and Bing paras – which I had to try and recreate early this morning. The lady upstairs got up at 5am so I did too. Hey, I was awake anyway.

    You didn’t get a link to your pictures so have put one here as well as in your comment. And I put links to the text too, as they illustrate the points nicely. I am going to have to check out the Sony Cybershot. My 4800 can’t do this.

    Stephen Rees

    February 2, 2008 at 9:24 am

  3. By the way, if you want to see what happens when you decide you want iconic architecture – this is what you get

    Stephen Rees

    February 3, 2008 at 11:06 am


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