Metropolitan Vancouver's brave new architecture
The acting director of UBC’s school of architecture, Chris Macdonald, measures his words carefully. Ask him about the quality of contemporary building design in Vancouver, and the tall, blondish academic pauses for nearly half a minute before responding. And even then, his answer is somewhat oblique.
“One of the things that’s difficult for many contemporary architects is Vancouver had a moment of inventive brilliance after the [Second World] war, and in particular through the persona of Arthur Erickson,” Macdonald responds during an interview at the Georgia Straight office. “So there was this frisson, of a sort, of unprecedented brilliance in architectural design that happened.”
Macdonald explains that Erickson’s most celebrated projects, including the MacMillan Bloedel Building (1075 West Georgia Street) and the Simon Fraser University campus on Burnaby Mountain, were built in a different era. In the 1960s, strong-willed clients of Erickson’s, such as timber baron H.R. MacMillan and former SFU chancellor Gordon Shrum, could focus on a design effort without facing interference from government panels demanding changes to the design to suit their tastes.
“This city’s history”¦had these emphatic moments of real accomplishment that could be measured against anything that was happening anywhere in the world, and certainly in North America,” Macdonald says.
Compared with these successes, he suggests, the post-Expo period of Vancouver architecture has been “more pedestrian” on a building-by-building basis. He cites high land costs as one factor, which forces developers, homeowners, and institutions to take fewer design risks. However, he points out that the urban landscape citywide has “much more substance and intrigue” than it had during the 1970s, when small towers were being built in the West End. “There are these moments of brilliance,” he concedes, noting that architects tend to push the envelope through structure.
Macdonald has captured many of these “moments of brilliance” in A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver (Douglas & McIntyre, $24.95), a new pocket-size book dedicated to the memory of Erickson, who died just over a year ago. With the several architects and writer Adele Weder, Macdonald presents capsule descriptions of dozens of the most notable local contemporary buildings and precincts, each accompanied by lush photography. The book, which will be officially launched on Tuesday (June 8) at Emily Carr University’s Charles H. Scott Gallery, provides an overview of the most significant architecture built across the region between Expo 86 and the 2010 Olympics.
“All of the people who were involved advocated for different projects,” Macdonald says. The team chose not to include single-family homes.