Metropolitan Vancouver's brave new architecture

A UBC professor’s new guidebook offers a revealing look at some of the most significant contemporary buildings across the region

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.


Comments (10) Add New Comment
What does the Aberdeen Centrre in Richmond have to do with architecture in Vancouver? Just for info. Not the same city. Enough said.
Rating: -1
wondering you
Richmond Olympic Oval is clearly not in Vancouver either yet you say nothing about it. You got something against Aberdeen?
Rating: +1
Anthony Van Eyk
When will the self enrichment and aggrandizement of our civil service end?

Do our fuddy duddy chattering classes require such extravagance?
Rating: +2
Norwegian Blue
Still building for a dream-like past of cheap energy and easy movement, a world their parents constructed based on greed and exceptionalism. Many of these buildings conform to the wal-mart ethos--cheap, plastic, modular, designed for maximum profit and planned obsolescence. Unlike most of us who are along for the ride, these professionals actually have the opportunity to shape a better future, instead they are still designing based upon 1950's sci-fi jetson dream. When are people going to wake up to the new reality?
Rating: +5
Unfortunately, the newer buildings rise as the heritage ones are pulled down, leaving the city one that is nothing but glass and concrete. Reminds me of Douglas Coupland's book. The developers are ripping down heritage sites or the ones that are not "up-to-code" -- are gutting them to put up massive high rise complexes with absolutely no soul to them.

They should call it the "City with No Soul", because they have no originality, and all the heritage sites are gone. Gastown is left, and even its almost all gone with new developments. What's left?

Rating: +1
Evil Eye
Vancouver is doomed for losers. Surrey and Delta is where all the best is.
Rating: -2
When the earthquake hits, there going to be a lot of shattered glass on the streets.
Rating: +1
Glass City
I think Vancouver is moving towards becoming a city of contemporary architecture. What people forget is that it takes time for society to actually embrace the importance and costs associated with creating architecture - contemporary or no - on a civic and private level.

It takes a client who is willing to push the boundaries and a public to accept change to be able to create architecture that really will set us apart.
Rating: 0
Not an Idiot
It says METRO Vancouver you moron. That includes Richmond.
Rating: +4
'Wondering'...Smith states 'Metropolitan Vancouver' as his title denoting Metro Vancouver which actually includes Richmond as one of the 21 municipalities. Some others include West Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey among others.
You are one smart cookie! =D
Rating: +3
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