Architecture: Three critics build up, demolish local edifices

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      Few of Vancouver's urban experts are more vocal about vigorous growth and daring architecture than Lance Berelowitz, former chair of the Vancouver City Planning Commission and a professor of urban planning and design at UBC. While editing the "bid book" for our city's winning 2010 Olympic Games submission, Berelowitz also found time to write the recently published Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination (Douglas & McIntyre, $40), a highly readable account of the successes and risks of the best-laid plans for local urban expansion, past and present. He had his responses at the ready when the Straight asked him for his take on Vancouver as it stands:


      BC Cancer Research Centre (Henriquez Partners)
      675 West 10th Avenue

      "This is an absolutely beautiful and sublime and very sensitive building for something that's almost taboo. It puts the purpose of the building right out there, and it's got these remarkable faíƒ §ades which play on the idea of DNA.…I think it's a marvellous and very humanizing building. It's sort of the best of architecture-you know, when architecture speaks about human endeavour."


      Dal Grauer Substation
      900 Burrard Street

      "One person's heritage is another person's modernist tear-down. But in a city as young as Vancouver, we can't afford to ignore our modernist architectural heritage. And so I would put in that category the ensemble of buildings including what used to be the BC Hydro headquarters-now the Electra condo-and the adjacent Dal Grauer power station, which is one of those unsung little marvels, a beautiful, modernist pavilion in a very stripped-down form that is wonderfully optimistic and all about energy and transparency."


      Callisto and Carina towers, Coal Harbour (James Hancock)

      "In terms of creating a kind of iconic front row of buildings [as seen] from Burrard Inlet, I think they're quite powerful. And the idea of their being sails-you know, this row of buildings like these big spinnakers that are blowing in the wind, that are puffed up-to me, that's kind of a wonderful idea which could have been really hokey but which the architect seems to have pulled off quite nicely."


      Granville Square, northern foot of Granville Street

      "If I could demolish one building in town, it would be that site, including the parking lot underneath. I'd create a fabulous public space at the foot of Granville Street, overlooking the water, and a whole gateway or portal into the city, with all the transit modes that lead there-the SkyTrain, the West Coast Express, the SeaBus, the buses-íƒ   la Circular Quay in Sydney, Australia."

      Helena Grdadolnik thinks Kits Beach's best new building hits a high Watermark. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward photo.


      When Helena Grdadolnik isn't writing architectural criticism or running courses on design at Emily Carr Institute and UBC, she's working with SpaceAgency, a local nonprofit group seeking new ways of widening public debate over Vancouver's urban future. Her views on our constantly changing skyline suggest that the recent drive to mass-produce condo towers-cranking them out as if they were the architectural equivalent of IKEA furniture-has been much on her mind:


      Watermark on Kits Beach (AA Robins Architect)
      1305 Arbutus Street

      "There was a lot of neighbourhood protest [over the construction of this restaurant] by people who were worried that it would block their view. But the building tries to work around that by having various passageways through, and by trying to be light in certain places, so that you can see through it.…It's just a great space for the public, who can't afford the buildings along the beach. Now you don't have to have a million dollars to be able to drink and eat right at the waterfront."


      The Electra
      989 Nelson Street

      "It's coming up to its 50th anniversary soon, and it still stands out-not necessarily as cutting-edge, but it's still a wonderful building that fits into the modern cityscape."


      "That's tough, because even though we've built so many condo buildings this year, none have made it into my category-at least not as some of the best architecture of this year, partially because we're re-creating the same model too often. But one of my favourites from not too long ago was done by Nick Milkovich [Architects] and Arthur Erickson: the Waterfall Building near Granville Island [1540 West 2nd Avenue]. That one has a great mix of living and live-work spaces, as well as stores and cafés and the courtyard along the bottom."


      "The biggest problem I see is that we will have to demolish a lot of the condo buildings we're building if the use ever needs to change. Right now, we have all these office buildings [that have been converted into condos]-like Qube [1333 West Georgia Street], which was the Westcoast Transmission Building, and the Electra, which had been the B.C. Electric Building. Because of how they were originally built, you were able to move walls within the space and change it for new use, for residential use, allowing them to change as the demographics of the city changed. But with the condo buildings that we're making at the moment, all of them with these small, 500-square-foot apartments-if, down the road, the city changes and we no longer want to have all these small condo units downtown, what will we do with the buildings? We'll have to knock them down. Because of the way they're built, with poured concrete and walls that can't be moved around because each one is structurally necessary, we won't be able to change them later on."


      Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe would like to send a Dear John letter to the Vancouver Mail Processing Plant. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward photo.

      As head of UBC's department of art history, visual art, and theory, Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe views the growth of cities through many different historical lenses, from art and culture to economics and technology. All of these subjects will come into play during Living the Global City, an eight-month series of public lectures, events, and panel discussions that Windsor-Liscombe is organizing to begin in October, in anticipation of next June's World Urban Forum. Still, his wide-ranging interests don't distract him from urban developments close to home:


      Shaw House, Vancouver (Patkau Architects)

      Sturdy-Wardle House, West Vancouver (Peter Cardew Architects)

      "Both of them [both private residences], I think, are by very reflexive architects who think constantly about the decisions they're making and keep those decisions as open as possible right up until the end. So you're really looking at a result like great poetry.…It's that kind of classical quality of people thinking through the nature of their decisions, finally coming to what seems to be the most supportable one-but making their decisions on the basis of a mixture of imagination and very, very concentrated technique." Shaw House is viewable at


      Abbott House (James KM Cheng Architects/Commonwealth Historic Resource Management)
      720 Jervis Street

      "They've managed to make a good fit between the original house and the much higher scale of the new building behind. I think they've done a very careful historical investigation of the colour, everything-all the details are right.…And the way they've set it to the street is also very clever, because it holds onto the relative significance of that building in early Vancouver while taking it back from the street, so that it's not overwhelmed by all the traffic and everything else on Georgia [Street]."


      Tower at 1133 West Georgia Street (Arthur Erickson/Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership/Davidson Yuen Simpson Architects)

      "I think it's an attempt to do something which is of this whole idea of creating a new heart for the city that is more residential and spectacular. It's an attempt to rethink in a really innovative way the whole modernist tradition-the idea of design being driven by an analysis of the purpose of the building, by expressing its structure and its internal, functional organization, by using really contemporary materials, and also by creating an imagery that is contemporaneous." The project is slated for completion in summer 2009.


      Vancouver Mail Processing Plant
      349 West Georgia Street

      "It's not a bad building, but it's a fabulous site. The post office is pretty much pitched where the civic centre was originally supposed to be.…It's a hell of a location, and I think if we could put back more of the original idea of some kind of civic-public space, and more towards the cultural realm than not, it would work fabulously with the library and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre."