Gesamtkunstwerk

If you’ve been following architecture news in Vancouver lately, chances are you’ve come across Gesamtkunstwerk: a German word translated as “life as a total work of art.” You can watch some videos of famous and no-so-famous Vancouverites guessing how to say it and what it means over at gwerk.ca.

IMG_7555The Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition is open to the public from now until May 18, introducing Vancouver to a new residential development + urban village idea planned for the the north side of the Granville Street Bridge in 2018. Design by the Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and developed by Westbank, a Vancouver-based company, the residential tower is just one part of the “total design” concept that champions a synthesis of art, architecture, interiors, urbanism, and energy with public-mindedness.

IMG_0281This public-mindedness is apparent in the chance to witness the plans and ideas behind the site long before it appears on the downtown cityscape. I spent roughly an hour touring the exhibit housed in an unused warehouse/storage space characteristic of this Beach Avenue area.

IMG_7556IMG_7573BIG and Westbank want to turn this rather dark and seedy parking and storage-infested “neighbourhood” under Granville Bridge into a vibrant village with a residential tower, low-rise retail and office buildings, as well as a recreational facility. Public art is planned to brighten the underbelly of the bridge through Rodney Graham’s spinning chandelier and overhead, coloured lightboxes curated by students from Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

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site of the future spinning chandelier

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model of Rodney Graham’s spinning chandelier underneath Granville Street Bridge

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computer rendering of the lightboxes on the ceiling of the bridge

When looking at the models for the site, it’s hard not to be impressed by the scope of the design, specifically in light of the building’s challenges. The shape of the land is triangular to begin with, making it resemble New York’s Flatiron Building, which was the innovative convergence of a unique site + the use of steel as a building material for skyscrapers.

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New York’s Flatiron Building in mid-torque

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Vancouver House with its midway torque

Vancouver House, the name of the proposed residential tower on the north end of Granville Street Bridge, takes the Flatiron’s challenge one step further because city building restrictions require a 30 metre setback from the bridge. BIG’s solution to this design challenge was to torque the rectangular building once it got past the 30 metre mark, so that the top half of the tower is actually double the amount of apartments as the base—a pretty incredible feat. What’s so interesting is that you can’t even tell the building is torqued as you’re approaching it from the south—it simply looks like a rectangle. This “building with a twist” concept also provides maximum light for all the suites, as well as those million-dollar Vancouver views.

IMG_0267New York inspired the site in another way too. As you’ll see in the model below, Granville Street Bridge is no longer just a car bridge, but now includes a 2-lane greenway in the middle—basically, a park on the bridge, similar to New York’s High Line. There will also be rooftop gardens/parks on the other triangular-shaped plots created from the bridge’s infrastructure—a much more aesthetic view coming into downtown than the current monochromatic greyness of parking lots.

IMG_0276One wall of the exhibit gives you a peak into the interiors of the residential suites, and one  cool feature that caught my eye is a torqued kitchen island that matches the outside of the building—another example of a syncretism between exterior and interior. Life as a total work of art.

I would recommend going around the exhibit with the free audio tour, which explains the Vancouver’s famous tower and podium-style architecture often referred to as “Vancouverism,” and how Vancouver House is an updated, “2.0” version of this style. Arthur Erickson paved the way for this style, and one of Gesamtkunstwerk’s claims to fame is a never-before publicly-shown Erickson sketch of a futuristic-looking Vancouver with spiral, curvy buildings that Erickson imagined way back in 1955. Now that’s a man who thought way ahead of his time.

BIG’s innovative Vancouver House seeks to pay homage to Erickson’s vision. It’s exterior resembles another Erickson-designed Vancouver building—The MacMillan Bloedel Building with its tapered walls and deeply recessed windows that give it a waffle-like façade.

MacMillan Bloedel Building

MacMillan Bloedel Building

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exterior modelling of Vancouver House

As you can probably tell, I’m excited at the idea of beautifying and enlivening north Granville to match its neighbour to the south, Granville Island. I also like the addition of soft curves to our hard-edged cities, akin to Janet Echelman’s TED sculpture that I talked about here. And given the 6500+ people that have toured the exhibit since it opened on March 22, I’d say Vancouverites like to be engaged in the planning of our city, even if we still don’t know how to pronounce Gesamtkunstwerk when we walk out of the exhibit.

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Gesamtkunstwerk exhibit space

Let’s Play House

How many of you played house as a kid? The Wikipedia entry for it made me smile as it brought back childhood memories with my siblings:

House, also referred to as “playing house” or “play grown up”, is a traditional game, a form of make believe where children or adults take on the roles of a nuclear family, which typically consists of a father, mother, a child/children, a baby, and a cat/dog . . . The nature of the game usually attracts girls, but boys will sometimes play as well, usually with some reluctance . . . Every person assumes a role, and then they invent household scenarios in which everyone takes a part: getting food, doing chores, fixing things, going places, “making babies” (with varying degrees of realism), caring for the younger children, feeding the pets, welcoming the husband home from work, etc.

Apparently children aren’t the only ones who like to “play house.” The current exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) showcases the work of the late Vancouver-based modern architect, Daniel Evan White, who boldly experimented with geometric shapes that redefined traditional notions of house and home. Play House: The architecture of Daniel Evan White contains 36 of over 100 of the architect’s projects, including a replica of the Máté House built to 1:4 scale that dominates the room.

Smaller models of White’s houses line the right wall, while on the opposite wall, a timeline takes the viewer through the development of his vision regarding form and how this fits the function of the domestic program. As one caption indicated, form often trumped function in White’s work, but his later projects demonstrated a better integration between playfulness and practicality.

“Play House” exhibit. A model of the Máté Residence takes centre stage, while a timeline of pictures and architectural drawings are on the left wall.

Considering my interest in Vancouver’s architecture, I was surprised that I had never heard of Daniel Evan White before. My dad had though, and so he took me to learn more about this local genius about whom Bruce Fraser said the following in his 2012 eulogy:

I had the impression of being in the presence of a private man, a man who had a Buddha-like quality and who made a house speak the way a Dylan Thomas poem makes a grown man weep or a Lawren Harris clean line painting evokes the grandeur of Canada.

What a statement! And private indeed! Daniel Evan White doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, unlike his mentor and eventual colleague, Arthur Erickson. But I suppose this isn’t surprising because Erikson designed more public buildings, like the Law Courts and UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. Private residences don’t have quite the same visibility, although White’s work is behind hundreds of houses along the West Coast.

Museum of Anthropology by Arthur Erickson. 1976

You can definitely see a similar architectural zeitgeist operating in Erickson’s and White’s work. The Museum of Anthropology, shown above, looks very similar to The Weaver Residence with its interlocking horizontal planes, also built in 1976.

The Weaver Residence by Daniel Evan White in Vancouver. 1976

The Máté House reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, also built on a cliff, except White turns the telescoping effect horizontal instead of vertical. Or, as the MOV describes it, this “strongly geometric building [is] reminiscient of a child’s toy block set.”

Grand spiral staircases were a characteristic White move, located close to the front entrance.

Spiral staircase of Máté Residence – replica

Some other notable White designs include the Connell Cabin on Galiano Island with its circle of three living spaces, the Lunn II Residence on Bowen Island with its paraboloid roof, and the Taylor Residence that acts as a bridge between two cliffs.

While the models are a work of art in themselves, the video playing on repeat near the back of the room was extremely helpful to get a feel for the inside of these fabulously conceptual models. That’s what really made White’s geometric forms come to life for me–when I saw how they are decorated and lived in; how they interact with the rhythms of eating, living, sleeping, and playing.

Photo by S. Kashani, and M. Sheriff

Inside the Peters Residence, West Vancouver 1980. Photo by S. Kashani, and M. Sheriff

Can you imagine living in a home like that? Maybe a future adventure will entail tracking down White’s homes around the city before new owners and renovations threaten their original design, which has unfortunately already happened to some of White’s playhouses. But at least his private projects are now being shown to the public in the first-ever retrospective of White’s 50-year career, on display at the Museum of Vancouver until March 23.