Pencil in the Past

There’s a condo tower in Vancouver’s West End that stands out from the other high-rises – that is, once you look up. I’m talking about Eugenia Place on 1919 Beach Avenue, next door to the Sylvia Hotel that I wrote about here.

How many buildings feature a live, rooftop tree cropping out from a central column?

Vancouverites like to tout their city as “natural” – you know, a city by the sea – and this condo tower by Richard Henriquez physically incorporates nature into an urban residence. The tree, however, isn’t just for visual appeal, although it does nicely mirror the trees along English Bay below it.

Henriquez talks about the necessity of “fictional history” to inform architectural design in a city as young as Vancouver that is prone to forgetting its past. His son, also an architect – Gregory Henriquez – picks up on this idea in his practice, saying, “[Vancouver’s] history is more about the stories than the buildings.”

Eugenia Place – and its rooftop tree – tells a story. You can read this building like a text.

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy states that the tree at the top recalls the old-growth forests of Vancouver before they were converted into houses. Chris Macdonald adds to this reading by saying the rooftop tree’s height equals the height of the forest when Europeans first arrived on this coast. Concrete replicas of tree stumps can be found at the base of the building.

If you look at the base, you’ll notice another interesting feature: the central column (where the living room windows are) tapers into a pencil-like point, designating the entrance. Boddy calls this a self-conscious, postmodern expression of the architectural practice and offers a number of symbolic interpretations:

1) “The pencil of the draughtsman/builder of those original houses on the site;

2) that of the logging contractor who removed the trees;

3) that of Captain George Vancouver making the first sketches of that very bay;

4) that of the hero-architect, drawing instrument inflated to the size of design ego?

5) Or is it a screw; as the project evolved from first drawing to final realisation, the form took on the look of a tapered screw…”

The fourth option there is rather clever, but Boddy seems to have also missed another interpretation. The pencil highlights the similarity between the architectural craft and the writing craft. Both artists use a pencil to sketch out ideas, and a pencil, more than a pen, connotes a “draft” – something in its preliminary form, to be written or built over, like Vancouver’s old growth forests and the Victorian houses that previously occupied this West End neighbourhood. Even “draft” and “draughtsman” share the same homonymic root. A draft building evokes the idea that even physical structures are not finished once they are built. They continually to evolve and take shape in other ways – like through stories and the way in which people view/use/remember a given space.

Literature and architecture are often both in the “remembering” business – with literature, particularly historical fiction, and with architecture, especially in buildings like Henriquez’s that give a nod to the city’s history. With words or with concrete, books and buildings construct stories of former times, places, and/or people.

Considering that Eugenia Place tells or remembers a story from Vancouver’s past, it participates in the city’s architextural imagination. As Macdonald’s concludes, “Million dollar views wrapped up in a timely history lesson.”