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

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.


site of the future spinning chandelier


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


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.


New York’s Flatiron Building in mid-torque


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


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.


Gesamtkunstwerk exhibit space

Catching a Phrase and a Peek up Women’s Skirts

I better start talking about other things on here again lest you think I have been completely consumed with Olympic-mania (even though I have).

The games are sitting in the picnic baskets

I was at a wedding last weekend in Sechelt and it was one of the funnest ones I’ve attended. The bride and groom are big fans of games – board games, card games, you name it. Needless to say, this was a big theme at the reception. Despite the variety of games to choose from, we played hours and hours of catch phrase. It was like the energizer bunny of games – it just kept going and going and going, and it was hilarious (as the box promises!)

I tell you this because of one of the phrases no one got until the buzzer timed out. A guest was describing “flatiron building” and I guess it’s one of those things most people would recognize in cities even though it seems not many people know what it’s called.

I came across the word when researching architectural terms for my Master’s. I confess I initially pronounced it “fla-tear-in” rather than its literal compound construction: flat + iron.

These are those angled buildings you get on a city grid when there’s one street running diagonal. Since developers don’t like to waste precious city space, they squeeze a triangular-shaped building into this wedge space. Vancouver has one and I’m sure many other cities do, but let’s visit this famous one in New York:

You can see the triangular Flatiron Building in the distance if you look where the bright yellow streets of 5th Ave and Broadway converge

Broadway is the diagonal street interrupting the rigid grid of Manhattan. Where it intersects with 23 Street and Fifth Avenue, there’s a triangular plot of land. The limestone and terracotta Flatiron Building stands in this wedge.

Completed in 1902, this 22-story, 286-foot high building created a stir for its height (one of the tallest buildings in the city at the time), its ingenious and elegant design, and its revolutionary steel frame. It was originally known as the Fuller Building, but due to the building’s shape that resembles a clothes iron (especially from a bird’s eye view), the nickname “Flatiron” stuck.

Apparently the geography of this intersection surrounding the Flatiron Building created strong wind tunnels. Men quickly figured this out and began loitering on 23rd Street hoping to catch a peek up women’s billowing skirts. (ah, the entertainment in the old days). Due to this recurring problem, local cops shooed away the male peepers, giving them the “23 skidoo,” which is one explanation for the origin of that phrase, which means to leave quickly, or to be forced to leave.

A 1905 postcard. The Flatiron Building in the background shows that 23rd Street is the location.

So there’s some fun trivia for you about flatiron buildings – probably more than you wanted to know. Now you have no excuse if you get stuck with this word in a riveting round of catch phrase!