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

Places with Character

A week ago, I looked at a Vancouver apartment. You know you like a place when you see it in Vancouver rain and you still want to call it home. A week later, I’m sitting in the apartment writing a blog post about my first weekend in this city that I have long been writing about but never actually lived in (for those of you not familiar with the Lower Mainland, I previously lived an hour away in a suburb that we only refer to as “Vancouver” when talking to people on the other side of the world).

Now I can legitimately say I live in Vancouver, and oh how I am excited to fall more in love with this city. I feel like it’s a meeting that’s long overdue.

Ready to see Vancouver through a new frame

All this to say, it’s fitting that I went on Heritage Vancouver’s Top 10 Endangered Sites Bus Tour yesterday to inaugurate my big move through something I love — architecture!

The tour spanned four hours and travelled through many Vancouver neighbourhoods including Kitsilano, the West End, Downtown South, Downtown Eastside, East Van, Mount Pleasant, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona, and Shaughnessy – not necessarily in that order. I thought I knew Vancouver pretty well but there were so many hidden gems I had never encountered before that I want to return to soon.

The purpose of the tour was to raise public awareness and conversation of the plethora of heritage buildings in danger of getting demolished in the name of a high-density development. I tend to favour medium to high density projects, especially mixed-used ones because I think they create a better sense of community, and yet I also see the concern in doing this at the cost of destroying residential character homes.

On this year’s Top 10 list is a mixture of individual buildings and entire neighbourhoods that aren’t on the City’s radar to protect in future community plans. Buildings have to be listed on the Heritage Register in order to be taken into account, but many factors have stalled the updating of this list. Interestingly, a building’s exterior might be protected on this list but not the interior (interiors could be protected post-1994, but hardly any are). This is the case with the Orpheum, which is ironic because it’s the inside that’s so gorgeous.

Our knowledgeable tour guide spouted dates, architects, construction details, and historic tidbits about the buildings like he was reciting his phone number. He remained hopeful that a lot of the sites on their Top 10 Endangered List have a future, even if a re-purposed one, although he’s fairly certain École Bilingue (formerly Cecil Rhodes Public School) will be demolished because of seismic upgrading.

École Bilingue scheduled to be torn down. Photo by Dan Toulgoet.

I’ll touch on the two sites we actually got out of the bus to inspect (and hence have better photos of than when clicking frantically through the window of a moving bus).

The Waldorf Hotel

This building opened as a beer parlour/hotel in 1948 – the hotel part was only required so the owners could get licensed for a beer parlour, but it wasn’t a huge concern if the rooms were full or not. This East Van landmark is a cultural hot spot known for its live music & dancing in the Polynesian Cabaret Room and Tiki Bar – a little taste of Hawaii right in Vancouver, which would have been even more shocking and “other”-looking when it was added in the 50s.

The kitschy yet unmistakable hotel sign

The Polynesian-inspired Tiki Bar. Yes, it really is that dark.

I normally don’t take pictures of washroom sinks but this one is practically identical to the one in my apartment from the 1950s. It delights me to know I live in a place with character like the Waldorf, at last!

A frenzy of media activity and protests, particularly among Vancouver’s cultural and artistic communities, sprang up earlier this year when it was announced the owners had sold the building to a developer. Even Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson intervened to stop demolition. On the tour, we went inside and saw people having lunch in the café. As the sign says, the hotel is still open for business as it awaits its fate. Yet because of all the attention this site garnered and the number of community groups fighting to keep it, it will likely get saved in some form or another. As our tour guide astutely commented, it’s not so much that people are resistant to change as they are to loss. Especially when the City of Vancouver has already lost a number of heritage sites with its construction boom, one more loss can feel like a thousand losses.

Forest Education Centre in VanDusen Garden

This tucked-away building at the back of VanDusen Botanical Garden was first named MacMillan-Bloedel Place because of its donor, the largest forestry company in British Columbia. This “green” building is so camouflaged in the landscape you might not even notice it’s there. Architect Paul Merrick designed this modernist building with echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the classic residential example where building and nature seamlessly merge.

Can you see the building through the trees? Look closely.

Architecture doesn’t get much more “West Coast” than this. Where does nature end and building begin?

This space was once filled with educational forestry displays called “A Walk in the Forest.” There are still remnants of the displays as you walk through the “forest” path on the inside. Tree-like columns branch towards the ceiling to add to the outdoors effect, yet there is also office equipment as volunteer organizations and some Van Dusen staff currently operate out of the space. What an inspiring place to work!! The groups will have to vacate soon though as the Park Board doesn’t want to keep maintaining the building. Heritage Vancouver is keen on seeing a creative re-use of this site, with possible alternatives as an environmental education centre or artists’ space. As a writer, I would want to come here for a weekend retreat. Light + wood + nature = an idyllic oasis in the city.

Here’s the full Top 10 List from Heritage Vancouver Society with more details about each place and how to get involved if you call Vancouver home and want to help preserve its historic character for the future.

The Library as Colosseum

Vancouver is often critiqued for its boring architecture. As a young city born in 1886, it doesn’t have the same rich architectural history, as say, places like London or Rome. Much of Vancouver’s skyline is homogenous: seafoam green and glass office buildings. Hence, the title of Douglas Coupland‘s ode to Vancouver, City of Glass.

The Vancouver Public Library is an exception to this rule.

For the city’s most important cultural building, architect Moshe Safdie takes you back to 1st century Rome, to the days of the Colosseum. The Vancouver Public Library is an oval- shaped building adjoined to a federal office tower with retail and service facilities on the ground floor. (It was mentioned here as one of the top 8 beautiful libraries in Canada). Windows flood the space with light. “Drawbridges” or walkways connect the book stacks with study carrels that line the oval perimeter, offering each seat a spacious window, much better than the library I talked about here.

Ironically, the Vancouver Public Library alludes to the past and yet its form is decidedly postmodern. Built in 1995, it plays with history divorced from context, as postmodernist architecture often does. What does a Colosseum and a public library have in common?

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy answers “shameless populism” in the book Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City.

Yet is populism so bad, especially for a civic institution designed to serve the public? And considering the public library was the result of a rare competition where the public had a say in the winner, this building was democratic from the start.

Regular public events and art installations happen in and around the building, contributing to an engaged civic and cultural space. The human installation, “Sometimes I think, I can see you” was presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival earlier this year. Writers were set up in the atrium of the library with laptops connected to a large projection screen where passersby could read the spontaneous fictions the writers created about their surroundings – fictions that might include you or I or whoever happened to be in that space at that particular time. Public spaces like library atriums are great places for people watching as it is. Argentinian artist Mariano Pensotti amplifies their voyeuristic quality by recording the thoughts of strangers as public text for all to see. I spy with my little eye . . .

Here’s a sample of what this poetry/prose in motion looks like, performed in a Buenos Aires subway station:

Given the 21st century context where traditional publishing companies battle with e-books, closing prominent presses (most recently Douglas & McIntyre in Canada) and threatening the future of libraries, the Colosseum reference is not so out of context. The printed word is struggling to survive, to find a place to call home. Maybe Moshe Safdie’s vision for the building was more prescient than he knew: futuristic more than historical. Maybe the texts do fit the context. Maybe the words do fit the picture.

public art

A New Face on Terry

In between visiting some friends from out-of-town in Vancouver this weekend, I hopped over to BC Place to see the new Terry Fox monument (new as in September 2011).

New Terry Fox memorial designed by Douglas Coupland. 2011.

“Monument” seems like the wrong word to describe these Terry Fox statues. Yes, there are statues plural — four of them actually, each showing a separate stage of Terry’s distinct step-hop gait. The figures become progressively larger as he runs westward (his final destination was to be Stanley Park), indicating Terry’s growing legacy since 1980, when he started his Marathon of Hope run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.

The old Vancouver monument for Terry Fox more accurately reflects the characteristics I associate with a monument: weighty, grand, symbolic, a structure of heroic proportions. The old classical triumphal arch designed by Franklin Allen surely is all that. I never saw this monument in real life (I tried once but it was covered up with a big white tarp while construction was being done on BC Place’s new roof), but apparently it received a lot of criticism and many people considered it an eyesore, which is not hard to see why.

Old Terry Fox monument designed by Franklin Allen. 1984.

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy marks the old Terry Fox monument as the beginning of the postmodern era in Vancouver architecture in his essay “Plastic Lion’s Gate: A Short History of the Post Modern in Vancouver Architecture.”

Franklin Allen’s 1980s postmodern monument has all the signature moves of its time – a polychromed structure in the latest colours as well as a poly-textured structure with tile, brick, and steel. Four fibreglass lions sit atop the arch, symbolizing Terry’s heroism. All these elements combine to make this modern pastiche of a classical triumphal arch.

Pastiche is one characteristic of the postmodern architectural style — another is the irony of attempting to set in stone and make permanent something that is not permanent. How do you monumentalize a fleeting, short life such as Terry’s?

Trevor Boddy writes, “This sense of monumentalising the pungently ephemeral, of reconciling emotions with visuals, of rendering permanent a patter in the social electron flow of a few months duration, was crucial to the winning scheme’s selection by a jury not otherwise committed to postmodernism as theory or style” (Allen’s monument was the winner of a design competition).

How do we attempt to remember a significant person or event in history? Monuments surely are one way. Yet why did the old statue get so much criticism? Boddy explains because it didn’t include any visual representation of Terry, the person it attempted to remember. Boddy goes on to say that in order to appease the public outcry over this monument, etched steel plates bearing larger-than-lifesize photographs of Terry were placed inside the arch, much to the architect’s chagrin. I guess the symbolic fibreglass lions weren’t enough — we like to see images that resemble the person we are remembering.

Coupland's memorial from the back

So it’s interesting that over two decades later, a new memorial (I hesitate to say “monument” for the above reasons) of Terry Fox has replaced the old one, and the differences couldn’t be more obvious. In Douglas Coupland’s Terry Fox sculptures, the public doesn’t just get one, but four images or motions of Terry, broken down into a four-frame cycle. They are open, life-like. You can walk around them. You might not even notice them from a distance because on a busy day around BC Place, Terry blends right into the crowd.

Can you see the statues?

Allen’s arch was ostentatious, noticeable, built to match a national hero; Coupland’s statues are subtle, built to commemorate a national hero but also to remember an individual whose single act of determination inspired hope, rallied the country, and changed lives — a determination meant to inspire and challenge us us on a personal level. It is this humanness and point of connection between Terry and ourselves that I come away with from the new memorial.

Coupland leaves us with these words: