Thursday, December 11, 2008

Iconic Obsessions

article by Jay Merrick in The Independent; worth a thought as our town expands.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

VanDusen's Green Plan

One project on the slate for Vancouver's recently approved Capital Plan is a new $20 million facility at VanDusen Botanical Garden.

Designed by Busby Perkins + Will, the Planting the Seed Capital Project will completely revamp the visitor area with two new buildings (a Visitor Centre and Garden Pavilion) and a landscaping plan by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. As befits Busby's dedication to 'green' architecture, the design is highly sustainable and takes cues from the extensive surrounding garden.

Under the banner of a 'Living Building Philosophy' some of the organizing principles noted on VanDusen's website are standard eco-fare such as safe, healthy building materials and indoor quality. However with plans for a zero ecological footprint, there are some noteworthy ideas: energy needs will come from an on-site renewable source, as will the water supply which will be purified naturally.

Also significant is the roof structure. Inspired by a native orchid, the roof line as shown in concept sketches is suitably organic, featuring undulating curves above large glass walls. The buildings are topped off with green roofs that will offset their physical footprints, further reducing any negative impact on the site.

Aside from a focus on 'green' construction, the new facility will expand VanDusen's capabilities. Educational and interpretive spaces will be larger and all administrative offices will be brought together in one building. There will also be two new dining areas and more rental facilities available for performances, botanical shows and exhibitions.

The Underwood, McKinley, Smith & Wilson-designed buildings currently on the site will be demolished, though it seems not until new construction is finished. I have mixed feelings about these coming down. While not the most architecturally significant buildings in the city, they are lovely post and beam structures that are evocative of their era, built with ample timbres that play deferentially off the landscape, almost dissolving into it.

The VanDusen buildings are part of a body of work designed by Underwood + Co. from the 1960's to the early 1970's that share a common architectural language - described by Harold Kalman in his book Exploring Vancouver as "Park Board post-and-beam". The Vancouver Parks Board office (seen in this fascinating 1961 archival film) which still stands in fine condition near Stanley Park, and the Bloedel Conservatory at Queen Elizabeth Park are among this group.

This disappointment is tempered by the proposed design of the Busby buildings. Their forms are undeniably seductive and reflect their context satisfyingly. And with the hiring of Busby, the implementation of a green plan is laudable and appropriate, especially for a botanical garden. It is also clear that VanDusen could benefit from a revitalization and an increase in facility space.

However it's worth asking whether the existing Visitor Centre and Pavilion can be saved and function in some sort of secondary role. The retention of part of the original design would be an opportunity to create a compelling dialogue between old and new; one that would modestly illustrate the history of architecture in the city.

Part of that narrative is another building at VanDusen: the Forest Centre, designed by Paul Merrick/Thompson, Berwick & Pratt, falls outside of the Capital Plan and will continue to be used for educational, volunteer and office purposes.

Construction is slated to start early in 2010 and last until mid-2011. Plans are posted at the VanDusen Visitor Centre and on their website.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Summerland in Vancouver

The Contemporary Art Gallery is currently presenting new works by Vancouver artist Shannon Oksanen. 

Titled Summerland, the exhibition consists of a remake/meditation on the waterskiing scene in the film Viva Las Vegas as well as a series of paintings and drawings that extends the Elvis theme. 

The works comment on the shifting landscape of American thought and culture during the period (mid-late 1960's) and draw on aesthetics and nostalgia, among other things, to illustrate this change.

Shannon Oksanen will give an artist talk at the CAG on Thursday, December 4 at 7pm. The exhibition runs until January 18, 2009.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gingerbread Modern

Creative Room and Vancouver Special have launched a sweet competition: re-imagining the gingerbread house. 

A broad cross-section of Vancouver architects and designers have translated the traditional gingerbread house into modern form, including Busby, Perkins & Will, D'Arcy Jones Design, UBC Sala and Bricault Design.  

The competition will be judged by Patricia Patkau, Ken Lum and Christina Ritchie and takes place at Vancouver Special on November 25 at 7pm. Houses are currently up for auction, with proceeds to support Pivot Legal Society. 

Information and photos, including bidding forms can be found here and the ten gingerbread houses can be viewed in person at Vancouver Special, 3612 Main Street, Vancouver.

Special mention to Bricault Design (who make excellent use of candied textures) and D'Arcy Jones Design (whose entry is a beautifully reduced West Coast Modern in the woods).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Boddy and the Globe

Whither Trevor Boddy in the Real Estate section of
the Globe and Mail?

The Boddy-curated Vancouverism exhibition opens in Paris this week (after a summer run in London) but let's hope for a return to the ink-stained pages of the national daily. The Kelly Deck decorating feature doesn't carry quite the same bite.

In the meantime, check out Timothy Taylor's illuminating bi-weekly feature on urban issues and life in the city here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Chan Centre

I overlooked this building for a long time. It's easy to miss, tucked away in the lush environs of the University of BC campus. Having recently attended a few shows here reminded me what an exceptional building Bing Thom Architects created, and what a welcome addition it has been to both the campus and the city.

The most striking feature– aside from the main concert hall– is the glass wall that borders the main lobby. Approximately two storeys high, it faces a mature stand of cedars, firs and west coast shrubbery. This backdrop perfectly mirrors the large Gordon Smith canvas (with a curved frame to follow the arc of the wall) that greets attendees upon entering the building.

Remarkably, the location of the building on the site was determined by the existing stand of trees. The university had wanted to take advantage of the potential views that would open up by razing the forest, but Thom (advised by Cornelia Oberlander) was insistent that all trees should be retained. In Neill Archer Roan's Scale + Timbre: The Chan Centre For the Performing Arts, Thom says that "even if you take the trees down, the mountains are dark at night, when most people would experience the view. But if you light the trees, you will have a foreground that can become a stage set to the building".

He further notes that once "we finally agreed on the fate of the forest, we set about surveying every tree. In the end, we planted the building around each and every tree". Additionally, the 200 or so azaleas and rhododendrons were moved off site during construction and replanted afterwards.

You only have to experience the space once to see what a commendable decision this was. Thom preserved the forest and managed to situate what is a relatively tall building on the campus comfortably within the surrounding environs. It also sits at bottom of a slope, further reducing its vertical impact. Now a decade or so on, the Chan has settled into its site and Thom's desire that the forest relate directly to the building feels fully realized.

The greater mass of the Chan, determined largely by the cylinders of the entry and the central hall, further blends with the site through the use of materials like wood (interior), muted gray zinc panels (exterior) and concrete (both interior and exterior). The result is a building that exudes west coast character, the connection between landscape and building strengthening each in turn to create a cultural institution of the highest order. 

And the sound and acoustics in the main hall? Much like the overall design of the Chan, it's sublime.

Monday, November 10, 2008

B.C. Binning Event

The Land Conservancy is hosting an event at the Binning residence in West Vancouver at 7pm on November 21, 2008. Featuring talks by Ian Thom and Adele Weder - both of whom contributed to the book B.C. Binning - the evening will showcase the building itself and Binning's role as both architect (assisted by Ned Pratt) and artist. The evening is the first public event to create a 300k endowment to help maintain the house. Tickets and information can be found here.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Modernist Realty

Vancouver realtor Jan Alexander has recently begun to focus on Modern properties in Vancouver. Currently she is offering the 1982 Hwang Residence, designed by Arthur Erickson. The house is virtually hidden behind a fence/green wall along a busy road - a divide that gives way inside to a pond-like water feature and mature gardens designed by Cornelia Oberlander. Noteworthy is the fact that in the early 1980's Erickson was designing very few residential commissions, focusing instead on larger projects that were on his plate, and so the house is a rare example of his work on a smaller scale from that time. It is also an example of the Erickson/Oberlander dynamic writ small.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Alistair Bell Exhibition

The West Vancouver Museum and Archives, carrying on its fine string of exhibitions on art and architecture in West Vancouver, is currently showing a selection of printmaker Alistair Bell's work. Along with the exhibition, there are talks by Alistair's son Alan Bell (November 1: Career Overview) and printmaker Wayne Eastcot (November 22: Printmaking Techniques).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

FLW For Sale

If I had $8 million kickin' around...

Post and Beam

In the late 1950's, the British Columbia Lumber Manufacturers Association published a booklet entitled "post and beam". Geared towards builders and industry, the piece is a showcase - and how-to manual - for the simple building style using various examples of timber framing drawn from local designs.

The work of Thompson, Berwick & Pratt in particular is covered - no surprise given the number of projects they were working on at the time. RJ Thom's Copp Residence is given a gatefold spread and photos from the Forest Products Labaratory at UBC and Inlet Acres Shopping Centre in Port Moody are also included. Other architects' whose work appears: Duncan McNabb (Westcot Elementary, Reid Residence); and John Porter, whose Nemetz Residence at UBC features prominently in colour on the front cover.

As noted in the foreward, the booklet was organized by V.F. Lyman. A professor at the School of Architecture at UBC, Lyman carried out a survey of the Post and Beam style from 1957-58 at the request of the BC Lumber Manufacturers Association and was then charged with organizing the materials (research, photos, essays) into published form. Lyman's essay details the history of the building style as well as its more prosaic aspects, under sub-heads such as 'Moisture Content & Spiking', 'Joints and Connections' and 'Advantages of Post & Beam'.

Fred Lasserre, also a Professor and the Director of the School of Architecture at UBC, contributed an essay titled "An Introduction to Wood" which is based largely on a lecture series he gave in Great Britain in April, 1956. It is a more general overview of the benefits and uses of a building material so widely available at the time.

Also included is a short technical section near the end, in an effort to inform builders of the specifications of Post & Beam-style building, covering areas like 'Recommended Spans For Decking', 'Stresses For Posts and Beams' and 'Description of Grades'.

The booklet documents an era when Post & Beam building was on its way to a brief ascendency, largely due to the simplicity of the method and the availability of materials. Indeed, builders on the West Coast did employ it for both high-design architecture as well as developer built houses. Propelled by a wood industry that was actively promoting its products - as evidenced by this very document - it was coming at the heyday of material extraction in the forest industry. The local modernist architects of the day took advantage of these circumstances to create buildings that were of their time and place - a time that would eventually morph into one whose designs became more involved and complex and later post-modern. 

From the preface (uncredited, but presumably written by V.F. Lyman):

"As nearly as any construction can be, the post-and-beam system is directly evolved from the tree. In the historical Tudor houses of England, antecedents of the contemporary post-and-beam building, great time-toughened beams still call to mind the noble Oaks of a bygone age. To this overt link with the living tree much of their charm is owed.

Adherence to the same principle evident in the Tudor period is to be found in the finest architecture throughout history. The materials employed have been accepted for what they are, used with logic and allowed honest expression in the structure. The immorality of simulation has been instinctively understood from the beginning.

Contemporary post-and-beam at its best continues this tradition and even reinforces it, for the system is well able to fulfill the principles of modern design. It is not surprising that so much of its development took place in the shadow of the Pacific Coast forests, nor that its influence is being increasingly felt throughout North America and abroad.

Pacific Coast timbers perfectly match the technical and aesthetic requirements of a building of this kind. Used with skill and imagination, they have the power to recapture far from their source the dignity, beauty and majesty of the Coastal forest stand."

All photos: V.F. Lyman

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre

Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden's Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre has just won its category in the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, Spain. 

One of only 4 Canadian projects shortlisted amongst 220 projects (and 722 initially entered), the win comes shortly after the project was awarded a Governor General's Medal in Architecture in Ottawa. The GG's recognize the best in Canadian architecture over the last few years and also included wins by Patkau Architects and Ian MacDonald. 

Both accolades reward a project that has been an important step forward for the Nk'Mip as well as cultural tourism in general. The building features a remarkable rammed earth wall as well as a sensitive relationship to its desert surroundings. Kudos to both the Nk'mip and HBBH for having the vision to bring the project to fruition.

Photo: HBBH

Thursday, October 9, 2008

TLC Takes Over Binning Residence

It was announced last week that The Land Conservancy has taken over title to the Binning residence in West Vancouver, joining other historically significant places like the Kogawa and Baldwin houses, the latter designed by Arthur Erickson.

After a year up in the air, this is great news for the house and for local architecture afficionados, who had feared the place would be sold and demolished. The house is located on what was once a bucolic West Vancouver lane - a lane that over the last few years has grown cramped with oversized mansions.

Follow the link above to the TLC website and a press release requesting donations for an endowment fund. As one of the seminal locations for West Coast Modernism and the history of art and architecture in Vancouver it's crucial that it's well supported.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bring Them Down?

In this weekend's New York Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff poses a bold suggestion: seven buildings he feels should be torn down. Titled "New York City, Tear Down These Walls", Ourousoff explains that beyond just aesthetic offenses, buildings like Trump Tower and Madison Square Garden/Penn Station made the grade due to a complete lack of relationship to their surroundings or because they negatively impacted important views. 

Which made me wonder, are there any buildings in Vancouver that deserve a similar review? Does the new Shangri-La protrude a bit too high on the city's skyline? Is there a certain commercial tower that's overly disconnected from it's surroundings? Does the Canada Post Office on Georgia Street fit the bill? I happen to like it, but that's a different story.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


The Contemporary Art Gallery is currently showing the Clip/Stamp/Fold exhibit until November 9, 2008. The concept originated with architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina at Princeton University's School of Architecture and is based on the reappraisal of 'little' architectural magazines from the 1960's-1970's. As the show has travelled to Montreal, Germany and London, effort has been made to build exhibits out of local magazine collections, thus maintaining the general idea, but varying the specifics. If you haven't seen the show, it's well worth a visit, both for the broader themes of the exhibit as well as the excellent local content, co-curated in Vancouver by Adele Weder.

In addition to the exhibit there are a number of talks scheduled in the coming weeks that should prove worthwhile:

October 2, 7pm: Peeroj Thakre, Response. CAG, 555 Nelson St.

October 14, 7pm: Beatriz Colomina, Curator's Talk. C300 Theatre, UBC at Robson Square, 800 Robson St.

October 15 7pm: Ian Chodikoff, Bo Helliwell, Sherry McKay, Panel Discussion. Inform Interiors, 50 Water St.

October 30, 7pm: Trevor Boddy, Response. CAG, 555 Nelson St.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Vancouver Lights Travels: Montreal + Ottawa

Vancouver Lights Travels is a semi-regular feature detailing travels outside the Vancouver area, which is usually the focus of this blog. Following is a loose record of a number of buildings visited in Montreal and Ottawa this past summer.

First up was Montreal. There is excellent design all through the city, both contemporary and historical, not the least of which is the subway/metro stations. The original line's stations, completed in the 1960's, feature a great deal of artwork that was commissioned integral to the construction - a fine example of fruitful artist/architect relationships. Forty years on, some pieces have aged better than others, but all display an effort to elevate the subway riding experience and a few stations are a genuine pleasure to spend time in, largely due to the artwork and design. Featured Quebec artists include: Robert LaPalme, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Marcelle Ferron and Jacquest de Tonnacour among others. The photos below are of Jean-Drapeau Station.

Also on the itinerary was a requisite visit to Habitat '67. As with any structure this age, the buildings are showing signs of wear and are in need of what looks like ongoing repair. One wonders how the broad range in Montreal temperatures and weather has affected them and whether their unique method of construction has resulted in increased maintenance issues. That said, Habitat's cascading forms still possess an arresting quality, despite the waves of development in architecture over the last decades and despite the fact they never succeeded as mass-produced units as was originally intended.

Next up was Ottawa Station, designed by John B. Parkin & Associates in 1966. The train station won a Massey Medal for Architecture in 1967 and was also given a Landmark Award by the Ontario Association of Architects last year. Travelling through the station, it's easy to see why. Though some small changes have been made over the years, the station still feels like a cohesive statement. There have been no ungainly additions or radical reworking of interior spaces. It's just a train station, built in the modern idiom that happens to function very well, even after 40 years. As Silvio Baldassarra, VP of NORR, the firm that succeeded Parkin and Associates said in interview in the Ottawa Citizen, "the building is still true to its original intent and design using very few materials and colours".

Finally, following are a few shots of the Museum of Civilization. Designed by Douglas Cardinal and completed in 1989 in Gatineau, Quebec, the museum shows Cardinal's trademark style of undulating forms. Having seen it before only in photographs, it had seemed somewhat impenetrable, however the reality is a building that serves its purpose well and brings a sense of prairie undulation to the nearby nation's capital.

Lastly, in the spirit of the Montreal Metro system, here is an article by Mark Kingwell that appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday September 20th on the merits of exploring cities by subway:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mayhew Residence

One of Ron Thom's earliest houses is on the market. The Mayhew Residence in Victoria, BC was built in 1950, around the same time as the Copp Residence in Vancouver. It's a one storey structure nestled into a site that gently rolls down toward the water, now surrounded by mature and yet still meticulous landscaping. The house looks to be in excellent shape for it's age, largely unaltered except for a small addition done in the mid-1970's that was commissioned by the Mayhews - who occupied it from the time it was built until last year - to expand the master bedroom.

Unique features include a 'pinwheel' floorplan (possibly influenced by Neutra's work, as Doug Shadbolt points out in his book,
Ron Thom: The Shaping of an Architect), a butterfly roof that runs along one wing of the house, admitting southern light into the kitchen and service areas, and copious glazing along the side of the house that faces the water. It is a very private site, virtually hidden from the street on high bank waterfront. The house itself is perhaps less involved and more orthogonal than Thom's later work, but it's spare post and beam structure nonetheless displays a sensitivity to site, quality of light and spatial arrangement that were to become his trademarks.

Friday, September 12, 2008

WV Modern House Tour, Part II

Also on the house tour was the Forrest Residence, designed by Ron Thom and Dick Mann. The present owners renovated the house sympathetically to the original vision, keeping much of the original detail intact. The largest change was in the kitchen which was completely redone. Additionally, there are some areas where cedar siding was replaced with drywall. The house sits on a stunning site that looks out over the city of Vancouver and the Straight of Georgia and is a structure worthy of its site.

The defining feature is the spreading, wing-like roof lines that follow the lay of the land as it descends to the front of the property. While the roof is supported by steel beams and trusses above sand-floated stucco ceilings, copious glass is used on many exterior 'walls', resulting in the feeling of the roof floating over the house.

In the spirit of much of Ron Thom's most nuanced work, areas of the house vary quite distinctly between light and dark. The south facing side, containing the Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen and Master Bedroom all receive southern light that is tempered by generous roof overhangs while the bedrooms on the north side of the house, facing into the rising forested hillside, are darker and more contained. This 'darkness' is a key aspect of Thom's modulation of light within structure.

West Vancouver Modern House Tour

On July 12 the West Vancouver Museum and Archives held their annual tour of Modern homes. Following are some photos taken at perhaps the most high-profile house to appear on the tour, the Binning Residence. Though much has been written recently about this house, given it's state of limbo after Jessie Binning's passing last year, it's worth revisiting.

The house remains, save for a few small alterations by Jessie, largely as it has for the last 60 years. It has a ship-like feel in it's economy of materials and space and the built-in cabinetry is simple but well-crafted and remains in excellent shape. The ship analogy is not surprising considering Binning's sailing experience in local waters, as well as his fascination with seascapes and the assorted motifs.

The landscape has grown over the years so that the house - which was designed to work sympathetically with the site in the first place - is virtually enveloped by lush greenery. The house is also remarkable for it's scale and size. On the inside, in addition to thoughtful built-ins, the footprint of the house is sparing and the rooms are small. The only sense of expansiveness is in the main hall that runs up to south facing clerestories and in the doors that open onto the patio and view out towards the water. This modulation of space helps create a house that is tranquil, welcoming and unpretentious and above all, representative of architecture on a human scale.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Movers and Shapers

Check out Movers and Shapers, going on from April 24-June 22, 2008 at the Vancouver Museum. The show features a great cross-section of 'emerging' Vancouver designers.

Thomas' Hycroft

Some photos of Lionel Thomas' work at Hycroft Towers in Vancouver. Each floor features a large abstract frieze opposite the elevators that is composed of 12"x12" (approx.) panels that bear repeated patterns. They seem to draw equal inspiration from Aztec motifs and modern abstract sculpture and fit nicely alongside Thomas' other public sculpture in the city.