Opinion: History on repeat, as Vancouver is experiencing a new wave of architectural loss

Dec 26 2018, 8:46 pm

It is the mid-20th century, the baby boom is in high gear, and Metro Vancouver’s population has surpassed the half-million mark and is soon to break 600,000.

It was a time of rapid growth and modernization. Throughout North America, pre-war structures were being torn down in a frenzy to make way for the burgeoning future.

Vancouver, while having fared better than most cities across the continent, experienced its own major losses during this period of urban renewal.

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At the start of this now infamous wave of demolitions, few people were concerned and many more gave them no thought at all, and why would they? Pre-war buildings were the dominant form throughout the city.

Downtown Vancouver in the 1950s. (City of Vancouver Archives)

They were mundane and as noteworthy as a typical glass condo is today. Of course, in retrospect, for every unremarkable shack that was justifiably replaced with an office tower or apartment block, a unique jewel was also lost — rich in architectural and social significance.

No locality in Vancouver better represents this progression of events than the area around the intersection of West Georgia Street and Granville Street. This intersection was once home to several of the city’s boldest Edwardian landmarks. The most familiar of these is the Hudson’s Bay Department building, which was built in 1927 with its cream terracotta facade and still graces downtown with its presence today.

Hudson’s Bay, Vancouver (Ian Ius / Daily Hive)

The second was The Birks Building, which opened in 1913 and stood at 11 storeys.

The third was the second version of the Hotel Vancouver; completed in 1916, this was the first to meet its demise. It was an Italian Renaissance-style hotel that stood a boisterous 15 floors (77 meters) in height.

Despite its grandeur, it was demolished in 1949, having been replaced a block away by the third and final Hotel Vancouver — the building that still stands today. At the time, it was just one of many such structures that dotted the city. In its place sat a surface parking lot for 20 years, until the construction of the CF Pacific Centre complex in 1969.

The second Hotel Vancouver. (University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections)

These demolitions continued throughout the city with few protests, and in 1974 it was time for the Birks Building to meet the wrecking ball. However, now with over two decades of urban renewal having occurred, Vancouver’s stock of pre-war buildings was becoming noticeably fewer in number.

Finally, the tipping point had been reached.

Major protests were held to save the Birks Building, but sadly the demolition continued as planned. Today, the Scotiabank Tower complex sits in its place.

Birks Building on Georgia and Granville. (Don Coltman. Archives# CVA 586-4399)

The demise of the Birks Building did have a silver lining. It served as the catalyst for Vancouver’s far stronger heritage preservation regulations.

Today, we look back at these decades of growth and loss and wonder, how could anyone allow such historical landmarks to be demolished?

But, that is the catch. At the time of their demolition, many of these structures weren’t considered to have any special historical value. The second Hotel Vancouver was a mere 33 years old when it was torn down, the equivalent to a building constructed in the mid-1980s today. Even the Birks building was only 61 years old when demolished.

Scotia Tower, which replaced the Birks Building. (Ian Ius / Daily Hive)

To many, these were likely seen as outdated designs that had fallen out of fashion.

Today, despite how mature we believe to have become in preserving our architectural heritage, history has started to repeat itself.

As of the start of 2019, the first major victim of this new cycle has nearly been erased from existence: the Empire Landmark Hotel.

The Empire Landmark Hotel mid-demolition, August 2018. (Ian Ius / Daily Hive)

Located at 1400 Robson Street, the Empire Landmark Hotel was completed in 1973 and originally known as the Sheraton Landmark.

At 120 metres (42 floors) tall, this tower soared above the surrounding neighbourhood. True to its name, it was one of the few landmark pinnacles that pierced through downtown’s ‘tabletop’ skyline.

Furthermore, unlike most towers in Vancouver that disappear at night, such as the Living Shangri-La, it had vibrant, decorative lighting on its crown.

This crown, of course, was the Cloud 9 revolving restaurant that also offered the general public rare panoramic views of the surrounding city.

Cloud 9 revolving restaurant

Views of the city from the Cloud 9 revolving restaurant on the 42nd floor of the Empire Landmark Hotel. (Tourism Vancouver)

As also clearly stated in the name, this tower was completely devoted to hotel space — 357 guest rooms, in total. It is an important detail in a city that is currently lacking in hotel space.

Possibly most important of all, the Empire Landmark Hotel was one of Vancouver’s most visible examples of brutalist architecture. Popular from the early 1950s to the late 1970s, Brutalism preferred function over form and is easily recognized with its common use of exposed cement exteriors.

Many examples of Brutalism can be found across Metro Vancouver, including the Simon Fraser University campus atop Burnaby Mountain, UBC Museum of Anthropology, and the MacMillan Bloedel Building, which is more commonly known as the “concrete waffle.”

Anthropology Museum in University of British Columbia Campus

Museum of Anthropology at UBC (Xuanlu Wang/Shutterstock)

It is by no coincidence that all three of these structures were designed by Vancouver’s own Arthur Erickson.

Indeed, it seems that Brutalism is a key element in Vancouver’s architectural culture and history. This is where the similarities begin to emerge; currently, Vancouver has a seemingly abundant supply of 40 to 50-year-old brutalist structures.

This half-century mark appears to be an awkward age regarding the value of an architectural style, not old enough to be revered for its historical significance, but not modern enough to feel fresh and functional.

MacMillan Bloedel Building aka The “Concrete Waffle.” (Google Maps)

While many lesser brutalist buildings have already been removed, mostly low-rise apartment towers, the Empire Landmark Hotel is the first major example to meet its demise.

Bought by Hong Kong-based Asia Standard Americas, the demolition began in March 2018 and will continue until the Empire Landmark Hotel is no more in March 2019.

The final days of the Empire Landmark Hotel (Ian Ius / Daily Hive)

In its vacancy, two shorter luxury residential towers will rise at a far less impactful 91 metres.

This project will include 237 market condos and 63 social housing units. To add insult to injury, unlike other recent luxury residential projects, such as the Kengo Kuma tower and Vancouver House, these towers lack any meaningful architectural significance.

Artistic rendering of the planned residential development. (Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership)

Indeed, it seems as if the Empire Landmark Hotel is this generation’s second Hotel Vancouver: a unique landmark lost with no more than a murmur of protest and no objection from the city. A structure of seemingly little importance, that will sure to be recognized of its architectural qualities only decades after its removal.

This current wave of demolitions is not only limited to Brutalism though. Only a few blocks to the northeast of the Empire Landmark Hotel, another major loss is soon to occur.

At 1090 West Pender Street, a charming 12-storey office tower currently stands. Completed in 1971 and designed by Gerald Hamilton and Associates, this tower is clad in eye-catching formalist-styled pre-cast concrete.

1090 West Pender and its formalist styled patterned cladding (Google Map)

Formalism was largely popular between 1960 and 1975 and consists of a blend of Modernism and more historical styles.

This tower, while stout, adds a nice variation of texture to its surrounding area. Even though it was given a statement of significance for its architectural and historical qualities by the city, it will soon be replaced by a 123-metre (33 storey) office tower — a project itself limited by Vancouver’s restricting view cones, further reducing any benefit to be gained from such a loss.

In the end, all that will remain of this original tower will be a small section of panels installed on the back lane of the replacement tower, near the parkade entrance.

Artistic rendering of the proposed tower at 1090 West Pender Street in downtown Vancouver. (Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership / Bentall Kennedy)

These two examples highlight the importance as both a city and a community to be able to recognize meaningful structures for preservation during an architectural style’s “mid-life crisis.”

This is not a call to cease progress or to even suggest stopping demolitions completely, but for us to more carefully examine the cost-benefit of removing a part of our city before it is too late.

Regretfully, it is past the point of no return for the Empire Landmark Hotel and the ink may be dry for 1090 West Pender Street, but hopefully Vancouver will once again have its “Birks” moment and these currently under-appreciated architectural styles will be given the recognition they deserve.

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