“Cookie Cutter Condos” and “Vertical Sprawl” have become ubiquitous terms in describing contemporary architecture in Vancouver over the last two decades.
Since the 1990s, Vancouver has been experiencing a seemingly never-ending boom in condo tower construction. The False Creek skyline has become the flagship of this simultaneously impressive yet banal transformation. While the majority of these towers are clean and non-offensive, they are also often uninspired.
Large swaths of downtown Vancouver have become a sterile table top of light blue and sea-foam green glass. Surprisingly, this wasn’t always the case for Vancouver. In fact, for such a young urban area, Vancouver has a surprisingly daring history of architectural ambition.
Throughout downtown Vancouver, prominent towers built throughout the 20th century of various styles and materials can be found and admired.
With its striking colour pallet of vibrant red and golden beige, reminiscent of an autumn landscape, the Dominion Building, which sits opposite Victory Square on the edge of Gastown, is a prime example of Vancouver’s architectural fearlessness of the past century.
Upon its completion in 1910, it had the honour of being the tallest commercial tower in the British Empire.
Only two years later, the 82-metre Sun Tower, with its iconic steel dome, would dominate the Vancouver skyline.
It not only surpassed the 53-metre Dominion Building for tallest in the city, but for a single year it was crowned the tallest of all buildings in the British Empire.
Of course, no list of classic Vancouver architectural icons is complete without mentioning the Marine Building.
Completed in 1930 and standing at 98 metres tall, the Marine Building on Burrard Street is considered to be one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture in the world. In recent years it has been featured heavily in film and TV productions, often standing in for New York City. While the quality of these films, such as The Fantastic Four, are debatable, the quality of the Marine Building is indisputable.
These are just three examples of the numerous structural gems from the early 1900s that anchor Vancouver’s urban form.
Vancouver’s architectural flare continued to burn throughout the second half of the 20th century as well, but began to wane in the early 1990s.
While it is unrealistic and uneconomical to expect every tower constructed to be a bold and inventive masterpiece, for over 20 years Vancouver added notably few landmark developments among the vast sea of rising condos. The main branch of the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch and Sheraton One Wall Centre are among the only significant exceptions to this.
A change though of late has been occurring, and it seems that Vancouver may be in the midst of rediscovering its passion for architectural excellence.
It is difficult to pinpoint an exact year or project that began this renaissance of bold design, but three major projects are in the running for this distinction.
The first is Jameson House, which was completed in 2011. Designed by Foster & Partners, Jameson House is an office and residential mixed-use tower on West Hastings Street, and is distinguished by its prominent cylindrical form on its west facade.
The second is the MNP Tower. Completed in 2014, this 143-metre office tower beautifully frames its neighbouring structure, the aforementioned Marine Building, with its elegant curves and swooping facade.
The third is the Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver completed in 2016. At 63 floors and 188 metres, it is the second tallest building in downtown Vancouver. Besides its signature 45-degree twist from top to bottom, this tower is noteworthy for being the final structure designed by Vancouver’s own Arthur Erickson, who passed away in 2009 — seven years before the tower’s completion.
Maybe in the future, this tower could rightfully adorn his honourable name.
Then came a project like no other that has been turning heads since it began to rise from its foundation.
This, of course, is the memorizing and at times starling Vancouver House — a tower that seems to be defying the laws of gravity.
Currently under construction with a final height of 151.5 metres, this eye catching project interacts with the Granville Street Bridge by appearing to loom above the southbound onramp, creating a unique urban space in Vancouver.
Designed by Bjarke Ingels Group Architects, this tower will act as a gateway into the downtown core and is sure to become an icon of the city.
Also currently under construction downtown is the shorter, yet no less interesting, 400 West Georgia office tower.
Designed by Merrick Architecture, at 23 floors (92 metres) tall, this quirky project has been best described as a cogwheel of boxes. With an expected completion date of spring 2020, this addition to West Georgia Street will be sure to grab one’s attention, not only with its intriguing design, but also with its extensive use of greenery scaling the tower from top to bottom.
A few kilometres west just before entering Stanley Park are two more unique projects that will soon make their presence known among the West End skyline.
First is 1550 Alberni, which was proposed in 2015 and has since commenced construction. Designed by Japanese starchitect, Kengo Kuma, this eye catching 133 metre (42 floors) residential tower will heavily utilize bamboo, wood, and water features, complimenting its gracefully carved form.
Just to the northeast across Alberni Street is the 134 metre tall (43 floors) “Jenga” Tower, otherwise known as 1515 Alberni.
Designed by another internationally renowned starchitect, Buro Ole Scheeren, this residential tower is composed of a system of apartment modules and terraces that will branch out horizontally. Originally envisioned at the more appropriate, taller height of 152 metres, the Jenga Tower was unfortunately reduced in stature by nearly 20 metres, despite the proposed site allowing a height of up to 500 feet (152.4 metres) under the City’s West End Community Plan Policy.
Nevertheless, this tower will still make its distinctive mark on the city of Vancouver upon its completion in 2023.
Possibly the most intriguing of all is a striking residential project that is sure to become a key pinnacle of the downtown peninsula’s maturing skyline.
At 178.6 metres, which upon completion will make it the third tallest tower in Vancouver proper, is The Butterfly.
Designed by Bing Thom Architects, this elegant tower will abut against the timeless First Baptist Church. Inspired by the refined yet imposing curves of a church organ, the Butterfly stretches towards the sky in four cylindrical sections, complete with swooping scallops at the base.
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list — there are numerous other projects of varying scales currently under construction or proposed that will further propel Vancouver’s architectural stature.
This includes The Stack (Vancouver’s soon-to-be tallest office tower at 161 metres) at 1133 Melville Street, the Passive House residential towers at 1468 Alberni Street with their faux-heritage flare and limestone cladding, and the sophisticated curves of the Oakridge Centre redevelopment, just to name a few.
While one may not love all these designs equally, they will be noticed and they will be worthy of conversation, something the urban realm should always strive to achieve.
After decades of monotony, Vancouver is on the verge of shedding its cookie cutter image.