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Vancouver Maneuvers

Vancouver, British Columbia, offers a dramatic natural setting, but as Omer Arbel shows us, there’s more to the city of glass than an immaculate reflection.

Nicknamed “Hollywood North,” Vancouver has become a favored filming spot for innumerable movies due to an offering of tax breaks, temperate climate, and attractive appearance. But more than just a pretty face, the city is currently in the midst of a frenzy of design activity and urban development.

In some cities, the urban jungle of steel and concrete suffocates all flora and fauna, except for the mightiest of weeds and pigeons. In Vancouver, however, nature is dominant, and the architecture reflects this unequal relationship. The city glows green from the emerald skyscrapers that litter downtown, vertically mimicking the snow-crested mountains sedately watching from nearby. Stanley Park, one of the world’s great urban parks, languorously sprawls over more than 1,000 acres of the city. And onto the edges of the land drum the waves of the Strait of Georgia, apt for a locale carved out by a glacier 10,000 years ago. Its 600,000 residents don’t do anything to dispel this well-scrubbed image; at any given time, visitors can catch glimpses of fleece-vested Vancouverites riding bikes along the seawall or propping skis on their cars and heading to Whistler for the weekend.

The natural surroundings are so spectacular as to overshadow human structural achievements, and noteworthy architecture has often taken a backseat to the landscape. But it’s not for lack of local efforts, since the city keeps trying to get it right with its penchant for constant redevelopment. Incorporated in 1886 by the British, who successfully ran out both the Coastal Salish people who had lived there since 16,000 BC and the more recently arrived Spaniards, the city established its love for rebuilding early. In the first year under new rule, a brush fire burned the place to the ground and the mayor started reconstruction efforts within a few days. A similar bulldozing of downtown followed by a period of rapid growth (though subsequent events were artificial, not natural) happened in the 1960s in a postwar building frenzy, then again in the ’80s in preparation for the World’s Fair. All this results in a metropolitan area that feels startlingly new and clean—an effect heightened by the omnipresent drizzle that washes over the city.

Today, Vancouver is looking forward to hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics and again finds itself in a hyper state of construction. It’s an interesting time for architects and designers like Omer Arbel, creative director of Canadian firm Bocci and also head of Omer Arbel Office, who tries to dispel the image of his native metropolis as a sleepy Outward Bound town that’s impervious to design. “Vancouver is a city that’s awakening,” he says. “You go to Milan or Barcelona, and there are centuries of excellent design. There’s nothing like that here; it’s being born now. We get to shape the city.” With his unfettered optimism in tow, Arbel shared his favorite parts of Vancouver with Dwell.

Driving toward downtown from the airport, my first impression of the skyline is always of those midrises of uniform appearance that seem particular to Vancouver.


Those glass towers you see are a Vancouver invention. They’re called point towers, and the reason for their form is that they’re the most efficient way to build around a central elevator core while maximizing views for every unit. It’s one of the first building codes in North America to allow a single elevator core in a residential tower to contain a scissor stair—which is to say two separate fire escape stairs organized in a double helix. And since housing has become homogenized in Vancouver, every unit is identical. It’s a formula for making money. There are so many people coming to Vancouver right now that the developers feel there’s no reason to have discriminating taste.   The positive side of the story is that all of the units are relatively high-end, so they get furnished very well. For some reason or another, there’s a much more sensitive market to well-designed objects than to well-designed buildings. The majority of people will agree that an iPod is beautiful, but then they’ll go and spend their life savings on a very mediocre condo.


Does that have anything to do with the fact that the natural surroundings are so impressive that the buildings are almost an afterthought?


That’s definitely architect Arthur Erickson’s position. He says that Vancouver is an extroverted city in the sense that energy is focused outwards, toward the landscape. Everything is so beautiful that when people have free time, they don’t do urban things—they go into the wilderness to hike or ski or kayak. As a result, the city feels sleepy on the surface. And Erickson says that’s also a cause for the blandness of the architecture, because people are surrounded by such beauty that even ugly buildings look okay here.


You mention Erickson, who’s helped shape the architecture of Vancouver the way that, say, Alvar Aalto shaped Helsinki or Louis Sullivan designed so much of Chicago. Are there any of Erickson’s structures that you think are especially noteworthy?


Absolutely. A visit to Vancouver is not complete without seeing some of Erickson’s early works, especially the Museum of Anthropology [at the University of British Columbia], which is a masterpiece. The most important thing about the building is the relationship it has to its site. The structure falls into the site almost like a narrative or movie; there’s a cinematic quality to the sequencing of spaces.   And of course you have to include Robson Square, a visionary piece of urban design in the center of Vancouver. It spans three blocks in the middle of downtown, and includes the art gallery, the law courts, and municipal offices. It feels dated in the sense that it was completed in 1980. But Erickson’s vision of public space stretching across three city blocks, flowing under one street and over another, is a visionary piece of urban architecture.


Any other older architecture worth seeing?


The Marine Building, a beautiful Art Deco structure that’s got the most unbelievable marine-inspired detailing, with ships and mermaids and starfish and octopi. Everywhere you look, every piece of millwork, every door, every stone has this incredibly obsessive and rigorous motif of marine decoration. And it’s all carefully handmade. It’s very impressive.


The architecture you’ve mentioned was all built before the 1980s. There must be some interesting recent architecture?


Yes, John and Patricia Patkau’s work. I started my career as an apprentice in their office. I would call them the heirs to Erickson’s language. There’s not a lot in the center of the city, but if you’re willing to travel, you can see some incredible pieces by them. Their best project is called Strawberry Vale Elementary School [in Saanich, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island]. It’s difficult to see because it’s an elementary school and parents are justifiably concerned when strangers arrive en masse to look at the building. But if you can see it, it’s worth it. It’s a series of four-sided pods, where one side is always askew and they’re distributed on the site the same way you’d see a bunch of leaves falling on the ground in an erratic pattern. The geometry and form are extremely rigorous and almost logical, but the logic of the building obeys the logic of the site.


When you’re done driving and walking around, where would you stop for dinner?


My favorite restaurant is called Vij’s. Vikram, the owner, has brought Indian cuisine to a whole new level. People travel from all over the world just to eat there. They don’t take reservations, but they have a courtyard with a bar in back. So you’re waiting maybe 45 minutes for a table, but it’s the most enjoyable 45 minutes ever because you’re having drinks with friends, you’re running into people you know, and Vikram comes around with beautiful little things he prepares. I really like the experience.


Are there any stores you’d recommend checking out?


I’d recommend the new store for Inform Interiors. It’s in a neighborhood called Gastown, the historic center of Vancouver but also the entry point of heroin into North America—it’s quite an afflicted neighborhood. Then there was this revolution where developers bought all the scary crack houses to turn them into cool places. Inform did just that and has an amazing collection of fine objects and furniture that they inserted into this deteriorating landscape.


Vancouver still seems pretty quiet after dark. Are there any places to go after dinner if you don’t want to hang out at your hotel and simply partake of the minibar offerings?


There’s a restaurant called Salt Tasting Room, one block over from Inform. You have to walk through a cobblestone alley called Blood Alley to get there; it might have gotten that name because there was crazy gang warfare there in the 1800s. Since then, it’s become a rough alley with heroin use. But then Salt put in a great wine and tasting bar. And you’re sitting there having a glass of wine, eating honeycomb from the Okanagan Valley, and some cured meats from Spain, and right across the glass from you, someone is shooting up—it’s this completely insane juxtaposition. It’s shocking gentrification on one hand, and on the other hand, a feeling that this is how a city grows.

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