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Beyond Vancouverism

Blog by Ian Watt | August 25th, 2008


Beyond Vancouverism

Architect Bing Thom says Vancouver must stop patting itself on the back for the city it's become and decide what kind of city it wants to be in the years ahead
Michael McCarthy
Special to Vancouver Courier

Architect Bing Thom says Vancouver must stop patting itself on the back for the city it's become and decide what kind of city it wants to be in the years ahead
CREDIT: Photo-Dan Toulgoet
Architect Bing Thom says Vancouver must stop patting itself on the back for the city it's become and decide what kind of city it wants to be in the years ahead
The new Sunset Community Centre was described by Premier Gordon Campbell as 'a great example of good design.'
CREDIT: Photo-Dan Toulgoet
The new Sunset Community Centre was described by Premier Gordon Campbell as 'a great example of good design.'
Ray Spaxman: 'I think we need to freeze any development for now, get creative and take an integrated approach to the entire [False Creek Flats].'
CREDIT: Photo-Dan Toulgoet
Ray Spaxman: 'I think we need to freeze any development for now, get creative and take an integrated approach to the entire [False Creek Flats].'

"The Olympics are just ending, and we have seen what the Chinese have built. China is being led by people a generation younger than our leaders here in Vancouver. They may be making a lot of mistakes in China, but my point is that we are getting old here in B.C. We need to get serious about our future and which way we are headed. So much of what is being built today was envisioned a long time ago. Where do we go from here?"

The speaker is Bing Thom, one of Canada's most famous architects and civic designers. With a municipal election coming this fall, Thom and some of Vancouver's foremost urban planners wonder which way the city is headed and what visions of the future our would-be leaders will offer.

Thom is one of the leading exponents of a style that's become known as "Vancouverism." Definitions vary by the source, but according to the New York Times, Vancouverism is an urban style characterized by tall, but widely separated, slender towers interspersed with low-rise buildings, public spaces, small parks, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and facades to minimize the impact of a high density population.

The style evolved in the 1970s in downtown Vancouver and has come to recent fruition all over the city as evidenced by similar slender towers, often built on a low-rise base of residential townhomes and commercial offices. Architects and planners from around the world discuss Vancouverism as a model for dealing with density or modernization in their own cities.

At the recent opening of the Sunset Community Centre, according to the Globe and Mail, Premier Gordon Campbell singled out architect Thom as "one of the creative spirits of the new British Columbia, spreading his ideas all over the world." Campbell described the bold-winged recreational and cultural hub as "a great example of good design."

Designing entire communities--and not just buildings--is what Thom does best. But as successful as Vancouverism has become, Thom wonders whether we have become stuck in a rut and lack new ideas for a future that may see Vancouver's population double in the next generation. How do we deal with such growth? Are tall, slender highrises the solution? It was the 68-year old Thom's generation that invented Vancouverism; now he wonders what the current generation has to say.

"Our civic leaders spend a lot of time talking about the current crises of the day," says Thom, "but I don't hear anyone talking about the big picture. What's their vision for the future of the city? Does anybody know?"

Thom's fame as a world-class architect lies in finding unique designs appropriate to their context. With his False Creek Yacht Club design, the structural pilings are extended through the building and transformed into masts complete with cables, making the building resemble a boat. Likewise, the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at UBC is a music hall that, through its use of curves and cables, resembles a musical instrument.

Thom's Aberdeen Mall in Richmond is a hub of Asian culture. In Whistler, his Celebration Plaza (where medals are to be awarded during the Olympics) will be turned into a public skating rink. Thom has helped re-design downtown Fort Worth, Texas and designed the town master plan for Dalian, China.

Born in Hong Kong in 1940, Thom and his family immigrated to Canada in 1950. He studied architecture at the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley before moving to Tokyo in 1971 to work for Japanese architect/urbanist Fumihiko Maki. A year later, Thom returned to Canada and became project director for Arthur Ericksen. He oversaw notable projects as diverse as Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, the Robson Square Courthouse Complex in Vancouver and the Saudi Arabian Air Defence Ministry Building in Jeddah.

In 1981, Thom established his own firm in his Burrard Street offices, a modest structure under the north end of the Burrard Street Bridge. Here, he oversees the work of 50 people from 20 countries who speak 18 languages.

In 1996, Thom was awarded the Order of Canada. Last month, he and two other architects (Arthur Erickson and James Cheng) represented Vancouverism at London's Festival of Architecture, the largest such event in the world.

These days, his firm is working on a 52-storey residential tower next to the Georgia Hotel that Thom calls "the Crystal." He can also be found at the helm of his custom-built, 35-foot sailboat Sonja's Spirit, indulging in his regular regimen of transcendental meditation, or at home in a Kitsilano condo he built himself, where he lives with wife Bonnie.

But the true spirit of Thom is best found in his early schooling. Arriving in Chinatown as a little boy, he was told by mother that the best way to learn was "to go somewhere there are absolutely no Chinese." The family found a home in Kerrisdale at 53rd and Cypress. Thom worked after school at the Ding-Ho drive-in restaurant in Kerrisdale.

In school, he was subjected to constant racist taunts. He fought back constantly, developing the same gung ho spirit he maintains today.

That dynamic spirit sees Thom questioning just where our city is headed. He agrees that Vancouverism, however you define it, is derived from the work of his own generation, and wonders when we are going to pass the torch on to new visionaries.

He says we're drifting towards becoming a resort town, like a giant Whistler. Up to 30 per cent of the people who own property in our downtown core don't actually live here. Of the young people found downtown, many (almost 30,000) are foreign students. Many of us in Vancouver are getting old, he says, and older people tend toward conservative thinking.

"The first time I heard the term 'Vancouverism' was from an Italian journalist here to find out what the term meant," says Thom, sitting at the boardroom table on the ground floor of his modest offices. "He said that every time he turned a corner, he found something different, a great deal of diversity. To my mind, the term refers to our way of creating density by combining residential and commercial spaces. Thanks to this approach we are slowly evolving into our own character. Downtown is pretty well built out, so now we have to look at the East Side."

The East Side of the city--what Thom defines as a north/south corridor starting at Broadway and Commercial and running north through Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside to the waterfront--is the last remaining chunk of land whose future remains undecided. What we do with that area will truly define Vancouverism, claims Thom.

Whatever we build there, he says, it can't just be a forest of residential towers owned by rich people, the elderly or offshore interests. We need to find a way to keep the city affordable and attractive to the kind of people who will build our future.

How we create an affordable future is a major part of the question.

"I think we need to freeze any development for now, get creative and take an integrated approach to the entire area," says Thom. "I know this artist who bought a building over a funeral parlour in the area, moved in and started an art gallery, and the city permit police shut him down because he didn't fit into any category of theirs. In the past we allowed commercial density to get residential housing built. Now I think we have to do the opposite. We need to rethink the whole idea of industrial land. Sure we need car lots and machine shops, but where should they be located?"

The main problem for the development of the eastern False Creek Flats (which is basically the area to which Thom refers) is that it's a north/south vertical corridor broken up by east/west horizontal barriers like the railway tracks along Terminal, the Georgia Viaduct, the ghetto that is the Downtown Eastside, and the railway tracks along the waterfront. Removing these barriers would open up the area to a mix of residential, commercial, office and industrial development, especially in the high-tech research and development sector that Thom insists is lagging in the city.

"The world is moving very fast these days," says Thom. "Vancouver is like a teenager, just approaching maturity. We are a beautiful city, very narcissistic. We have a beautiful face but we need to grow up, and we have to choose what direction we want to go."

Vancouverism, says Ray Spaxman, whether as an architectural style or an urban planning term, might already be obsolete.

"We need a lot more density than what we have now," says Spaxman, former City of Vancouver chief urban planner and now a consultant. "A highrise can constitute a pleasant environment, but we need more than highrises with townhouses at street level. We need much more life on the streets, more people. People on the street bring the city alive.

"I think Bing Thom is right; we need more integrated planning in the future. We need to bring everything together as a whole. I think he is a great visionary, and we need to listen to people like him."

Vancouverism, says Spaxman, grew out of a progressive period in Vancouver's civic history. "I see Vancouverism not as an individual building or style, but as a work by a group of people in the 1970s, [at] a moment in time when the community elected a city council whose mission it was to improve the quality of life in our city. I refer to TEAM, or The Electors Action Movement, led by Art Phillips."

TEAM, according to Spaxman, had certain key principles, including regard for the quality of the environment and for the aesthetic and spiritual impact of the environment. There was transparency in the formation of civic policy. Citizen involvement was strongly encouraged, something that Spaxman says has been lost along the way.

"[Former city councillor] Walter Hardwick was a major architect of Vancouverism," says Spaxman. "He had an understanding of complexity. [Former mayor] Art Phillips showed leadership and financial acumen. We are desperately short of those things today. We need to see the planning that is going on, and discuss what it might look like when it is built."

Spaxman himself is regarded as one of the planning innovators whose work led to Vancouverism. Writing in the Vancouver Sun recently, former city councillor Gordon Price said that during the 16 years Spaxman served at city hall, he transformed a bureaucracy and trained a generation of planners who carried on his legacy.

Spaxman was responsible, said Price, for changing the way planning and development was done in this city, and he summed it up in one word: "neighbourliness." A building had to be respectful of its neighbours and of the citizens on the street. Buildings had to be more than sculptural objects on vacant plazas. It didn't matter how "iconic" a building was if it selfishly ignored the urban environment in which it dwelt.

Spaxman now worries, along with Thom, that Vancouver is becoming nothing more than a big tourist destination. "We have been successful in creating a place where people want to come to, but we seem to have forgotten what sort of economic base we want to create, and an understanding of an integration of all the forces that make for a successful city," he says. "There seems to be a lack of discussion and agreement about where we want to go from here. As a community we need to agree on such things."

He agrees with Thom that the False Creek Flats is the area we should be discussing as the key to the city's future.

"Yes, we should be looking east. It all comes together at the Georgia Viaduct and Chinatown. We need a mix of commerce and research and development and industry in that entire area."

Not everyone agrees the False Creek Flats are the key, and not everyone has the same notion that Vancouverism--or its successor--should be applied in other parts of Vancouver.

Former councillor Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University and adjunct professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC, is a regular lecturer on transportation and land use and sits on the board of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities.

"I'm not sure I like the term 'Vancouverism'," says Price, "but you know it when you see it. It's very green and glassy. It embraces density by building whole neighbourhoods of residential towers--lots of thin towers on podiums. It mixes old and new, young and old, well off and not so [well off], jobs and retail, green spaces and hard edges. It's pedestrian-friendly. It's profitable."

Price prefers the term "PoTo," for "podium and tower," which was coined by a UBC student last year.

"It's a reflection of the success of the model," he says. "What happened in Vancouver during the 1990s has turned out to be architecturally significant, and there are a lot of people coming here to see if it works for their city. The fundamentals turned out to be fairly correct."

Price is a fan of the model of the individual architecture he calls PoTo, and believes the same approach should be applied to the rest of the remaining land near the city centre. He disagrees with Thom's view that the railway lines along Terminal and the waterfront should be removed so that new mixed development can be built. Price would prefer to let things evolve "serendipitously," when the moment is right.

"Rail lines are the big issue in False Creek," agrees Price, "but I think we should pause a moment before saying the tracks should be removed. It's not correct to say that Vancouver is becoming nothing more than a tourist town. First and foremost, the city is a major port. Global change is happening on an unprecedented level and we need to think some things through before making major decisions we might regret later.

"The speed and scale of global change is immense," adds Price, "but one thing is constant and that is the need for energy. We hear people talk about the need to get freight trucks off the road, and maybe use barges to move heavy freight around the region, but is anything more energy-efficient than rail? Perhaps the rail lines that terminate at the waterfront will prove to be a very important part of our infrastructure in the future just as they have in the past, and we should think twice about any talk of their removal for the sake of more residential and commercial development."

Speaking of rail, Price says our most important planning will be along the SkyTrain lines, where PoTo-type towers are sprouting up.

"The urban experiment in downtown Vancouver is being applied all over," says Price. "The use of the automobile is now dropping in the downtown region. The kids are taking SkyTrain. In fact, the city is full of young people with bright ideas for the future of the city. All we need to do is listen to them."

It's a topic on which Bing Thom agrees. "There's an election coming up soon," he says. "People like Peter Ladner and Gregor Robertson and aspiring city councillors need to step forward and give us their vision of the future. All we ever hear about is the crisis of the day, like drugs and homelessness. Let's discuss where the city should be headed. Let's see some real vision for a change."

© Vancouver Courier 2008


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