Archive for September, 2015

September 30th, 2015

The City of Glass, With a Twist

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Bjarke Ingels’ Vancouver House

When Douglas Coupland called Vancouver the “City of Glass” in a 2000 book of the same name, the moniker stuck – not because the author/artist was making some kind of metaphorical statement about the city’s character, but because it was literally true. Vancouver’s 30-year housing boom, which started in the mid-1980s and has continued to the present, with few interruptions, has left it with a thicket of glass-walled apartment towers that seem almost apologetic about their intrusion into the city’s beautiful natural surroundings.

Things seem ripe for a change. In recent years, some of Vancouver’s developers have made an attempt to break the mould with new residential towers that stand taller, punchier and more eccentric than anything before. Vancouver architecture lacks “really special moments,” lamented developer Ian Gillespie last year. He seems prepared to put his money where his mouth is: his latest project is Vancouver House, a 59-storey apartment tower designed by Bjarke Ingels that twists its way up from a narrow space between two elevated roadways. It has nearly twice as much floor space on its upper floors as it does at ground level, which will make it a conspicuous presence in a city known for its skinny towers.

On the other side of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula, Beijing-based architect Ole Scheeren recently revealed the design for a another top-heavy tower, this one a 51-storey structure whose protruding apartments have already earned it comparisons to the block-stacking game Jenga. “There seems to be quite a lot of readiness in Vancouver to go beyond where they are [right now],” says Scheeren.

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September 29th, 2015

The Tortuous Path to Preservation

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The Tung Fat Building seemed like the perfect opportunity for Victoria Allan to venture into property development. The nine-storey, 1960s-era building was a classic example of Hong Kong’s postwar tong lau tenements, known for their minimalist Streamline Moderne architecture, and it occupied a prime spot on the waterfront of fast-gentrifying Kennedy Town. But Allan, who runs upscale real estate agency Habitat Property, had no idea just how difficult her venture would prove. Renovating the Tung Fat turned into a decade-long ordeal – though one that has paid off handsomely, in design terms if not yet financially.

“I could see there was a real need in the market for something more unique, an older space that had been really well renovated,” says Allan. She was so taken with the nine-storey, 1960s-era walkup building, she intended to live there when the renovation was complete. Now that the project is complete, however, she won’t be among the first tenants. “I got married, had two kids. The process took that long. To be honest I was probably a bit naïve.”

All told, it took ten years to renovate the Tung Fat – five to acquire each of the building’s individually-owned units and another five to renovate according to the strict standards of Hong Kong’s Buildings Department. “Most people redevelop the site, so they’re not used to people who want to renovate and upgrade it,” says Allan. She made around 20 separate submissions to the department, some for major additions like a lift, others for minor changes like plumbing works.

What complicated things was that, like many older buildings in Hong Kong, the Tung Fat had been subjected to decades of illegal modifications, and the Buildings Department insisted that Allan restore the building to its original state before proceeding with any changes. That led to some Kafkaesque situations like installing a useless wheelchair ramp that had to be demolished: according to the original building plan, the footpath out front was several inches lower than it is today, so even though it had been raised over the years, the Buildings Department would not re-survey it until a ramp had been built to meet modern-day access codes.

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