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.
Jet lag affects everyone differently, but I often hear stories of people waking up in the middle of the night, unable to return to sleep. For me, an inveterate night owl, the effect is to impose a schedule that most other people would consider normal: asleep before midnight, rising not long after the sun. That was the case on one trip to Vancouver, when I took advantage of rare early-morning wakefulness to grab a coffee and walk along English Bay.
It was so cold in Toronto this week that groundwater under the city froze solid, causing a rare “frost quake” — and earthquake-like boom following by trembling earth. But that was only a sideshow to the main event: a debilitating ice storm that cut power and pruned the city’s tree canopy by 20 percent. So maybe, just by way of diversion, it’s worth looking back to a gentler time of year. Last August, I was in Toronto for a weekend wedding. I made good use of the short time I had to roam the city. Here’s what I saw.
It was one of my most memorable meals in Canada: fried, profoundly sweet local beets; a spicy stir-fried mélange of brussel sprouts and cauliflower; and British Columbia haddock served with naan and rice in a coconut curry. And it all came from a truck — actually, two trucks, to be precise, Le Tigre and Vij’s Railway Express, both of which were parked in a vacant lot just off Vancouver’s False Creek, where around 20 food stalls assemble each Sunday for the Food Cart Fest.
It was one of those impossibly clear, sunny days that make BC summers so spectacular, and as I sat on a curb, plastic fork plunging into styrofoam container, I thought about how improbable these trucks really were. Like most Canadian cities, street food in Vancouver was for years limited to precooked sausages reheated on a barbecue. Serviceable enough, but this was food to fill your belly, not stimulate your appetite, the unfortunate byproduct of health regulations that saw sodium-packed, industrially-processed cylinders of beef as somehow safer than freshly-prepared meats and vegetables. Then came the first sign of innovation, in 2007, when recent Japanese transplant Noriki Tamura began serving seaweed-laden hot dogs at his Burrard Street stall, Japadog. At the time, Vancouver had 120 street food carts, all of which were restricted to selling hot dogs, ice cream and soft drinks. Japadog pushed the limits of that regime as far as they would go. In 2010, they finally gave way. Following in the footsteps of the gourmet food truck boom in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Vancouver opened its streets to a panoply of delights normally reserved for bricks-and-mortar restaurants: Taiwanese pork belly sliders, fresh Pacific seafood, Australian meat pies.
I spent most of the past month in Canada, travelling not quite from coast to coast, but at least from the Georgia Strait to the shores of the St. Lawrence. (“What are you, on a fucking grand tour of Canada?” asked Steve Welch when I walked into his bookstore last week.) Food trucks followed me wherever I went. In Parksville, a small beach town on Vancouver Island, I passed by a wood-fired pizza truck. I got a milkshake from the dubiously-named Mr. Soft and Delight in downtown Toronto. And I scouted out the new fleet of food trucks that are cruising the streets of Montreal, the first time in 66 years that street food has been allowed in the city.
The Devonian Gardens were a wonderland. Located on the top floor of the TD Centre mall in downtown Calgary, the gardens were a fully-enclosed greenhouse of tropical plants and — best of all for a kid — a million nooks and crannies to explore. It seemed like every path led to something fascinating: a hidden alcove surrounded by palms, a wood-framed playground teeming with children, a pond filled with turtles and goldfish, ringed by little coin-operated dispensers that spat out fish food instead of candy. There was an outdoor terrace, too, and in the winter it was exhilarating to emerge from the warm, soupy air of the gardens into the stingingly dry cold.
Built in the late 1970s and donated to the City of Calgary by the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, the gardens were operated as an indoor public park, open without restriction for most of the day. It was a popular spot for office workers to eat their lunch, munching on sandwiches as nannies and mothers pushed their babies down the brick paths. Men gathered in the afternoon to play chess near the gardens’ front entrance. There were more than 135 species of plants, many of them tropical, and in a dry prairie city that is brown for most of the year, the gardens felt almost surreal in their lushness, a feeling enhanced by the contrast between the jungly vegetation and the banal artificiality of the design: brown bricks, brown metal railings, faux stone waterfalls that looked like they came from the set of a cheap dinosaur movie.
Five years ago, on a February trip to Calgary, I made a point to walk through the Devonian Gardens when I spent an afternoon photographing the Plus-15 network of interconnected second-floor spaces that spans most of the downtown area. I had no idea it would be the last time I saw the gardens in their original state. Shortly after my visit, TD Centre and two adjacent malls closed for a years-long renovation that included a makeover for the gardens. When they reopened last summer, it became clear that it was much more than a makeover: it was a complete gutting of everything that had made the gardens special.
When the stretch of Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal’s Gay Village was pedestrianized for two and a half months in the summer of 2008, it was accompanied by a strange policy that forced the street’s bars and restaurants to serve only Labatt beer products on their outdoor terraces. Merchants were unhappy and for good reason: it was summer-long corporate takeover of public space. (I said as much when a journalist for the Globe and Mail called for my opinion — ah, my glory days as a local pundit.)
Things have mellowed out since then. The Labatt-only policy was scrapped and car-free summers are now a well-loved tradition in the Village. What’s especially remarkable is that, unlike Montreal’s other street fairs and festivals, which ban car traffic for a few days or weeks at a time, the Village pedestrianization lasts the entirety of the summer — day and night, rain and shine. I think it owes a big part of its success to artist Claude Cormier, who draped 200,000 pink baubles over the street in 2011. Les boules roses proved so popular they returned the following year, and they’re poised to make a comeback this year, too.
The pink balls work because they create a sense of enclosure. One of the problems pedestrian streets face, especially in a car-dependent North American society, is that they often feel empty and sapped of vitality. You don’t realize how much space cars take up until they’re gone; a street that seems narrow when it’s filled with traffic, like Ste. Catherine, suddenly feels vast when the asphalt is clear. The baubles counteract that by tricking the mind into thinking the space is smaller and busier than it actually is. Plus they’re fun. And, you know, gay.
Walking the length of Vancouver’s Seawall is a lesson in design fads and fashions. The Stanley Park stretch dates back to 1914 and is elegant in its simplicity; a rough-hewn stone wall threads its way around the park’s craggy shoreline, rainforest on one side and cool Pacific waters on the other. Near Granville Island, the path takes on a late-70s look with brick paving, timber planters and suburban landscaping, a trend that continued into the 1990s, with some variations — square-cut timber gave way to painted steel tubes as the material of choice for benches and railings, and the pine trees of the 70s were usurped by a 90s love of palms, which matched the SoCal architecture that was fashionable at the time.
By the time the late 2000s rolled around, fashions had changed yet again, and this is reflected in the newest stretch of the Seawall, which runs along the southeast side of False Creek next to the Olympic Village. The materials used are at once rustic yet contemporary: cool materials like concrete, granite and steel juxtaposed with warm timber. Natural shorelines were preserved rather than obliterated, wild grasses are abundant and there is generally a more diverse array of spatial experiences than on the more rigid parts of the Seawall: paved plazas, boardwalks, pebble beaches, piers jutting into the water. (The entire Seawall is documented on Google Street View, so feel free to take a virtual bike ride to see if you agree with my impressions.)
It’s that depth of experience that sets the newest part of the Seawall apart from its predecessors. It is not simply a space meant for enjoying the view; it’s a space that encourages active participation. There are lounge chairs, a seemingly unregulated community garden and — most interesting of all — there’s Habitat Island. This spit of scrubby offshore land is accessible only at low tide via a pebble beach. The last time I visited, on a sunny spring day, the island was filled with people: teenagers rummaging through the bush, some people smoking pot, others drinking beer, families examining the aquatic life of tidal pools. It’s a lovely, unmanicured island, its wildness made all the more striking by the wall of glassy condominium towers across the water.
Human life and natural life are often seen to be at odds, so the points where they intersect — urban beaches, wall trees, overgrown vacant lots — feel wonderfully transgressive. Cities are such regulated environments that the intrusion of a self-governing natural element is disruptive and thrilling.
That’s especially true around this time of year, when cherry blossoms begin to bloom. In Japan, this occasion is used an excuse to throw hanami parties under the blossoms, and similar gatherings occur elsewhere in the world. When I was in Vancouver last spring, there was a sakura festival outside the Burrard Street SkyTrain station, with music and bento boxes that people held up to the flowers and photographed. Elsewhere in the city, small crowds gathered around particularly attractive blossoms to take photos.
These sakura spaces are ephemeral in the extreme: one week they’re there, the next they’re gone. The area outside Burrard station is a pretty unremarkable place, a sunken concrete plaza where office workers eat their sandwiches before returning to another slog in the cubicle. But for two weeks each spring, the arrival of the cherry blossoms transforms it into somewhere almost magical, a feather-ceilinged outdoor room that people go out of their way to visit.
Early December was a busy time for Bing Thom. First, there was his 72nd birthday, followed shortly by an announcement that the renowned Canadian architect had won the competition to design the new Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong, the first of 17 cultural venues to be built in the West Kowloon Cultural District. But Thom looks nothing but energised the day after the announcement, as he stands inside the cultural district’s offices.
“Have you seen the model?” he asks, bouncing over to a scale model to show off the 1,780-seat, US$350 million centre for Chinese opera that will begin construction this year. When it is completed at the end of 2015, the Xiqu Centre will contain a large theatre, a 280-seat teahouse, educational facilities for 200 students, retail spaces and a series of gardens. (A smaller theatre will be added later.) When Thom’s design was first unveiled, its undulating, translucent form caused quite a stir, earning comparisons to a lantern, a curtain being pulled open and even, in less polite corners of the internet, a certain part of the female anatomy.
“I’m trying to capture the soul and essence of what Cantonese opera is about while giving it a contemporary expression of ambiguity,” says Thom. “Even though it’s not physically moving, the quality of light, the seasonal changes and the changing of the gardens with different colours will give the building a moving quality.”
The Xiqu Centre is a sort of homecoming for Thom. Born in Hong Kong in 1940, he left with his family for Vancouver when he was ten years old. After studies in architecture at the University of British Columbia and University of California, Berkeley, he worked briefly for Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki before joining Arthur Erickson’s office in 1972, overseeing a number of major projects including the Roy Thomson concert hall in Toronto and the ambitious Robson Square civic centre project in Vancouver.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel pretty extensively over the past few years. There have been sunny mornings in Munich, cold winter treks through Seoul, sweaty nights in Bangkok. Yet for all the cities I’ve encountered, all the streets I’ve walked, I still think Montreal is one of the most enjoyable places in the world to explore. There’s something about the eclectic architecture, untamed vegetation and weather-worn surfaces — brick, wood, stone, concrete — that gives it a particularly satisfying depth of experience. The fleeting light and changing foliage of fall brings out the best of these qualities, adding to them dimensions of sound (the crackling of leaves underfoot) and smell: wood smoke on chilly evenings, the musk of decaying foliage.
Every day from spring to fall, a scene reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s most famous painting is reenacted next to the Lafontaine Park pond in Montreal. It’s as much of a scene as any bar or café: teenagers flirting, sunbathers bathing, les ostie de gratteux de guitare strumming their guitars.
Thinking back to my most recent visit to the park, in late October, and looking at Seurat’s painting, I wonder what particular alchemy leads to a place becoming a natural gathering spot for loafers and loiterers. English Bay in Vancouver, the southeast steps of Union Square in New York, Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath — is all it takes a slope and an open view? Or is there another ingredient?
Over the past 30 years, Vancouver has transformed itself from provincial outpost to globally-renowned metropolis — a crucial link in the Pacific Rim necklace of capital, culture and migration. The change has been physical. Since 1990, more than 150 skyscrapers have been built on the Canadian city’s downtown peninsula, creating a densely-built environment that has more in common with Singapore or Shanghai than with most North American cities.
Nearly 40 of those towers were designed by James Cheng, one of Canada’s most quietly influential architects. Born in Hong Kong, educated in the United States and based in Vancouver since 1972, Cheng pioneered a form of slender “point tower” set atop a low-rise podium that became the emblem of “Vancouverism,” an urban design movement that advocates high-density residential construction with an emphasis on public amenities, natural light, open views, urban greenery and lively, pedestrian-oriented streets.
Yet Cheng remains an architectural outsider, even as his ideas have reshaped Vancouver’s urban identity. “As city-builder and innovator in high-density housing, he is without rival in this country, fighting for public amenities and public open space in his city-transforming projects at a time when autonomous architectural sculptures get the praise,” writes Vancouver-based architecture critic Trevor Boddy. Cheng describes himself in slightly less grandiose terms: “I don’t want to be a global player. I have no dream to be a superstar. I just want to do good-quality buildings.”
Columnist Alan Fotheringham called it an “unending urinal wall.” That somehow filtered down to the Vancouver population as “the upside-down urinal” or the “great white urinal.” But the name-calling won’t last for much longer. Next year, the great white windowless box that dominates the corner of Robson and Granville will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a dramatic makeover for Nordstrom, its new tenant.
The box was built in 1973 for Eaton’s, the now-defunct department store chain, and it was designed by César Pelli, an architect known otherwise for corporate skyscrapers like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and One Canada Square in London. Its façade consists on large white marble panels and, to some extent, it really does look like the tile backsplash of some department store washroom.
There are plenty of reasons why it looks the way it does. Eaton’s was built as part of Pacific Centre, a large mall whose sentiment is suburban even if its location is not. Department stores at the time followed a strategy of making their stores difficult to navigate in order to trap customers, so it’s likely Eaton’s requested that the store have no windows. Pelli would have been happy to oblige, since he’s an awfully obliging architect — I mean, just look at his buildings. They aren’t exactly monuments to innovation.
Still, I’ve always had a soft spot for the white box. Its minimalism is clumsy and its presence is brutish. In other words, it is everything that Vancouver is not, so its overbearing, featureless presence serves as a nice foil to the glassy, earnestly humane architecture that surrounds it. Vancouver is “nice.” This building is not. Its obstinance is almost refreshing.
Last week, the Archives de la Ville de Montréal uploaded a short series of photos taken on August 25, 1969, around Ste. Catherine and Sherbrooke streets. I’m always a fan of vintage street photography, especially from the relatively recent past, but these struck a real chord with me for one reason: it was on that day, 33 years later, that I moved to Montreal.
I remember it more vividly than I remember any day last month. It was a typically hot and sunny late-summer day, a bit of haze in the air. After taking a taxi with my family to my new apartment in St. Henri, I set out for a walk that took me along Ste. Catherine Street from Crescent to St. Denis, then up past St. Louis Square and onto St. Laurent, before heading back downtown.
A friend once remarked that Montreal might be a city of 3.5 million people, but in the summer, “it feels like it has 10 million.” Coming from sleepy, suburban Calgary, Montreal’s summertime charge was electrifying. The city had yet to shrink with familiarity; it felt enormous. People, music, traffic — I passed through four separate street fairs on my walk.
I took plenty of photos that day. What strikes me, when I look back at them and compare them to the 1969 set, is how little has changed. The fashion is different and the neon has mostly disappeared, but Montreal’s essential character — a special kind of insouciance — remains intact.