March 28th, 2013
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.
March 26th, 2013
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.
February 8th, 2013
Rendering of the Xiqu Centre
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.
October 24th, 2012
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.”
September 26th, 2012
Eaton’s in 1984. Photo by Gregory Melle
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.
August 20th, 2012
The scene plays out hundreds of times a day, like a sad rendition of Groundhog Day. With nowhere to sit, a weary passerby leans against the leg of Happy Man, the nine-metre-high sculpture by American sculptor Larry Bell that stands in front of the Langham Place shopping mall at the corner of Argyle and Portland in Mongkok. Or maybe it’s a kid who, inspired by the sculpture’s wild gestures, is making an attempt to clamber up its torso. Either way, a security guard walks over and tells them not to touch the sculpture. Five minutes later, this absurd charade repeats. Late at night, when the mall closes, metal barriers are set up around the sculpture to make sure it is not molested by any nocturnal delinquents.
If the goal is to protect the sculpture from corrosion, it’s a miserable failure, because the legs are already shiny from the touch of a thousand deviants. So what’s the point? I contacted the company that manages Langham Place for comment but didn’t receive a reply. My only guess is that situations like this boil down to Hong Kong’s busybody administrative culture, which combines a very Protestant aversion to pleasure (thanks, Britain!) with the Chinese fear of shame. Art is meant to be admired, not enjoyed, and if somebody were to damage the sculpture, that would be a terrible loss of face for Langham Place. So better to keep up the pretense of protecting the sculpture even if it’s actually an impossible endeavour.
Museum administrators around the world struggle with the idea of interactive art, and even installations that are meant to be played with, like Yoko Ono’s Play It By Trust, are kept off-limits by museum security. But that fear of interaction usually ends at museum doors. You can ride the lions of Trafalgar Square without worry; feel free to touch the foot of St. Peter when you visit the Vatican. But the Happy Man? God forbid.
February 21st, 2012
Kitsilano Beach, Vancouver
English Bay Beach, Vancouver
August 30th, 2011
Yue Hwa in 2005. Photo by choco_late
The Yue Hwa Chinese Products department store has stood at the corner of Jordan and Nathan roads for decades — and for decades, so did its big neon sign, a sentinel that marked the passage north into the seedy streets of Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok.
Sometime in 2009, though, without fanfare or even the simplest of announcements, the sign was removed. So was a similar sign further down Nathan Road. Yue Hwa did not respond to inquiries about the signs’ fate. It is not clear why they were taken down or what happened to them.
Heritage activists were nonplussed about the sign’s disappearance. “We put our priority on conserving some historical buildings first due to limited resources,” says Roy Ng, policy officer at the Conservancy Association, which has fought to save numerous historic buildings from destruction.
Katty Law, a heritage activist who successfully lobbied against the redevelopment of the Central Market and Former Married Police Quarters, says she has “never thought about the issue, probably because many of us are upset with the light pollution problem.”
Although neon signs are some of the most characteristic elements of Hong Kong’s streetscape, there has been virtually no effort to research, document or preserve the city’s landmark them. In terms of heritage conservation, they simply aren’t on the radar.
“Neon signs are such a surprisingly under-researched subject,” says Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Architectural Conservation Programme. “We see them every day and yet we don’t know much about them.”
With more and more businesses switching to cheaper, mass-produced forms of signage, neon is steadily disappearing from Hong Kong’s streets. The effect on Hong Kong’s visual identity could be profound. Neon is such an integral part of Hong Kong’s character that the mere mention of the city’s name conjures up images of glowing Chinese characters and streets bathed in a rainbow of light.
August 29th, 2011
It comes to me whenever I am in Vancouver: an urge to watch the sunset. Pulled by memories of blue Pacific waters buffeting a tangerine sky, I make my way to English Bay Beach, where I find a seat on one of the large pieces of driftwood that have been arranged on the sand, and join hundreds of others in the nightly spectacle.
Last month, though, on my final day in Canada, I was taken to watch the sunset from the roof of the new Vancouver Convention Centre, a sharply geometric structure that rises from a broad concrete plaza next to Coal Harbour. As I climbed the metal staircase up to the roof, I was sceptical that it would be anything close to the English Bay experience. When we arrived, I was surprised. Built at a slight angle, covered in wild grass, with a gravel path cutting diagonally across it, the roof feels like a country meadow that has somehow found itself three stories above ground. Watching the sun set from there, over the water of Coal Harbour and the tall fir trees of Stanley Park, was a surprisingly bucolic experience.
On the surface, that sounds reminiscent to other recent experiments in aerial urban greenery, like New York’s wildly popular High Line. But the convention centre’s roof has more local roots. In many ways, it is the latest product of a style of urbanism born in 1978, when Arthur Erickson designed Robson Square, a large civic centre in downtown Vancouver that combined provincial law courts, a municipal art gallery, government offices and a series of public spaces.
August 17th, 2011
Vancouver is working hard to shake off its reputation as a somewhat pious city that values good mountain views over vibrant streetlife. Its architecture has seen a shift away from the back-to-nature style of the 1970s, 80s and 90s towards something bolder and more urban, like the recently-completed Woodwards redevelopment. There seems to be more tolerance for cheeky public art — witness Douglas Coupland’s Digital Orca (which makes up for all the lame whale murals around town) and Ken Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver. And there is more and more playful new street furniture.
Last week, I came across one such piece of furniture in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The stretch of Robson Street in front of the gallery had been closed for construction for several weeks; when it reopened, a kind of undulating fake lawn was installed. It had bright yellow “grass” and was shaded by white umbrellas; it was a bright, sunny afternoon and the lawn was thronged with people. I returned later, after the sun had set, and sat down for awhile. A couple of guys laid down on the grass, holding hands, and one of them wondered aloud, “What is this doing here? This is so weird!” But if others thought it was strange, it didn’t show. A couple of people worked on their laptops, faces lit by the screen’s blue glow. Others sat cross-legged, talking to friends. It was as if it had always been there.
May 16th, 2011
“Ghost train,” Vancouver, c_c_clason
May 5th, 2011
Election results in Toronto in 2008 (top) and 2011 (bottom)
Red is Liberal, blue is Conservative, orange is NDP
Canada held its 41st federal election on Monday and the results have unleashed a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape. After two consecutive minority governments, the Conservatives have now won a majority. The left-wing NDP, a marginal party for much of its existence (it ran fifth for most of the 1990s), is now the Official Opposition.
Much attention is being paid to the massive surge of support for the NDP, especially in Quebec, where two decades of dominance by the Bloc fell victim to the “Orange Crush.” But Quebec is prone to political mood swings, and even as an NDP supporter, I’m sceptical that they will be able to maintain their current level of support until the next election. What I find especially remarkable about this election is the near-collapse of the Liberal Party — and the political rise of the ethnoburbs.
Take a look at electoral map of Greater Toronto. Red has given way to blue in virtually all of its fast-growing, immigrant-dominated, ethnically-diverse suburban areas. Losing these ridings is what pushed the Liberals to the edge of oblivion. “Of the 18 seats they gained in that region, 14 are more than 45 per cent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for the Conservatives,” notes the Globe and Mail.
In other words, the Canadian election was fought and won in ethnoburbia, the suburban immigrant enclaves first identified in 1997 by the geographer Wei Li. Ethnoburbs are socially and culturally self-contained, but unlike the urban ethnic enclaves of decades past, they are also prosperous and extensively connected to transnational networks. Their affluence and influence have given them enormous political leverage.
April 11th, 2011
Election signs in Calgary, 2006
Canada is in the midst of yet another federal election, one that will, if the current trends hold steady, result in a third minority government for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. It’s a pretty dismal state of affairs. But even the most delicious truffle looks like a turd, so things might still turn out well, especially if Canadians finally wake up and grow tired of having a petty tyrant as prime minister.
In the meantime, my friend Cedric Sam has created a pretty good way to kill time: Google Maps of 2008 federal election results based on data from each and every polling station in the country. Since each polling station serves no more than a few hundred voters, the level of detail is extraordinarily precise, especially in dense urban areas. You can check it out at the website of the Montreal newspaper La Presse, which has published the maps in English.
Sometimes the maps can be surprising. Who knew that the well-heeled streets of Outremont held so many NDP supporters, while the immigrant-dominated, working-class north end of Côte des Neiges was so heavily Liberal? Other times, it looks exactly the way you would expect: in Edmonton Strathcona, the densely-populated streets around Whyte Avenue and the University of Alberta voted NDP, while more suburban areas to the south and east voted Conservative. (The NDP won in both Outremont and Edmonton Strathcona.)
2008 results in Outremont, Montreal
September 11th, 2010
Vancouver’s cityscape is defined not as much by gorgeous architecture or dynamic streetlife as by the natural beauty that surrounds it. You can’t escape the green mountains visible from every angle, the deep blue water that twinkles at the end of hilly streets, the Douglas Firs standing tall in front yards. Even the glass apartment towers that have become a symbol of the city’s progressive urbanism are designed less to shape the city than to facilitate the gaze beyond it.
It’s perfectly appropriate, then, that Vancouver’s greatest public space is not a street or a square but a beach. English Bay Beach, located next to downtown Vancouver, is a crescent sweep of sand with a view of the bay where George Vancouver met Dionisio Galiano in 1792. It is a natural gathering spot, located at the terminus of two commercial streets, near the entrance to Stanley Park. Here, the city doesn’t just brush up against the sea, it spills right into it.
A little over a century ago, the beach was littered with swimming shacks, holiday houses and hotels. A burly man from Barbados, Joe Fortes, made his home in a small beachside house, where he taught a generation of young Vancouverites to swim. He became the city’s first official lifeguard in 1901. After his death in 1922, the Vancouver parks board began buying up beachside properties in order to build a public open space. In 1989, 16 Chinese windmill palm trees were planted near the beach to give it a more tropical appearance, an experiment that has been so successful that another hundred palms have been added to the beachside promenade.