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Reinventing the highrise

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VANCOUVER — As a frontier outpost hemmed in by mountains, the Pacific Ocean and the Fraser River, this popular and seductive city has always had to find ways of reinventing itself.

Since its amalgamation in 1876, the near-constant story of Vancouver has been trains, boats and airplanes disgorging throngs of people eager to carve out a new life in this mild-weather West Coast paradise.

Shortly after the Second World War, and running out of cheap developable land, the city began an ambitious love affair with highrise living that has, at least in the downtown core, made Vancouver a global leader in urbanization, architecture and design.

But the city’s reputation is going to be given an even greater jolt with the construction of a stunningly radical 52-storey residential tower that will cantilever and curve outwards as it gets higher, forming the anchor of a new neighbourhood emerging from what are now rundown and vacant properties.

By the time it is completed in 2018, Vancouver House will easily be the most visible and talked about structure in the city.

Already being described as transformative, iconic and unique, Vancouver House is the love child of Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels who, according to his own biography, is seen, at 39, having "an international reputation as a member of a new generation of architects that combine shrewd analysis, playful experimentation, social responsibility and humour."

Vancouver city council, which endorsed his proposal 11-0, buys into that description and hopes Ingels can breath new life into a challenging piece of sloping property that has mostly lain fallow since 1954 when the adjacent eight-lane Granville Street Bridge, with its oversize concrete vehicular ramps, was built over False Creek to link the downtown core to the western part of the city.

Like many architectural critics, civic politicians believe Ingels’ design — which will be the fifth-tallest building in the city — is going to play sweet Beauty to the Granville Street Bridge’s hulking Beast.

City Coun. Geoff Meggs, the vice-chairman of the standing committee on planning, transportation, and environment, thinks Vancouver House’s distinctive lines will be recognized as a gateway into and out of the downtown core.

"It’s a dramatic change from what we have seen until now," Meggs said, referring to a chorus of criticisms that too many of Vancouver’s glass towers are so similar they have become boring, certainly against the unbeatable backdrop of the mountains and the sea. "I think there is a lot of continuity or boredom going on."

A city report says Ingels, whose company BIG has offices in Copenhagen and New York, has noted that as people travel across the Granville Street Bridge the design of Vancouver House will almost be like pulling a curtain aside.

"The building changes character as you approach from the different sides and with the texture of the facade and the play of light and shadow during the different hours of the day will result in the building having a lively presence in the urban skyline," the report said. "The transition up the building is so gradual that the cantilever on each floor is rarely more than a foot or two so the basic idea is to ‘walk the column’ over on each floor. As you move up in the building the number of units is increased."

In addition to Vancouver House, which will be 497 feet high and have 407 residential apartments, an accompanying 10-storey building will consist of 95 rental units and retail spaces — such as a grocery store, a pharmacy, a liquor outlet and a bank — and at least two six-storey structures will have offices and additional retail space. There will be green roofs, innovative interior design, more than 600 vehicle parking stalls and 723 bicycle parking spaces.

Some estimates suggest the project, which could end up with a total density of 709,477 square feet spread over 3.14 acres, will cost $400 million.

Attention will also be paid to developing for public use the now almost non-existing street activity under the bridge and its ramps. Dominating the underbelly of the bridge will be a massive faux-crystal chandelier that will slowly rotate as it ascends and spin rapidly as it descends. The area will also boast light boxes featuring still photographs.

Because of setbacks and property lines, Vancouver House will begin as a triangular building but eventually morph into a rectangular structure, an engineering and architectural design that will give it, depending on the direction it is viewed from, a twisting shape.

Ocean, city and mountain views from most of the apartments will be magnificent and they certainly won’t come cheap. The tower itself will almost certainly help usher in a new era of architectural design, in Vancouver and around the world.

Indeed, concepts depicting the unusual and alluring shape of Vancouver House will remind some people of Rotterdam and the gloriously mind-altering architecture that evolved out of that ruined city after extensive bombing by the Luftwaffe in May 1940.


Chris Rose is a Vancouver writer and the Winnipeg Free Press West Coast correspondent.

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