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Cloudy with a chance of prose, building to a towering rant

May 26, 2019

The strangely soothing view looking north Thursday evening at 8:26 p.m.

Thursday evening (May 23rd) the northern sky, as seen from from Alder Street and West Broadway Avenue, was so interesting that I could not resist taking photographs.

For over a year now I have resisted taking photos of this view because of the Vancouver House. This is the name of the 49-storey, 150 metre-high skyscraper, designed by Danish architect BJarke Ingels, together with the Vancouver architect James K. M. Cheng, that has been rising beside the north end of the Granville Street Bridge since 2015.

From my vantage point in the Fairview neighbourhood, looking down Alder Street—anywhere from 15th to 7th Avenue—the luxury tower stands like a tall, ugly fence post, partially obstructing the view of the North Shore mountains.

Closeup of a graceful cloud seemingly hovering over the most graceless new building in Vancouver.

But Thursday this view from Alder and 8th was unexpectedly and undeniably irresistible.

Pink-tinged, white clouds—some nearly lenticular, like spun cotton candy—were strung across the grey-blue sky in a lazy line running north—at the end of which was the Vancouver House.

Loathe as I am to admit it, that damned tower actually makes the scene. But this is not to say that I am coming to see it as any less of an eyesore.

The towering conceit that greed is good

The not-quite-finished Vancouver House seen from Alder and 8th in the rosy light of dawn, on February 21st.

The Vancouver House—wherein one-bedroom units, in 2016, listed for three-quarters of a million, two-bedrooms for $1.5 million and three-bedrooms commanded just under $7 million—has routinely been described as an “architectural statement”.

This and other accolades are due to the tower’s lopsided design, which starts out beside the Granville Street Bridge on a small—almost triangular—base and swells as it rises to overhang the bridge.

If this is architecture making a statement, then it must be something to the effect that “greed is good”.

To my eyes the “bold” design of the building is really just a utilitarian approach to maximizing the return on investment.

Those first 15 floors of the Vancouver House—the ones which take up the smallest footprint (and thus expense)—just happen to be the least valuable floors to the developer. They have to be there, if only to hold up the 34 floors that command the views worth multi-millions of dollars.

If developers, architects and engineers were not constrained by material science and construction techniques, I imagine that luxury towers such as the Vancouver House would resemble giant corn dogs.

Which is to say that the top sixty-or-so-floors enjoying unobstructed, mega-million-dollar views would be perched on little more than stick-like, 20-storey elevator shafts.

Unless, that is, anti-gravity technology could do away with the elevator shafts altogether.

Fencing off the North Shore Mountains

Five downtown “fence posts” viewed from the alley on the north side of the 800 block of West Broadway, February 21st. The Vancouver House is on the left.

As things stand now, the trend in the downtown peninsula of Vancouver is clearly to put up more super-tall, post-like skyscrapers, such the Vancouver House. The effect will be to literally fence off the public view of the North Shore Mountains, so that it can be sold to the highest bidder.

This would seem to go against decades of city policy, where Vancouver City Council deliberately limited the height of downtown towers to preserve the sight lines of the North Shore Mountains—as an irreplaceable draw for tourism, if nothing else.

It just so happens that this policy has also protected the view for residents in Vancouver—rich and poor alike.

But the city’s view has obviously changed, where protecting the public view of the North Shore mountains is concerned.

In February of 2018, the City of Vancouver’s chief planner, Gil Kelley, implied that taller towers are the price the city has to pay for more infrastructure and amenities, including (somehow) affordable housing.

At the same time, Kelley argued that the move to allow buildings to rise another 10 to 12 storeys is just part of Vancouver’s ongoing history of gradually increasing the height of buildings in the downtown core.

There is even a perverse argument to say that these new, near-pencil towers are, after a fashion, still protecting the view of the North Shore Mountains for tourists.

This argument rests on how many of the owners will be living in these towers full time and how many will not.

To whatever percentage and degree the owners of these towering freehold strata units are absentee owners—that is to say they are not living in the units full time but rather using them as investments and/or occasional pied-à-terre residences—that is the degree to which the city is still selling its spectacular views to tourists.

The undeniable change that such tall buildings represent is the ability, on the part of developers, to truly convert these formerly pubic views into private property.

And if you were the rich owner of one of these literally sky-high properties, wouldn’t you rest easier knowing that fewer poor eyes could trespass on the views that you paid millions to own?

But before we wave bye-bye to all the views…

Surf’s up! The view north from Alder St. and 8th Ave., on May 13th at 9:26 p.m.

As a sort of bonus and apropos of nothing in particular, I am ending with a blurry photo of a dramatic wave-like cloud that rose briefly in the northern sky on May 13th, just before 9:30 p.m.

It fascinates me how certain forms repeat themselves in nature—seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Consider how tree branches grow up the same way that lightning often forks down, or radial cracks in a pane of glass hit by a rock can closely mimic the construction of a spider’s web and, yes, the way clouds can take the form of waves and vice versa.

Originally I planned to elaborate the above with one of my execrably-written poems; a single stanza, of which follows:

“While the works of Nature are vast, it’s true,
The building blocks themselves are few.”

But thankfully—as a bonus on top of the bonus—I am running the photo without the poem. Consider yourselves lucky. It was truly a rhyme without much reason. Click the images to enlarge them.

7 Comments
  1. My mother liked to remember that when we arrived in Vancouver the Sylvia Hotel was the tallest building in the West End. The change must have been much talked about because it was a false memory; The internet informs me it lost its crown 10 years before we arrived.

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    • The change in downtown tower heights seems comparatively sudden. It might be interesting to try and document the rate of increase over 30 or 40 years. The results might be surprising.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wonder if some of the recent acceleration is due to better earthquake proofing.
        In general, I find the pace of change in Vancouver speeding up. Every time I visit, more seems to have changed. And now stuff that was new when I was young is being talked about for renewal: Granville Island, False Creek …

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      • I think the out-going majority-govt. of Mayor Gregor Roberson approved a lot of development-related stuff cuz — they could and they wouldn’t have to face the voters cuz most weren’t running for reelection. Some might suggest that by doing so much developer-friendly stuff right up until the last second, many of them were “running” for considerations in the private sector world.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I saw that. They were very busy approving all sorts of projects in the six months up to the election.

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  2. Oraf Orafsson permalink

    the lovely term view corridor which I assume means some slot between towers. Love the article and more.

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    • Yes. It’s a bit of an oversimplification but for quite a while in Vancouver, a developer could have enough density on a lot to either cover the lot with a low-rise building, or put their density it in a tall, skinny high-risk form, that had a footprint taking up, maybe half the lot. This meant residents could either see over buildings, or between them. Now developers seem to be able both fill the lot and build high.

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