vancouverism transforms trafalgar square…and maybe more?

Who would’ve thought a city could ever become an “ism”? Strangely enough, Canada’s participation in this summer’s London Festival for Architecture, featuring an exhibition titled Vancouverism: New Westcoast Architecture and City Building, seems to confirm this trend of cities fashioning and branding their own architectural styles. The exhibition, which opened in London 23 June and is set to tour other European cities later this year, presents work by two of Vancouver’s best-known architects, Arthur Erickson and Bing Thom, as well as designs by architect James K.M Cheng and structural engineering firm Fast + Epp.

Since he set up his practice in 1980, Thom has achieved wide recognition for his dedication to mixed-use spaces and what he describes as architecture’s preoccupation with metaphysical matters. “Many people attribute the term Vancouverism,” Thom explains, “to a particular form of high-rise building that’s been developed, what’s normally called a tower-on-podium.” Whereas most towers rise directly from ground level, Vancouver encourages a base of commercial program or townhouses, out of which the tower then rises. This base is necessary to stimulate a healthy street life, and is what ultimately maintains interaction at a human scale amid the vertical growth of the city. Although the pace of development in downtown Vancouver, particularly that of high-rise residential buildings, has increased considerably, Thom welcomes this as a good thing. He notes at the same time the city’s responsible attitude toward its watered edge: “In Vancouver, we have the continuous waterfront walk, which is always very strongly protected and given to the public. Thus the city represents a collusion between nature and a very dense core, which is unusual and not seen in many other places”.

Contrary to the somewhat overbearing impression the term may give, Vancouverism advocates not only a building type, but a sensitivity to street life as well; some observers even extend the term to encompass the specific culture arising from the unique mix of people in Vancouver. Thom expounds: “It’s a city where anyone who comes, after five years, is virtually accepted and integrated, whereas if you go to a city like London, you’re accepted but not necessarily integrated… It’s a culture, a certain sensibility of what a city needs, the values of a civil society, the protection of the public realm, and the politeness to each other and how we live together.”

Of course, the fact that Vancouver is a young, coastal city and economically flatter than most other international cities of its kind, Thom acknowledges, has afforded it more room to experiment. “This usually happens on the edge cities. You can see that even in China now. The more interesting architecture coming out in China is not in Beijing or Shanghai. It’s in the smaller provinces… and Vancouverism is part of that flourishing creativity.” The question, then, is how to retain a vibrant street life and sense of community in a city basking in the spotlight.  

As if offering an answer, one of the highlights of the exhibition is a 200 ft by 27 ft wall of undulating red cedar on the corner of Canada House facing Trafalgar Square. A collaboration between Thom, Fast + Epp and engineering firm StructureCraft, the unique construction demonstrates the potential of wood as a dominant building material. Thom links his inspiration to a bird’s nest. “We wanted to use wood, something authentic to British Columbia and abundant in the province, in a high-tech and unusual way. It had to be easy to pack and easy to put up because we needed to put it up very quickly at minimal cost, yet we wanted it to have some substance. We ended up creating these necklaces out of pieces of wood that were strung together using high-tensile sailing rope. In that way we could bend them, twist them, and stack them; it gave us a lot of freedom to do something quite exuberant.”

Because the Canada House is a protected building, the team had to create a self-supporting building. Their use of wood not only allows for an efficient structure that complements the neo-classical building on which it borders, but also represents one of the most sustainable materials in new buildings. BC province being an exemplar of sustainable timber harvests and forest management, wood architecture has unsurprisingly increased in Vancouver, encouraged by new developments in wood fabrication techniques. One highly anticipated project is the roof of the Speed Skating Oval, designed by Fast + Epp for the 2010 Winter Olympics. It is a material integral to Vancouver’s culture and history, fulfilling in sight, touch and even smell. Creating a structure that could attract people on multiple levels, and subsequently form a different kind of public space, was a significant part of the challenge. Perhaps more than a model of environmental sustainability, the Trafalgar construction and the Vancouverism exhibition together signify the importance of social sustainability.


originally published in Hinge Magazine, Vol. 157, Aug 2008