Vancouver Province column: Let’s show the world that West Coast buildings do not have to be boring

Sunday, February 10, 2008
The frenzy of construction taking place across Metro Vancouver might lead some to believe this region is getting the urban equivalent of a personal makeover.

But as the highrise condos sprout up from the ground, locals are left grumbling about the vanilla results — including a downtown skyline that is less breathtaking than it is banal.

In a recent interview, renowned local architect Arthur Erickson simply referred to it as “blah.” At a Feb. 1 forum hosted by Simon Fraser University’s City Program, leading city designers and planners debated the need for “iconic” architecture in Vancouver — the kind of impressive structures that make a statement about the cities in which they stand.

Think New York City’s Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the dazzling cityscapes of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Alas, Metro Vancouver must be content with its proliferation of cookie-cutter condo boxes in the sky. Why can’t we do better? Well, it turns out that local aspirations for architectural glory are often quashed by burdensome government regulations and special- interest groups.

Instead of adding some excitement to Vancouver’s ho-hum skyline, our potential “icons” are held back by everything from height restrictions to NIMBYs who resent any intrusion into their idyllic neighbourhoods.

A case in point was the eye-catching, 400-foot residential tower proposed for the foot of Lonsdale Avenue in the City of North Vancouver.

The building’s design, inspired by the luxury passenger liner Princess Louise that was built in the area’s bustling shipyards nearly a century ago, made a bold statement about local history and culture.

Better yet, it promised to transform the surrounding North Vancouver neighbourhood with key benefits, including an art gallery, outdoor swimming pool, waterfront plaza and improved public transit.

But never mind the greater good.

Instead of embracing it, a vocal band of area activists made this impressive highrise their public enemy number one.

Citing blocked views and imposing architecture, they trashed the proposal, calling it everything from a “CN Tower on the waterfront” to “a monstrosity” to “a ship stuck in the ground ass-backwards.” The irony, of course, was that many of these folks live in highrises of their own.

At a recent public presentation, one irate woman declared that the tower would somehow transform North Vancouver into the next Barcelona — as if emulating one of Europe’s most beautiful cities were such a horrible fate.

Sadly, last Thursday North Vancouver city leaders and the developer finally bowed to their rage and rhetoric, scuttling the original tower plan.

The trouble is this again sends a message to the rest of the world that boring is beautiful on Canada’s small-minded West Coast.

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