Flanked on three sides by the Pacific Ocean and backed by a snowy mountain range, the Canadian city of Vancouver offers epic views of nature. City officials have become famous for carefully positioning tall, slim, glass-clad skyscrapers in the bases of mid-rise buildings to capitalize on these views while advancing human-scale yet high-density neighborhoods. Planners, architects, and urbanists dub the practice “Vancouverism.”
The city has typically emphasized green growth over architectural significance (it seeks to be the “world’s greenest city” by 2020.) But “much of the debate in Vancouver is over the architecture,” urbanist and architecture critic Trevor Boddy says. “Because while it’s been good for the environment – it’s been high-density and all that — the actual design has been uninspired and frankly boring.”
The 490-foot-tall “Beach and Howe” project, currently winding its way through the approval process, would up the design ante while still propelling Vancouver toward its green goal.
Designed by Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Beach and Howe (named for its cross streets), would re-develop three tracts nestled under and alongside the Granville Bridge, a major highway portal into downtown Vancouver.
A 49-story tower would twist skywards, morphing from a triangular base into a roomy rectangular tower.
At street level, a linked complex of six- and nine-story buildings would emphasize community-oriented retail like grocery, liquor, and drug stores, as well as office spaces and childcare services.
From this mid-rise pedestal, a 49-story tower would twist skywards, morphing from a roughly 6,000 square-foot triangular base into a rectangular tower roomy enough to contain 600 apartments. The entire complex would create almost 200,000 square feet of space.
The dramatic curve’s visual punch is form with function. The design arose from mandated setbacks which shrank the footprint for tower construction, including buffers to retain sightlines for drivers on the bridge, prevent local parks from sitting in permanent shade, and allow for future street widening.
BIG’s challenge was to devise a dynamic city neighborhood as well as a high-density, architecturally significant tower within these restrictions. The solution also had to position lots windows toward those desirable sea and mountain vistas that are so attractive to potential residents and the developer’s financial bottom line. Vancouver helped by re-zoning the site for taller towers.
The city also called for a proposal that would create a unique “gateway” effect into downtown along the Granville Bridge. The site is “a key punctuation point” in the city’s skyline, says Brent Toderian of Toderian UrbanWORKS, who was Vancouver’s director of city planning from 2006 until earlier this week. “It’s not just about the building, it’s about how the building relates to our plans for the city, our values, the skyline, and our urban architectural dialogue.”
Beach and Howe could herald Vancouverism 2.0.
Given the combination of restrictions and opportunities, “we as designers asked a simple question,” says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a principal architect at BIG. “The setback of 30 feet from the bridge makes sense where you have cars. But do you need it 200 feet up in the air?” The answer was no, you didn’t, which allowed BIG to develop a plan for structure that twisted and expanded as it rose.
The project will be built to the LEED Gold standard for environmentally sustainable construction, a city requirement. But what really makes Beach and Howe green, says Bergmann, is that that it reclaims “waste” spaces created by large-scale urban infrastructure like bridges and highways into high-density use. (“You’re left with scars in cities where you can’t imagine people would want to be,” he says.)
A mixed-use high-rise tower is “one of the greatest green inventions going,” says Boddy, “as long as you have workplaces nearby, and have good public transit.” A concentrated population in a small area shares infrastructure, ultimately reducing energy use, which lowers pollution as well as costs – all key to 21st century sustainable urbanism.
“A lot of the data is showing that the higher the density, the lower the per capita greenhouse gas,” says Patrick Condon, the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Livable Environments at University of British Columbia. People who live in very high-density areas walk, bike, and use transit much more, and cars much less, says Condon. “As the density of downtown Vancouver [an area of about 2.5 square miles] has risen from 40,000 in 1990 to 90,000, where it is now, the number of car trips in and out of downtown have decreased rather than increased.”
Vancouver’s towers have so far been designed around sightlines, instead of growing out of site-specific conditions, says Bergmann. And the podium-plus-tower solution to livable, green urban growth “has really only been applied to entire blocks, [not] to fragmented spaces or places.”
With its answers to unique zoning restrictions and spatial challenges compared to the city’s other skyscrapers, the Beach and Howe complex will have “another layer of information and movement and people flow” says Bergmann. “We call it Vancouverism 2.0.”
San Francisco-based architect Scott Dergance of Blu Homes worked for 12 years on high-rise towers he describes as “usually stand-alones as opposed to being woven into the fabric of a city,” often in the Middle East and China. He calls Beach and Howe “the leading edge of a good trend in large-scale architecture” toward using innovative design to solve pragmatic urban problems, rather than “an ego-driven notion of style over substance.”
Top and homepage images: Renderings of Beach and Howe. Courtesy BIG