Thursday, 7 June 2012

A heritage conservation facade

Oxford Properties, my law firm’s landlord, is building a shiny new 35-story office tower on Hastings Street in a narrow slice of property between two well-known Vancouver buildings - also owned by Oxford - the Marine Building and the Guinness Tower. 
The new building is being built on the site of the old University Club, which, when I was growing up in Vancouver, was one of three men’s clubs on a two-block stretch of Hastings at Burrard, (the other two being the Vancouver Club and Terminal City Club, both still alive and well).  The University Club building has not been used as a club for a long time, and for the half dozen years I have worked in the Guinness Tower, its principal contribution to the look and feel of West Hastings has been its west-side wall of ivy, shiny green in spring and summer, and gloriously red in the autumn, and the gloomy, abandoned aura that emanated from the mostly empty, disused building, 
The old building - including the ivy wall - is gone now, all but its facade, currently suspended by massive steel buttresses while construction proceeds on the site: a thin wall of bricks and mortar held up like the artificial backdrop of a movie set.  It looks as though it is patiently, if somewhat forlornly, waiting for the new building to arise, so that it can be glued on afterwards as a sort of architectural post-it note.

The new building - not-so creatively named 1021 West Hastings - will introduce a tall spire of glass and steel into the space between the Marine Building and Guinness Tower, and in doing so it will surely alter our perspective of both of these landmarks.  Of the two, the Marine Building is the more famous; it is often considered Canada’s finest example of Art Deco architecture, abundant in detail and tracery; I often detour through its lobby for the sheer pleasure of its decoration.
The Guinness Building is less immediately striking, but that, for me, is part of what makes it interesting.  Because, nearly half a century after its construction, it still looks completely modern.  Its clean external lines draw the eye up into the sky, and that green-blue glass that has since become the pervasive symbol of Vancouver’s condo tower architecture creates wonderful effects of light, especially when the sun shines on it.  The  magnificent lobby wall mural, “The Fathomless Richness of the Seabed”, by Jordi Bonet, gives depth and resonance to the blue and green themes.  The plazas and gardens on the east and west sides of the building are not only fine places to sit, eat lunch, and talk with a friend - they also enhance the building by giving it more space in which to work architecturally.
How much of that will change when there is a 35-story tower in between the two smaller, older buildings is tough to say.  The view from my own office window on the southeast corner of the 21st floor will definitely be different.  Instead of a clear shot of the Marine Building and a glimpse of harbour and mountain, I will be looking directly into someone’s office, or apartment living room.  
At ground level, the drawings suggest that there will be a spacious, airy lobby, and I’m sure there will be.  But then there is that facade.
Precious little of Vancouver’s architectural heritage - such as it ever was - survives.  Vancouverites don’t just accept change in our urban landscape, we enthusiastically seek it out.  But we are also just a little bit worried about erasing all visible evidence of the city that was, and so we try to reconcile the reality that rising land values make it difficult to justify - at least in economic terms - the few remaining old buildings by preserving bits and pieces of them.   Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.  
In the case of the old University Club it must have been challenging to demolish the rest of the building while keeping the thin skin of the front wall in place.  And the effort of design and construction required to keep it intact during construction and then incorporate it into the new building must surely have added hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, to the developer’s costs, offset in whole or in part by the various incentives the City provides to encourage heritage preservation.

Was it worth it?
There are some buildings where the incorporation of the old into the new is functional, visually interesting, and respectful.  The Bank of Canada building in Ottawa, the Maison Alcan complex in Montreal, and the Sinclair Centre in downtown Vancouver are good examples.
Not, in my view, 1021 West Hastings.  There it seems to me that the preservation of the University Club facade will look and feel like an afterthought, one part of something completely divorced from its former whole and thereby trivialized.  As for me, if the whole building was not valuable enough to protect, then I would rather have seen what an architect could have done with the space without being literally and metaphorically tied down by the weight of this wall of old bricks.  I strongly believe we should honour and, within reason, preserve our past.  But that’s not, I am sorry to say, what is happening at 1021 West Hastings.

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