A Full Deck

Project Shaw Tower, Vancouver, British Columbia

Architect James Km Cheng Architects

Text Ian Chodikoff

Photos Paul Warchol

To be sure, an architectural commission that includes Class A office space and luxury condominiums tends to bring out cynicism amongst architects who scoff at the elite residing and working within the glass confines of finance and prestige. Commercial towers are generally not taken seriously by those who prefer to debate the merits of lavishly designed museums and galleries–an alternative form of elitism in its own right. Given the fact that nearly all architectural commissions are a testament to some form of patronage–albeit ones that differ in their interaction with the public realm–it would be hypocritical to condemn a tall building because there is no museum gift shop in the lobby. A tower, like any significant building, defines place to some extent and the recently completed Shaw Tower does indeed represent one aspect of Vancouver’s current architectural ethos.

The value of the tower, itself a signifier within and of the city, can be assessed on many levels. Beyond its physical manifestation, a tower is often premised on three essential ingredients: an advantageous geography, a vibrant economy and the requisite cultural elements that serve as a catalyst for its very existence. Designed by James KM Cheng Architects, the Shaw Tower, situated as an anchor for several waterfront geographies converging on Vancouver’s downtown peninsula–the city’s precinct for global capital and investment–offers a clear response to all three of these ingredients.

The project is a 489-foot-high mixed-use office and residential tower emerging from the seabed and which sits atop a newly constructed concrete deck extending Vancouver’s traditional waterfront. The 40-storey tower contains 16 levels of offices, with the remaining floors devoted to residences. With such extensive development along Coal Harbour over the past decade, this project mediates between a traditionally office tower-laden financial district to the east and newly completed residential developments along Coal Harbour to the west.

Comprised of two fundamental components–a rectangular stack of office floor plates at the base with a slender arrowhead-shaped floor plate of residential “live/work” units on the upper 23 storeys of the tower–the building adroitly positions itself on its newly fashioned viaduct. Oriented in two directions, the east faade responds directly to the Hastings Street commercial grid and is consistent with the orientation of the buildings to the south of the project. On the west faade, the commercial component of the tower is strictly orthogonal and is softened by a series of landscaped terraces that progressively step back until they merge with the tower. One of the terraces provides an outdoor play area for the tower’s day-care centre–one of the amenities that was necessary in order to receive the development permit from the City’s Urban Design Review Panel.

As the top of the tower begins to taper, the strict orientation is broken, creating a visual landmark and transition between Thurlow Street and the waterfront. Currently standing as the tallest and most visible building along the waterfront and designed to contribute to the saddle-shaped skyline along Coal Harbour, the project conscientiously follows Vancouver’s planning guidelines for sculpted tops capping new towers. To mitigate the obstruction of the all-important view, the residential component of the building engages a common treatment in Vancouver–a narrow floor plate to ensure a maximum view toward Burrard Inlet and the mountains of the North Shore beyond, while mitigating any obstructions to the view for its neighbours to the south.

Increasing the visual strength in the separation between office and residence, a series of indentations sculpted from the tower’s massing allows for balconies with direct views, providing an effective architectural alternative to the carbuncle-like quality of balconies seemingly clipped onto unremarkable developments sprouting across Vancouver and elsewhere.

Comprised almost entirely of glazed faades, the dynamic effect of the project along the water’s edge is accentuated by two elements contributing to the mutability of its appearance–the non-uniform quality of curtains and balconies across the residential faades, and the oft-illuminated aesthetic of its public art component. The LED light-tube art installation extending along the entire height of the building was designed by Los Angeles-based artist Diane Thater, and its ocean-hued glow can be seen clear across the harbour while illuminating the building itself. The LED lights are computer programmed to dissolve from blue to green. At the base of the building and alongside the continuation of the public walkway to the north and along the water’s edge sits an element of this installation, a rather odd-looking grey concrete receptacle designed to emit fog, furthering the ghostly qualities of Thater’s installation.

And while the tower has a presence from many vantage points along Burrard Inlet, both the residential and commercial entrances articulate the needs of the tenants/owners. The entrance to the private residences along Cordova Street is discreet, being careful not to draw too much attention to those who enter and exit the building. Inside the lobby, a waterfall descends down a canted two-storey wall, somehow avoiding the possibility of splashing the residents. Echoing the siting of the building itself–the stone-tiled lobby floor decks over a series of koi-filled canals circulating along the perimeter of the room. Around the corner, the glassy and bright lobby for the tower’s offices inspires awe of the West Coast landscape through the celebration of a panoramic view, while eschewing the clichd power of large book-matched marble slabs typically found in more conventional office tower lobbies. In Vancouver, prestige is almost always entirely communicated by a privileged and spectacular view. For the office workers in the Shaw Tower, a sense of arrival is achieved through an enclosure framing distant mountain vistas, seaplanes taxiing on the water and the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club in the distance. The expansive driveway off Waterfront Street provides an ample geography in and of itself–allowing plenty of space for the large sheets of plate-glass curtain wall to frame the territory beyond.

Despite its quiet positioning along the water’s edge, engineering the tower was not without its difficulties. Located on harbourside fill beside the 30-foot-high downtown escarpment, the Shaw Tower took two years to build. The new Cordova Street Viaduct Extension running adjacent to the project’s five levels of underground parking was not a simple feat of engineering, given that the tower essentially rises from the seabed. The ground water rises three feet above the lowest parkade level with extreme tides and other storm conditions, pushing the water level even higher. To ensure that the underground parking garage is kept dry, a special concrete admixture was used that crystallizes as the water and cementitious content of the concrete cures. The crystals help block the water from penetrating the concrete surface as well as healing residual hairline cracks that can form. Although this admixture has been primarily used for concrete tanks, the Shaw Tower is one of the first commercial buildings to use it.

By 2008, the Shaw Tower will be surrounded by new development resulting from the expansion of the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre (VCEC), currently under construction. The nearby VCEC has simply outgrown its facilities that were built just 15 years ago. The new facility will be linked to Canada Place and will see the addition of a new 1.2-million-square-foot facility at a cost of around $500 million (of which $400 million will be paid for by federal and provincial funds).

The Shaw Tower extends far beyond a tacit resp
onse to a developer–in this case the new economic future for Vancouver, according to Ian Gillespie, President of Westbank Projects. In his early forties, Gillespie has managed to very quickly emerge as one of Vancouver’s most powerful developers while making a conscious effort to spearhead projects with architectural integrity and intent. Having developed over 30 real estate ventures, Gillespie typifies the new archetypal Vancouver entrepreneur: athletic, youthful, well-versed about design and the cultural importance of the city. Under Gillespie’s leadership, Westbank is currently developing nearly 5 million square feet of real estate exceeding over $2 billion in value. His portfolio includes condos, Class A office buildings, shopping centres, rental units and hotels in Canada and the US. He is currently involved in the Shangri-La development, the new Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel and condos (the elegantly detailed show suites are on view in the Shaw Tower) and a 700-foot-high tower in downtown Toronto. Cheng has worked with Gillespie on numerous projects at a variety of scales, and not coincidentally, Gillespie’s Westbank headquarters are now housed in the Shaw Tower itself.

In fact, the Shaw Tower is a recent example where an architect and developer have nurtured a working relationship in a market that demands an increasingly luxurious level of finishes and amenities. A third member of the fundamental equation who has contributed to the success of recent projects like the Shaw Tower is marketing impresario and realtor Bob Rennie. Together, the developer, realtor and architect comprise the contemporary “dream team” in Vancouver’s current real estate market. And regardless of whatever criticisms this team may receive, they do understand how to respond to the value and appropriate use of precious Vancouver real estate.

With so few new commercial office spaces being built on the downtown peninsula combined with the renovation of old office buildings into residential buildings, and notwithstanding the repeated formula of new luxury condominium highrises, the Shaw Tower is a well- executed example of a new architecture built in an evolving city that responds to the geographic, economic and cultural realities of contemporary Vancouver.

Client Westbank Projects Corp., Shaw Communications Inc.

Architect Team James Km Cheng, Dawn Guspie, Norman Huth

Structural Jones Kwong Kishi Consulting Engineers

Mechanical Keen Engineering Co. Ltd.

Electrical Nemetz (S/A) & Associates Ltd.

Landscape Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

Interiors James Km Cheng Architects Inc., Robert M. Ledingham Inc. (Residential Suites Only)

Contractor Ledcor Construction Ltd.

Area 469,000 Ft2

Budget $162.9 M

Completion Fall 2005

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