Arthur Erickson plays critical role in new downtown Vancouver high-rise: Toronto could learn lessons from Vancouver’s stringent development process

An Arthur Erickson-designed skyscraper that promises to be Vancouver’s most unusual and striking building is on its way to City Hall for approval.

The slim, elegant, glass-covered building rises from its triangular base to its summit in a way that gives the 167-metre tower which would be the city’s second highest after the Shangri-La across the street a sense of grace and movement.

The tower will appear to twist 45 degrees from bottom to top. Each floor will be offset 0.75 of a degree from the one below.

"We wanted to do something as simple, as straightforward, and as structurally honest as possible," said Erickson, who was brought in to help with the design after the first plan for the building at 1133 West Georgia was unanimously rejected by the city’s urban design panel three months ago.

Now, Erickson, working with the original team at Musson Cattell Mackey, is back with a design that appears to respond to all the criticisms of the first design.

The surfaces on the three faces of the building, which create an optical illusion that the building is actually bending, are what Erickson calls "hyperbolic paraboloids" a technique that employs nothing but straight lines, yet the surface is curved.

When the first design of the building came to the urban design panel in March, panel members said it was disappointing and ordinary for what would be a prominent building. Panel members said the building, which consisted of a kind of inverted glass vase shape that flared out at the top, set on a stone base, was too broken up and that it should have simple, straight lines going up from top to bottom to emphasize the building’s height. It was also criticized for lack of "green" considerations.

Erickson’s design emphasizes the vertical lines of the building, replaces the stone base with glass, and incorporates elements like solar tubes on the roof to help cut the building’s power demands by up to 30 percent. It also opens up half the small, mid-block lot to a public plaza in one part, which would be lit at night by fibre-optic lights embedded in the pavement, and an enclosed "palm court" in another part.

Developer Simon Lim, for whom this is the first major project in Vancouver, said he recognizes that he will also have to negotiate with the city about other public amenities that need to be provided.

In the unique universe of Vancouver development, where there appears to be a limitless demand for downtown condos, the city’s planning department extracts considerable benefits from developers in exchange for permission to build higher than what normal zoning would allow. Developers of the Shangri-La tower on the other side of West Georgia ended up giving $12 million in benefits that included everything from an outdoor public art gallery to restoration of the heritage church next door to money for the city’s housing fund.

Lim’s tower would be almost double the normal density allowed for that site. He is planning to buy 200,000 square feet of heritage density, a mechanism the city uses to allow owners of heritage buildings to sell off imaginary space in order to help pay for the costs of preserving Vancouver’s small stock of older buildings. It’s widely expected that Lim will buy much or all of the space being generated by the Woodward’s project, on which he was an unsuccessful bidder.

by Frances Bula
Vancouver Sun