Beach Banquet

PROJECT Cactus Club Café at English Bay, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Acton Ostry Architects Inc.
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Nic Lehoux

The civic discussion of Vancouver’s public space is never more contentious than when talk turns to the waterfront. Lotusland’s serpentine beach and northern seawall is hallowed ground: a linear, centripetal piazza where throngs of citizens stroll, board, bike and bask. And the nexus of this ribbon of public space is the English Bay shore: the inflection point that reads as a junction between Stanley Park, Sunset Beach and Denman Street. This is the site where Acton Ostry Architects’ Cactus Club Café has replaced the dilapidated concession stand that had long served the immediate area. But the new restaurant is generating much more than a better grade of nourishment: it has actually produced a new kind of public realm.

The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation has been highly cognizant of the fraught mythology of building on the beach: the Watermark Restaurant, designed and completed by architect Tony Robins in 2005, was built after years of strained and sometimes fractious public input. Today, the erstwhile Watermark (which has since been purchased by the Boathouse restaurant chain) is a stalwart, controversy-free Kitsilano landmark, frequented by locals and visitors alike. The Watermark project proved to Vancouverites that architecture on the beach could be beloved, site-sensitive and even more important than whatever is on the menu. Once built, the project demonstrated to local residents that building on the beach did not have to undermine the public realm; and, if designed to the highest standards, it could actually enhance it. Today, Kits Beach serves as a gathering place for a greater number of people from different social strata, in large part because the architecture has enriched the public space into something for everyone.

And so it is with the Cactus Club Café on English Bay. When the Park Board decided to replace the aging hot-dog kiosk on the site, it faced little pushback from locals. Not only did it have the hard-won public acceptance of the Watermark under its belt, it also had a site on which existing buildings sat. “Vancouver has a strong history and pattern of extensive civic use of the waterfront,” notes Acton Ostry principal Mark Ostry. Belying the common belief that its parks and beaches were pristine expanses of nothing prior to Expo ’86, he adds that “the city has, in the past, really engaged its waterfront by way of densely built-up infrastructure.”

As Ostry and co-principal Russell Acton gleaned from poring over historic images of English Bay, the site had been even more densely built up during the 20th century than it was at the turn of the millennium. In fact, the area only became a true “beach” in 1898, when tonnes of sand were hauled in and spread out on its muddy shores. Human engineering and intervention had long been essential in maintaining this naturalistic retreat for urbanites.

Commissioned by the Park Board to configure the master plan for the English Bay site, Acton Ostry faced a particularly daunting set of design challenges. First, there was the irregularity of the site’s trapezoidal footprint that defied a paradigmatically functionalist solution. Second, heritage and viewline considerations meant the architects had to respect the sitelines of the adjacent century-old bathhouse in addition to the streetside waterviews. Third, there was the freighted challenge of designing for the mythological intersection between Vancouver the city and Vancouver as Lotusland. The existing hot-dog kiosk was opaque and divisive, but the new structure would be expected to better connect the starkly differing realms of beach and city on either side.

Constrained on all sides with a beach to the west, a busy street to the east, a heritage building to the south and a park to the north, the site itself could serve as a microcosm of Vancouver proper. The master plan proposed uniting the wildly diverse realms through transparency, the plan’s fundamental design principle.

After Acton Ostry’s master plan was put out to tender and various bidders had submitted their proposals, it turned out that the highest bid was that of the Cactus Club Café, a moderately sophisticated local chain of restaurants. Each Cactus Club Café is designed with a distinctive concept that relates to the specifics of its neighbourhood and site. However, the company does have one executive chef (the vaunted Rob Feenie) and one architectural firm–Acton Ostry Architects–that has done virtually all of their projects for the past decade. On English Bay, the master planners became the project architects by pure happenstance.

Acton Ostry took the transparency principle of their master plan and developed it to suit the mandates for what had effectively become two clients: the Park Board and the Cactus Club Café. Known in its early years as a middlebrow meet-market with dark interiors, the restaurant’s more recent iterations have been expressed as lighter, sleeker and more family-friendly venues (though unfailingly staffed with eye-poppingly cute servers). That transparency ethos of the master plan fit well with both clients’ requirements. The glazing has linked the street and beach visually–and also fits perfectly with the restaurant’s current image as a sleek but inclusive social gathering place.

The skeleton of this LEED Gold building is comprised of glulam, steel and concrete, but the skin is sheathed in low-iron, ultra-clear triple-glazed glass panels with anodized aluminum mullions. The central section of the façade is transparent glazing, which brings a generous glimpse of beach and ocean to the harried pedestrians on the street side. Acton Ostry kept a sense of translucency by designing the façade as a continuous curtain wall and using coloured panels where opacity was required. To this reporter, the orange-and-yellow glazing evokes a Singapore Sling and the sense of languid pleasure contained in such a cocktail. But that wasn’t the intention, at least consciously: “We were inspired by the colours of an English Bay sunset,” says Ostry of the tangerine hues. They imbued the glass façade with a sense of depth by choosing a specific colour for each pane of the triple glazing.

The roofline of the restaurant does not rise above that of the old kiosk it replaced, and that scale maintains the sense of a horizon line from the streetfront to the oceanfront. The space needed for upstairs and downstairs dining as well as a new lower-cost beachside concession was generated by splitting the floor plan over two levels as it steps down to the ocean.

Given the site constraints, there was little space left over for the restaurant’s kitchen. Acton Ostry’s master-planned solution was to insert the kitchen underneath the sidewalk. The ventilation system is discreetly embodied in the glazed vertical column adjacent to the restaurant–heat and kitchen exhaust is disgorged from the top and rear side of the column. What is effectively an elegant glass chimney, then, also serves as a beacon for the restaurant, and subtly relays the Cactus Club Café signage to passersby. The Park Board wisely placed careful restrictions on the size and prominence of corporate signage displays. But with an architecture that so effectively brands and adds value to both its private client and the public realm–all within the glorious context of Vancouver’s English Bay–who needs signs to announce the importance of place? CA

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.

Client Cactus Club
Architect Team Russell Acton, Mark Ostry, Derek Fleming, Mark Simpson, Antonio Colin, Peter Padley, Rafael Santa Ana, Bob Sumpter, Nebo Slijepcevic
Structural Equilibrium Consulting Inc.
Mechanical Cobalt Engineering Ltd.
Electrical MCW Consultants Ltd.
Landscape PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc.
Sustainability Recollective
Contractor Makam Construction
Area 7,500 ft2
Budget $4.3 M
Completion January 2012