Beyond the Edge

PROJECT Vancouver Convention Centre West, Vancouver, British Columbia

ARCHITECTS DA Architects + Planners, Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership, LMN Architects
TEXT Frances Bula
PHOTOS DA Architects + Planners

The most popular images of the new Vancouver Convention Centre West show it from above or afar–images that emphasize its vast acreage of green roof set amid the city’s downtown towers or its waterfront profile of low hills faced in glass. Neither of those distant images conveys the experience that the average person has at ground level up close. Approaching the centre along the seawall that runs from Stanley Park–a walk that is among one of the city’s most popular–is akin to a small boat gliding alongside the world’s largest ship.

The glass walls of the 11-storey-high-equivalent convention centre slope out the way the hull of a freighter does from its narrow underwater keel. High above is the roof edge, the deck rail of this mammoth. The roofline continues, angling up and finally extending to a point beyond the edge of the building, forming a triangular prow high above. That’s just one of the many unusual physical experiences of the building that the photographer’s lens can’t capture. It’s also a distinct contrast to the original convention centre to the east, where public access on terraces high above the water make it feel more like the deck of a cruise ship.

Inside, the view of the city through the exceptionally clear, tilted-out glass walls–reminiscent of an airport lounge–makes Vancouver’s towers and streets look like the most vivid museum display imaginable. The famous six-acre living roof, which has been planted to reproduce the look of a verdant island off the coast of BC, pops into view at unusual points inside and outside the building, jolting visitors with touches of cognitive dissonance as they register the line of ragged wild grasses waving in the wind next to the city’s sleek glass office towers.

And it’s not until one is inside, walking through the vast hallway spaces that surround the interior meeting rooms, that the wood pattern in the building is understood. From the outside, all that is seen is the warm glow of cedar and hemlock. Inside, it’s evident that the wood panelling is designed to look like lumber stacked in a mill yard. On the walls running from east to west are the regular lines of what look like 1″ x 4″ strips of wood. On the walls extending from north to south, it appears as though the ragged ends of milled boards haven’t been properly aligned; this result is achieved by gluing on wood caps in varying sizes to create an uneven mosaic.

That disconnect between the faraway images and the up-close reality has happened for many people in this city, including architects who once feared that the centre was going to become a hulking, life-draining box in the middle of prime harbourside land.

Ever since LMN Architects of Seattle–renowned convention-centre builders working with the Vancouver firms of Downs Archambault and Musson Cattell Mackey–came out with the first designs for the convention centre in 2003, people worried about how a 1.2-million-square-foot building was going to fit into the fabric of Vancouver’s unique downtown, where a couple of generations of planners have worked to ensure that mountain views are preserved and that city streets feel comfortable and human-scaled. As they looked at the models and the drawings, images that shrank the centre to miniature scale, they imagined what it would look like in real life and were almost always concerned about the sheer bulk. That was even though LMN kept emphasizing that they weren’t building the usual black-box convention centre. They kept reminding people that they would be putting the meeting rooms inside or underground, wrapping those functional spaces in wood, and then designing glass faades on all sides so that there would be a sense of connection between visitors and passersby alike, both inside and out.

The project got poor reviews twice by the city’s influential Urban Design Panel during 2003 and 2004, which included one formal vote of non-support. As a corollary to their concerns about the bulkiness of the building’s massing, the panel members noted on several occasions that the interior and exterior spaces needed to incorporate quality materials because they were covering such vast spaces. Cheapening out on a few details in a small structure can go unnoticed, but mediocre-quality pavers or wall materials covering a few acres would be the equivalent of looking at skin blemishes through a magnifying glass.

A second major concern was how the centre would contribute to Vancouver’s urbanism and create a sense of civic life around it. Another contentious point was its relation to the original, smaller convention centre designed by Eb Zeidler, whose Teflon-coated sail-shaped roofline has become one of the symbols of the city. Architects and planners didn’t want the new centre to compete with the old one, but at the same time they wanted it to be distinctive and beautiful.

Finally, the green roof–one of the building’s most commented-on features–generated considerable attention. Landscape architect Bruce Hemstock’s original idea was to make the roof look like an uninhabited island off the BC coast, with planes rising and folding up from the water. But it’s expensive to recreate BC topography, so the roof eventually became a simplified collection of angled planes. And because the roof needed to be strong enough to support the soil required for the vegetation, its edges became very deep. The aesthetic of that broad edge became the focus of many subsequent critiques.

When the centre finally got approval in 2005, it was only by a slim 4-3 margin. At the next stage in the process, under the review of the Vancouver Development Permit Board, there was equal ambivalence from the Advisory Committee. Craig Henschel, an architect whose role it was to represent the public, voted against the project, calling its design awkward and clumsy.

Today, the finished building has pleasantly surprised the project’s detractors. “It appears to me that they have largely pulled it off architecturally,” says architect Bruce Haden, who was on the Urban Design Panel when the convention centre was being reviewed. “They made some smart moves in materials. In terms of the level and quality of details, it’s better than I expected.”

He is concerned, though, about how well the building connects to the city. It’s still too early to tell how the wide walkways on two sides and the city’s biggest public plaza on a third will be energized over time. The city’s planning department and Urban Design Panel had consistently urged the centre’s design team to wrap the lower level of the building with retail to attract more people to the area. The storefronts exist, but only on the north side, and they won’t be leased until after the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games are over. The restaurant, a complementary building on the west side of the plaza, also won’t open until after that time. And the planned small-boat dock is yet to be built, so it’s hard to know how the completed urban space will operate.

And there are still some regrets by various other architectural observers who consider it a lost opportunity that the public cannot gain access to the huge green roof as originally planned. Others think that the roof edge looks too heavy, with little thought into making it a design element instead of what might be the world’s largest roof gutter. And there are still others who complain about other unresolved elements, like the second-floor north-facing terrace that looks like a large fire escape with a blank wooden wall behind it.

But the public is prepared to embrace this new facility. More than 65,000 people came out to visit the centre on its opening weekend in April. Since then, it has also attracted a steady stream of walkers, joggers and picture-takers because of all the pathwa
ys through the site. It not only extends the city’s enormously popular seawall along its north side, but it also includes a grand staircase further south and, in between the staircase and seawall, there are angled walkways that allow people to wander through what feels like a green hillside that rises slowly from the west.

That public approval is sweet relief to the provincial government. During construction, the project, which was mostly paid for by the province with some money from the federal government and Tourism Vancouver–eventually doubled in cost to $883 million. Several negative headlines were generated during construction because of both cost overruns and the tremendous noise resulting from 1,443 concrete pillars being driven into Burrard Inlet to support the portion of the centre that is built out over the water.

For the architects who worked on the centre, that public interaction with the building is a key point. Mark Reddington of LMN believes the building succeeds because it addresses so much, from large to small. The roof, the greywater recycling, the daylighting, the addition of a concrete skirt underwater to encourage marine life, and many more features make it a sustainable building. The major plaza is the city’s biggest, and it’s a people-welcoming space. And the thought given to even small architectural details–the fine-mesh aluminum grating that is used extensively to provide a lacy screen in front of mechanical elements–give the building a visual lightness that is unusual for a structure so large. Reddington doesn’t mention it, but the wood beams suspended from the ceiling do the same. They look structural, but they’re really just a visual trick, one that makes the ceiling look like it’s entirely made of wood, even though the mechanical systems are visible above the beams.

There’s so much in this building to look at–now Vancouver’s biggest indoor space apart from sports stadiums–that it will keep laypeople and architects busy debating for years to come about which elements are successful and which aren’t. As Vancouver architect Oliver Lang says about the centre, it works because the team took some chances. “It has a real presence. It says we’re here and we can go head to head with anyone on the West Coast. In terms of materials, it’s very contemporary and doesn’t try to mimic something from the past. It takes positions and they’re confident ones.” CA

Frances Bula is a journalist specializing in Vancouver urban issues and city politics. She has a regular column in Vancouver magazine, and makes frequent contributions to The Globe and Mail.

Client Province of British Columbia (PAVCO) with Project Management by Stantec Consulting
DA Architects + Planners Team Ron Beaton (Partner in Charge), Christian Audet, Michael Canak, Tomas Cho, Mark Ehman, David Galpin, Sean Hemenway, Patrick McTaggart, Alex Piro, Natasha Saksman, Svetlana Sharipova, Alan Shatwell, Peter Smith, Jessica Winters, Patricia Yam
Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership Team Jacques Beaudreault (partner in charge), Usman Aziz, Harvey Huey, Dale Kosowan, Alan Kwan, Beatriz Leon, Felito Liao, Elena Martynova, Paul Mason, John Moorcroft, Tyra Moorcroft, Frank Musson, Janet Nepromuceno, Gustavo Rodriguez, Mark Thompson, David Weir, Mark Whitehead, Edith Wormsbecker, Ivona Zebrowski
LMN Architects Team Rob Widmeyer (partner in charge), Chris Baxter, Jim Brown, Tom Burgess, John Chau, Rina Chinen, Kirk Hostetter, Joseph Lee, Fred Novota, Niti Parikh, Mark Reddington, Brian Tennyson, Lori Wilwerding, John Woloszyn
Structural Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers and Earth Tech (Canada) Inc.
Mechanical Stantec Consulting
Electrical Schenke/Bawol Engineering Ltd.
Marine/Foundation Westmar Consultants Inc.
Landscape PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc.
Building Envelope Morrison Hershfield
Environmental EBA Engineering Consultants Ltd
Specialty Lighting Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design
Acoustical Arup Acoustics and Daniel Lyzun & Associates
Building Code LMDG Building Code Consultants Ltd.
Fire Protection Engineers GHL Consultants Ltd.
Construction Manager PCL Constructors Westcoast Inc.
Budget $625.9 M
Completion Spring 2009