Block by Block: Strathcona Village, Vancouver, British Columbia

Residential and light industrial functions combine in a Vancouver development modelled on stacked shipping containers.

A courtyard is carved into the project facing the main street, creating an outdoor public space. A two-storey atrium connects from the plaza down to the lane, passing through the parking garage and offering an unexpectedly delightful promenade. Photo: Ema Peter

PROJECT Strathcona Village, Vancouver, British Columbia

ARCHITECT GBL Architects

If architectural form can be said to speak, it is material finish that colours its voice. The corrugated metal cladding of Strathcona Village, a mixed-use project in Vancouver, announces itself boldly and loudly. It borrows the language of stacked shipping containers to communicate a novel pairing of the domestic and the industrial.

The project sits at the northern end of Strathcona, the city’s oldest residential neighbourhood, at the edge of a wide tract of industrial land and sprawling port infrastructure. This dichotomy has informed the area’s rich past and its complex present. Residents in the 1950s successfully fought against a proposal to raze existing homes—the area was then dubbed a slum—and replace them with concrete apartment towers. The 1960s saw neighbourhood advocates thwart a planned freeway that would have destroyed parts of Chinatown and Gastown.

The main façade of Strathcona Village addresses East Hastings Street with a variety of light industrial and production spaces. Photo: Ema Peter

Today, owing in part to the area’s global shipping compound with its potential for smuggling controlled substances, Strathcona also exists as the centre of Canada’s opioid crisis. A few blocks down from the site, along the high street of Hastings, a sign declares the city’s intent to launch expropriation proceedings against yet another deeply neglected single-room-occupancy building. At the public hearing for Strathcona Village, local sex workers voiced concerns about how construction of the project might disrupt their business, conducted beneath the rail overpass adjacent the site.

The apartments enjoy views of Vancouver’s port and adjacent industrial lands, with the North Shore mountains beyond—a context that informed the aesthetic and programming of the mixed industrial-residential project. © krista jahnke photography

The composition of the mixed-use program is informed by this specific social and urban context. Developed by Wall Financial, the project contains 280 market condo units along with 70 units of non-market housing (a third of which rent at rates not exceeding the shelter component of social assistance), as well as 5,670 square metres of light industrial space. The provision of rental housing is particularly meaningful for the area, but the project also makes its mark as a North American pioneer for co-locating a residential program with production-distribution-repair (PDR) uses. This designation, borrowed from a San Francisco initiative, aims to bolster the economy by providing small businesses with the needed space to produce goods locally. GBL Architects arranges these various functions into three towers punctured laterally by two offset bars—one abutting the street, the other recessed towards the lane—with the entire arrangement sitting atop a double-height base.

BYU Design completed the interiors for the project, including the design for their own office. Photo: Provoke Studios

In pragmatic terms, the site conditions are ideal for this scheme. The project addresses the busy Hastings corridor to the south; a two-storey drop between street level and the industrial lands to the north and east allows it to also border a working rail line. It would seem logical to locate all PDR functions exclusively off the back lane, retaining street frontage for more photogenic occupancies. But there is a different ethos at work in this project, a kind of progressive thinking and a design generosity that ask us to recalibrate expectations for utilitarian space and domestic character within a private development.

Instead, PDR spaces are placed front-and-centre at street level. Some of these functions—a millwork shop, a fresh juice producer—are indeed located off the alley for solid logistical reasons. But even here, a critical perspective is at work: these spaces actually front the lane, with glazed doors bearing corporate logos and unit numbers, all set within a façade that is every bit as resolved as the other elevations of the building. While not qualifying as true addresses in the regulatory sense, these laneway entries function as such—an entirely sensible, but as yet emergent, notion in Vancouver’s urban planning.

Red metal gates pivot open to the plaza from East Hastings Street. At the north end, the architecture frames a view to the industrial port lands. A stair and elevator descend to access the parking and back laneway. Photo: Ema Peter

Moving up from the lane through two levels of parking offers what is certainly the most surprising moment of delight in the project. The design team worked with code consultants Thorson McAuley to craft a two-storey, open-air atrium in the upper levels of the parking area, connecting the alley below with the plaza at street grade. The procession up the stairway, offering a view of only sky, is a charming prospect. Were it not for security concerns that limit access, this space would be an attractive thoroughfare to get pedestrians from lane to street.

At street level, the large cut between the centre and eastern towers serves as a well-proportioned plaza that just begs to be programmed as a restaurant patio—a very real possibility given the project’s zoning. But there is another, less expected public invitation at the north end of this outdoor space. Glowing through the dim light of the breezeway is a kind of physical picture window framing an unobstructed view of the area’s industrial icons—the historic BC Sugar refinery, concrete silos, the port’s shipping cranes—layered up against the backdrop of the North Shore mountains. This device sets the material expression of the project firmly in its generative context.

It is clear that the project architects have taken considerable care in designing this expression, especially in the residential towers. The push/pull operations of the curtain wall glazing, subtle shifts in window placement from floor to floor on the metal-clad faces, and yet more radical shifts in the relative placement of the balconies all make for façades that oscillate with interest without ever deteriorating into noise. In concert with the saturated colours and deep texture of the corrugated cladding, the slightly irregular stacking effect carries with it a kinetic energy that serves as a pleasing counterpoint to Vancouver’s litany of teal glass towers and their bland extrusions of the same.

A detail of the façade. Photo: Ema Peter

Pursued as aggressively as it is over different parts of the building, however, the shipping container aesthetic proves a slippery game. In one area, the proportions, colours and detailing convincingly mimic the volumetrics of a container bar. But in another, the treatment reveals itself as surface appliqué. One wonders if a few distinct materials might have been chosen to declare the different programmatic components, rather than relying on a single look to carry the entire work. Extending the material palette could perhaps have highlighted the critical recalibration of domestic and industrial character evident in the project. If residential towers can bear the countenance of industrial containers, what is an appropriate persona for a contemporary production space?  

Part of the value of mixed-use exists in its spatial efficiencies, and in the attempt to generate micro-ecologies of the creative class—say, in the section of Strathcona Village that stacks a design studio atop a millwork shop adjacent an animation studio. But its greater promise is in a serial replication of the model, such that urban life attains a pitch not possible in a city segregated by use. Strathcona Village contains the seeds of an ethos that will not just have its residents and mixed-use enterprise contribute to a thriving public realm on the street. It projects beyond the boundaries of its property lines to envision a new kind of city.

Steve DiPasquale is an architect at HCMA Architecture + Design in Vancouver.

CLIENT Wall Financial Corporation | ARCHITECT TEAM Daniel Eisenberg (MRAIC), Stu Lyon (FRAIC), Eric Stacey (MRAIC), Theresa Wong, Rod Forbes, Barry Hyde, Emily Milford, Rodrigo Cepeda, Jonathan Toronchuck | STRUCTURAL Glotman Simpson | MECHANICAL NDY | ELECTRICAL Nemetz & Associates | LANDSCAPE PWL | INTERIORS BYU Design | CODE Thorson McAuley | SUSTAINABILITY Recollective | ENVELOPE BC Building Science | CONTRACTOR Wall Centre Construction Ltd. | AREA 27,908 m2 | BUDGET $112 M | COMPLETION July 2018

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 215.5 kWh/m2/year | BENCHMARK (Multi-Unit Residential Buildings in BC, 2014 Light House study) 215 kWh/m2/year | WATER USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 0.87 m3/m2/year | BENCHMARK (Median among 44 Ontario Multi-Unit Residential Buildings, 2017 Ryerson University study) 1.5 m3/m2/year

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