Book Review: Exploring Vancouver (5th Edition)

Photo by Robin Ward

Evidently, a lot can happen in ten years, which is the time since Harold “Hal” Kalman and Robin Ward last updated their popular Exploring Vancouver—a keystone volume that has been re-issued nearly every decade since 1974. It is remarkable to look at the newest version in comparison to earlier ones, including the black-and-white edition from almost fifty years ago. The past decade, in particular, has seen an astonishing number of new entries to the book: from a plethora of new residential high-rises by an international who’s who of architects, to several new buildings at UBC, along with new developments by local First Nations.

It is this last group of entries in particular that the book’s authors call out in their introduction to this edition. Following the lead of Vancouver’s pledge to Truth and Reconciliation in 2014, this is the first edition that highlights some of the grievous wrongs that have been perpetuated since the founding of the city—in particular, that the downtown peninsula was not “empty land” as the land commissioner of the CPR declared and had immortalized on the corner of the downtown street named after him. As clearly noted on the first page of this book’s introduction: “The land was not ‘empty’—First Nations had been here for millennia.”

The šxwqweləwən ct (One Heart, One Mind) Carving Centre was designed by Joe Wai as a permanent space for cross-cultural exchange and reconciliation. Photo by Robin Ward

In acknowledgment of the damaging history of colonialism, the book no longer begins with Gastown, accompanied by a picture of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton’s statue in Maple Tree Square, as had been the case in 2012. Instead, the new edition puts False Creek at the start: the book’s authors have chosen Expo ’86, which was staged on those former industrial lands, as the event to frame the book’s narrative and nearly four hundred featured buildings. The introduction is perhaps one of the most comprehensive histories of planning in Vancouver and its region to-date, even more than Frances Bula‘s recent introduction to Larry Beasley’s Vancouverism, specifically because this new edition followed the release of the controversial Broadway Plan. The opening text is particularly strong in documenting the city’s history since the sale of the Expo lands in 1987, when Vancouver planner Ray Spaxman and City Council worked with developer Concord Pacific and local constituents to create what would become one of North America’s most vibrant, walkable communities.

From CityPlan to EcoDensity, from Vancouverism to the new Broadway Plan, Vancouver has seen seismic shifts in its planning sensibilities since 2012, and Kalman and Ward have chronicled the landscapes that have emerged along the way—from the new communities growing up in Olympic Village (now just “The Village”) to the bustling campus in the False Creek Flats where Emily Carr University has made its new home, designed by Diamond Schmitt and Chernoff Thompson Architects. 

As well, the book includes some of the many new buildings constructed at UBC, including Tallwood by Acton Ostry Architects, which at the time of its construction in 2017 was the tallest hybrid mass timber building in the world. Other new buildings included in the ten additional pages on UBC include the Nest by DIALOG and B+H Architects, Formline’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, a new aquatic centre by MJMA and Acton Ostry Architects, a biodiversity museum and research centre by Patkau Architects, and a pharmaceutical sciences building by Saucier + Perrotte with HCMA. The next edition, one anticipates, will provide an update on the recent seismic upgrades to the Museum of Anthropology, the great masterwork by Arthur Erickson which anchors the west side of the campus.

One of the most recent projects in the guidebook is Alberni, a 43-storey luxury condo tower designed by Kengo Kuma & Associates with Merrick Architecture. Photo by Robin Ward

By presenting False Creek as the starting point for the book, the usual suspects of Gastown, Chinatown, and Strathcona are able to follow without much ado, with the downtown CBD and West End still rounding out the book’s core framework, as it has for close to five decades. As a past architectural walking tour guide for the AIBC who led variations of these six walks, I have been watching the transformation of the downtown and environs with interest since the late nineties, and was very curious to see which recent buildings the authors would be able to include at the time of the book’s publishing. The final selection includes Bjarke Ingels Group and DIALOG’s Vancouver House, Revery’s Butterfly, Kengo Kuma and Merrick Architecture’s Alberni, and Herzog and de Meuron and Perkins&Will’s design for a new Vancouver Art Gallery.

By consolidating some of the chapters from the previous edition, the authors have been able to reduce the previous fourteen walks to ten. The tenth tour in the book requires a car as it covers a wide geographic area, including Surrey, Richmond, New Westminster, Port Moody, and Burnaby. This section is a substantial addition to the book, providing for several new buildings atop Mount Burnaby at SFU, along with a num­ber of buildings in Surrey’s growing civic precinct, including its main library by Revery.

Designed by NIck Milkovich Architects and Arthur Erickson, the Waterfall Building groups live-work studios around a courtyard with a wedge-shaped pavilion intended as an art gallery. Photo by Robin Ward

As a resident of New Westminster, I appreciated the inclusion of the Anvil Centre by HCMA and MCM, along with the new Sapperton District adjacent to the Royal Columbian Hospital, an often overlooked transit-oriented development masterplanned by Henriquez Partners Architects. Like its older cousin at New Westminster Station, Sapperton will be home to four new residential towers at its build-out, and has turned the area into a vibrant, walkable community. 

Like the story of False Creek, the Expo Line anchors another narrative thread, as its expansion to include the Millennium, Evergreen, and Canada Lines has allowed for Metro Vancouver to remain a fifteen-minute city. The new Broadway Line is also mentioned several times in the current edition, particularly as it enables the Broadway Plan. As the book’s authors make clear, this new plan will potentially affect some 500 blocks along the Broadway corridor, currently home to twenty-five percent of the city’s rental housing stock. Perhaps the game changer here will be the arrival of Indigenous development on the Heather and Jericho lands, along with the Squamish nation’s Sen’ákw, designed by Revery with Kasian, which has already broken ground at the southern foot of the Burrard Street Bridge.

Kalman and Ward note that the most unprecedented result of Truth and Reconciliation, “unforeseen by CityPlan and EcoDensity (or previous editions of this book), is that First Nations would assert their rights and initiate development.” They ask: “Will these initiatives shift the dynamics of real estate development in Vancouver? They will certainly test the sincerity of the City’s 2014 pledge of reconciliation.”

The results of these new developments will doubtless be documented in a future edition. Meanwhile, the fifth edition offers a hopeful narrative of moving into the future together by building upon the lessons of our past. In the spirit of Expo ’86, this positive motion continues to propel this city forward to becoming a place we can all call home.

See all articles in the November issue