Canadian Architect

Feature

Your Future Home in Your Future City

An exhibition and debate series dives into Vancouver’s most contentious urban issues, including housing affordability, densification and transportation.

March 24, 2016
by Sean Ruthen

Visitors peruse a broad variety of proposals for the city—some serious, others fanciful—in the form of models by prominent local architects and urbanists. (Photo: Flora Gordon)

Visitors peruse a broad variety of proposals for the city—some serious, others fanciful—in the form of models by prominent local architects and urbanists. (Photo: Flora Gordon)

TEXT Sean Ruthen

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

— George Bernard Shaw

An ambitious new exhibition, currently on display at the Museum of Vancouver, is turning heads and spurring heated discussions about pressing topics. Your Future Home, put on by the museum in partnership with the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at UBC and a newly founded consortium called Urbanarium, touches on four of the city’s hot-button current issues: housing affordability, densification, transportation and public space.

A room-sized aerial photo of Vancouver graces the opening gallery of an exhibition on the city’s future growth at the Museum of Vancouver. (Photo: Flora Gordon)

A room-sized aerial photo of Vancouver graces the opening gallery of an exhibition on the city’s future growth at the Museum of Vancouver. (Photo: Flora Gordon)

Accompanied by six thematic debates (which so far have seen full houses), the content of the exhibition is intended to provoke and stimulate conversation both within the design professions and among the general public. To reach these goals, it provides eye-popping material, including a six-metre-high aerial photograph of Vancouver (looking up Main Street to the North Shore mountains), a six-metre-wide digitally animated fly-over of the city, and a set of brilliantly analytical demographic maps by Andy Yan of Bing Thom Architects. And all of this is just the introductory gallery.

The main hall features 23 discrete contributions, mostly in the form of models from Vancouver’s most prominent architectural firms. Some highlights include a tongue-in-cheek condominium tower being carted by a pair of oxen (Henriquez Partners), a tall wood-and-mirror clad box titled Can You Afford to Be Here? from which one can hear recorded discussions in various languages about local housing issues (DIALOG), and a sleekly crafted dock and wading pool proposed for the Coal Harbour waterfront (HCMA). There’s also a Tetris-like bundle of wooden blocks showing the disconnect between the actual city skyline and the current need for rental units (Stantec), and a pre-fab housing solution to occupy the land where City Council has voted to demolish an expressway (LWPAC).

The 760-metre-tall Vertical City by Henriquez Partners Architects takes locals’ love for views to the extreme.

The 760-metre-tall Vertical City by Henriquez Partners Architects takes locals’ love for views to the extreme.

Further displays highlight what urban designer Scot Hein calls “the region’s great eight advocacy moments”—pivotal decisions that profoundly impacted the future of the City. These include the decision against building the massive Project 200 freeway through downtown in the 1960s,
and the decision to turn a landfill island and industrial site in False Creek into Granville Island (now one of the City’s cultural hotspots) in the 1970s. Here, as well, is the more recent opening of the Woodward’s Redevelopment, which is transforming what was once known as the poorest postal code in Canada into a vibrant new mixed-use district.

Reminiscent of Rem Koolhaas’ vision for New York, a monolithic building by Erick Villagomez imagines a return to a non-hierarchical model of city development.

Reminiscent of Rem Koolhaas’ vision for New York, a monolithic building by Erick Villagomez imagines a return to a non-hierarchical model of city development.

Accompanying the exhibit and debates, walking tours and lectures add fodder to the lively discussion about how Metro Vancouver will be able to support a projected one million additional new residents by 2040. A poll some months prior to the opening of the show demonstrated, unsurprisingly, that nine out of ten Vancouverites did not want any further densification of the city. Clearly, we are moving into territory well beyond the realm of NIMBYism. There were already hints of this a few years back, when Vancouver City Council, following up on the findings of their Affordable Housing Task Force, suggested that one way to provide for density in the city’s predominantly single-family neighbourhoods could be to “thin” the streets. The backlash from homeowners stopped that conversation in its tracks. The rhetoric was, effectively: “Not in my backyard—and not in my front yard, either!”

Accordingly, the first of the museum’s city-building debates asked: where should density happen? Should it be evenly distributed throughout the city or only in strategic locations? The former director of planning, Brent Toderian, pointed out that Vancouver currently has over 2,100 building permit applications in the works for laneway housing, which is hoped will help to cool Vancouver’s red-hot housing market. Former Vancouver mayor and eco-density champion Sam Sullivan added that densification needs to happen around transit nodes, where it makes the most sense. Significantly, this has not yet been allowed at one of the region’s busiest Skytrain stations at Commercial and Broadway, which is currently surrounded by one- and two-storey structures.

HCMA Architecture + Design’s Harbour Deck presents a dynamic strategy for reconnecting Vancouverites with the water.

HCMA Architecture + Design’s Harbour Deck presents a dynamic strategy for reconnecting Vancouverites with the water.

At the kick-off to the debates, Leslie Van Duzer quoted George Bernard Shaw, telling those assembled that “those that can’t change their minds can’t change anything.” Accordingly, the winner of each debate is determined by before-and-after audience polls, to determine how many people changed their opinion after the discussion.

The second debate, on the topic of whether to build fewer towers, pitted urban planner Dave Ramslie and Christopher Vollan, vice-president of development at Rize, against planner Lance Berelowitz and architect Oliver Lang of LWPAC, the latter arguing for more intelligent kinds of middle density over the obvious tower forms. Ramslie and Vollan were able to sway more of the room, albeit by a narrow margin.

The next debate is set for March—it sold out in ten minutes—and will look at whether affordable housing should be legislated. Among others, it will feature David Eby, NDP MLA for Point Grey, who has been outspoken on the situation of gross inequality that Metro Vancouver currently finds itself in.

Four years in the making, this inaugural masterstroke by Urbanarium can already be heralded a success, judging by the waves it has sent rolling through the local design community. And as we continue to debate and discuss these important subjects, it falls on all participants to ensure the conversation doesn’t die out once the exhibition has ended, lest we forget the next million residents intent on coming to the Lower Mainland.

Sean Ruthen, FRAIC, is a Vancouver-based architect and writer.

Your Future Home: Creating the New Vancouver is on display at the Museum of Vancouver until May 15, 2016.