Canadian Architect

Feature

Making Tracks

The recently completed 16-station Canada Line that links downtown Vancouver to the city's airport is a welcome addition to the public transit system in the region.

March 1, 2011
by Canadian Architect

PROJECT The Canada Line, Vancouver and Richmond, British Columbia
ARCHITECTS VIA Architecture, Busby Perkins+Will, DIALOG, Walter Francl Architecture, Stantec Architecture, Kasian, PBK Architects
TEXT Sean Ruthen

Glowing in Vancouver’s western winter light, the new Canada Line station at Marine Drive stands as a beacon for urban renewal, located as it is at the periphery of Vancouver’s outer suburbs, on a gritty industrial edge across from a busy arterial. It will soon be the site of a new and already controversial TOD (Transit-Oriented Development) in the area, one of the first along the new Canada Line. And then there’s Broadway-City Hall, the new station with a swooping wood soffit standing kitty corner from the Canada Line’s first official TOD by Busby Perkins + Will (complete with a green wall and LEED Gold rating). It’s clear that these new urban typologies are a sign of the times, much like the iconic Dal Grauer substation on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver was in the 1950s, and the grain elevators were in the 1920s for Swiss architect Le Corbusier.

The architect’s intent at the Marine Drive station is a poetic metaphor of the logging industry, echoing the old structures lining the river when the Eburne sawmill was in full production–tall, utilitarian sheds where the lumber was cut, with glass clerestories to maximize natural daylight. One of five stations VIA Architecture designed for the Canada Line, idiosyncratically sited between the trains emerging from underground then propelled over the Fraser River, it imitates the movement of logs on conveyor belts and log plumes. This is just one of many ideas they used to develop each station’s unique theme. VIA Architecture’s Yaletown station, replacing the brick and heavy timber pavilion that used to be there, imitates the language of the loading docks that are Yaletown’s hallmark. It updates the Bill Curtis Plaza which serves as the entry to this new Vancouver neighbourhood, and frames a new vista to the iconic 1152 Mainland warehouse, the area’s signature showpiece with its storey-high serif numbering.

Eighteen months have now passed since the inaugural run of the new Canada Line, which connects the cities of Vancouver and Richmond with the Vancouver International Airport, and has already reached the capacity ridership anticipated for five years hence. Now seems as good a time as any to assess its efficacy from a transit rider’s perspective and to evaluate its overall success as a new urban intervention in the city’s streetscapes. Many have spoken about its overwhelming success since it was introduced shortly before the Vancouver Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, during which time an unprecedented 40% of the population left their cars at home to use public transit. However, much has been said about the negative side effects of its construction, which resulted in the tearing up of a prominent Vancouver neighbourhood’s public thoroughfare and other accompanying negative consequences. 

The Canada Line not only connects the two cities of Vancouver and Richmond, but stops at their respective City Halls; moreover, downtown Vancouver is now only a 15-minute train ride from the airport. With such a unifying effect, there are numerous opportunities to create new communities along the nodes. That being said, the City of Vancouver is presently hearing a rezoning application for the post-industrial parcel adjacent to the Marine Line station, with community leaders asking for a new Official Community Plan (OCP) for the area. PCI Development and Busby Perkins + Will’s proposal for almost 900,000 square feet1 next to the Canada Line station is ambitious to say the least. It comprises two new towers–262 and 377 feet respectively–on a richly layered podium containing the requisite drug store and/or grocery store. The view of the north arm of the Fraser River is mediocre–the only building currently this height in Marpole is Airport Square, a ’70s concrete frame highrise which is the shorter sibling of the Granville Square tower downtown. Consequently, the attraction here is to add density at the Marine Drive node, the outcome of which remains to be seen. As the architect’s rendering of the site on the developer’s marketing billboard has changed three times now, it may be a while before these new towers pop up on the city’s most southern slopes above the Fraser River.

Future density was also a factor in the planning of the airport stations, as explained by architect Walter Francl. While his Sea Island station is primarily intended for those working at the Air Canada terminal and offices, the Templeton station is a signpost of further development to the south, demarcated by a gateway on its south elevation. And with the possibility of a new hotel with mid-rise office buildings set to create a new community adjacent, this new station is an example of architecture in the landscape, but it may not remain so for very long. Francl describes this particular station as the more kinetic one of the two he completed; the curving canopy running parallel to the Canada Line is influenced by the decelerating and accelerating action of the trains. In contrast, the Sea Island station runs perpendicular to the tracks, with a glazed bridge crossing the busy roadway below, which is also a means to access a nearby bus loop.

The history of the Canada Line is perhaps as long as its 19.2 kilometres of rail, which, when added to the existing SkyTrain lines in Metro Vancouver and its environs, combine to make the longest automated train system in the world (a similar system in Dubai will shortly surpass the one in Vancouver). This fact and many like it are courtesy of Vancouver writer Noam Dolgin, whose Canada Line Adventures is an indispensable companion to the new rail system. He remembers the original plans to run the line up Ontario Street, which would have had the same effect there that it does on Cambie Village. It is certainly for this same reason that Kerrisdale residents vehemently opposed it going through their neighbourhood, despite there being an existing rail corridor there that could have been utilized. It seems that everyone loves the idea of commuter trains, but like a new kind of TOD-inspired NIMBYism, no one wants them running through their backyards.

In the 10 years since the Millennium Line, the Canada Line continues the legacy of stations as public art, though in a somewhat muted fashion. Without a doubt, the five stations in Richmond by the offices of Busby Perkins + Will, Walter Francl Architect and others are as architecturally evocative as the celebrated stations of the Millennium Line. In total, seven local firms contributed to the design of the 16 stations: in addition to Busby and Francl, DIALOG (King Edward, Oakridge and Langara), Stantec (Broadway and Olympic Village), Omicron (Storage and Maintenance Building), Kasian (Vancouver International Airport), and VIA Architecture (Bridgeport, Marine Drive, Yaletown, City Centre and Waterfront stations) contributed their efforts.

It is quite astonishing that one can now arrive at the airport and within 15 minutes be walking through Gastown. There is also the option to stop at a casino and Vancouver’s only two shopping malls along the way. The project’s undertaking was vast, requiring a combination of financiers in both the public and private realms, and the coordination between urban planners, architects and municipalities. With VIA Architecture given the responsibility of master-planning the line and working with the municipalities to locate the stations, the $1.92 billion needed to build the Canada Line came partly from SNC Lavalin ($200 million)–VIA had worked with them previously on a train line in Malaysia. SNC Lavalin will also operate and maintain the Canada Line for 35 years as InTransit–along with Translink ($354 million), the Vancouver Airport Authority ($300 million), and all three tiers of government–federal ($450 million), provincial ($435 million), and
municipal ($29 million). 

In the 18 months of its operation, the Line has not been without its share of controversy: this past December, a record-breaking snowfall closed down the Fraser River crossing between the Bridgeport and Marine Drive stations. Even more recently, an act of vandalism saw the disappearance of a large public sculpture from the King Edward station, ironically in the same area that launched a lawsuit against the Line due to the adverse effects of its construction on their businesses. Yet recently released statistics reveal that SkyTrain and Canada Line ridership rose during the Winter Olympic Games, and 44% of those same people are still continuing to use the trains, which means more foot traffic than before to those businesses. The question is at what cost is this acceptable? Such an urban experiment would not have been possible without closing the streets during the Games. If you give people a viable alternative to get to work, particularly when they are already exhausted by traffic jams, carbon taxes and high gas prices, the age-old love affair with the automobile may perhaps begin to disintegrate, bringing us closer to a new paradigm where Jan Gehl’s “Copenhagenization” combines effortlessly with an efficient public transit system. 

Additionally, this environmental consciousness extended to LEED, as the Line sought green strategies to make its mechanical systems more passive, using a ventilation system relying less on forced air and HVAC. They also saved 400 trees along Cambie Street in the course of excavating the cut-and-cover trench. By using energy-efficient lighting in all its stations, BC Hydro gave the project Power Smart approval for its power consumption. As the Line’s builder–Montreal-based SNC Lavalin–pointed out, transit stations are a challenging building type to fulfill a LEED checklist. But all seven architecture firms demonstrated innovative green strategies for each station, from the materials used, to their life-cycle costing.

The boring technology used for the Canada Line project was itself nothing short of miraculous, as the drill moved under the city and its population, removing the excavated dirt and positioning the curving concrete panels–all visible to passengers on the train. The current experience of riding the train under Cambie Street provides an opportunity to witness the tunnel’s form as a consequence of budgetary constraints, as the square cut-and-cover changes to the round bore tunnels. The use of one-floor elevators and single escalators at each station is also value engineering writ large, along with the Spartan wall and floor finishes. With three to four small tube steel chairs interspersed about each platform, the platforms themselves are quite small–40 metres long compared to the more generous 80-metre platforms used in the Millennium Line. All speak of the frequently unfortunate outcome of combining good intentions with the ubiquitous process of value engineering.

So what then are we to make of the stations themselves? Graham McGarva, principal of VIA Architecture–the planners and architects of the Millennium and Canada Lines–says the stations on the Canada Line were never intended to be as prominent as those in the Millennium Line, but neither were they meant to be decorated sheds like the cookie-cutter Expo Line stations. Grouped into six families–Downtown, Cambie North, Cambie Boulevard, Fraser River, No. 3 Road, and Airport–the stations can be classified as one of three station typologies: architecture in the landscape, the pavilion, and the “cover”–the most sumptuous example of this being Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau métro entrance in Paris. These “covers” are also typical of the subways in New York and Toronto, where the station’s presence on the street is no more than a set of stairs descending into the underground station proper. 

There is then perhaps no one that understands the complexity of realizing a project of this nature more than McGarva, and partner Alan Hart, who is presently running their Seattle office. The process requires the delicate juggling of urban planning, community input, financial partnering, and architecture. Founded in 1984, VIA Architecture’s office was involved in the planning and realization of 1986 Expo Line, the 2000 Millennium Line, as well as the design for the new Evergreen Line. They are also responsible for such notable Vancouver architecture as the Roundhouse Community Centre and the glass pavilion for the historic Engine 374 steam locomotive. McGarva admits that the Canada Line was a “tight ship” in regards to its budget, and while much of the design was edited, the essence of the Line still remains–its utilitas. I was equally impressed when he told me about their positive experience on the Millennium Line, and the ability to share the stations with the larger architectural community in Metro Vancouver–the laudable results of which include the iconic Brentwood Station, a legacy that the firm has continued with their three Canada Line stations along No.3 Road in Richmond.

The typical stations on the Canada Line are careful exercises in restraint, variations of themes comprised of previously set parameters. As an example, the depth of the platform below grade is equal to the length of two sets of stairs with a landing, all of which corresponds to the escalators that have been used in all the stations (except for two stations which required longer escalators due to their increased depth underground). McGarva also stated that a “one escalator up” policy has been typical of all the SkyTrain stations, and that this is simply a budgetary restriction. Adding another escalator would require purchasing considerably more real estate at grade. As for the interiors of the underground stations, the material palette was more or less set, leaving them to focus on the layouts, with each corresponding to the station’s unique theme. The unfortunate reality is that many of these designs are now either covered by advertising, or are intentionally kept sparse since they may be torn up in the future to either expand or maintain the station.

Looking to the future, the Evergreen Line is set to be the fourth line to traverse the Lower Mainland, and as such McGarva believes it is most likely to be similar to the Canada Line in its architectural expression: “It won’t be as adventurous as the Millennium Line, which took an explicit mandate. It was a culture and a branding–Millennium Line was a brand. SkyTrain before that was not that popular in the public imagination, and it is now, partly through necessity, but [also] because it broke the thing open in the way each station announced itself with an exclamation point. The Canada Line is more like, ‘Don’t worry about all that, we’re just stations.’¿” 

“As for the Evergreen Line, I honestly can’t call how it’s going to come out. Maybe some standards will change and some new people will come in and say we need up and down escalators. This was the decision made with the Expo Line 25 years ago, and it was a big decision as it’s not just a couple thousand dollars for another escalator–it’s so many more metres of property that moves the alignment, and so you have to buy 17 more properties.” 

Whether the stations are built remains to be seen. The level of complexity remains the same, with an increasingly standardized assemblage of parts and parameters to be coordinated. As a humourous aside, McGarva described building the Yaletown station as the equivalent of constructing a 200-foot highrise underground, lying on its side, which was then value-engineered to pure utility. Consequently, its aesthetic is the result of the urgency to get the most efficient design–universal and straightforward–for the greatest good.

Regardless of the Canada Line’s construction woes, it has been a success from a functional standpoint, and is now the most used line of the three. That it is loved is undeniable, demonstrated by the long queues on opening day. It’s like trying to get on a ride at Disneyla
nd, or lining up to view the Olympic medals during the Games. As an Olympic volunteer myself working in the evenings, I often rode home at midnight when it was full of friendly people talking and laughing–positive energy that, to me, will always represent the Canada Line and makes taking the train a pleasurable experience in Metro Vancouver and its surroundings. A remarkable 1.6 million people used the system per day during the Olympics, with SkyTrain usage overall jumping 54%, demonstrating that if you build it, people will ride it. And despite their austere utilitas, the 16 new stations are celebrating what design details they can, propelling minimalism into a new architectural expression. CA

1 See http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/planning/rezoning/applications/8430cambie/index.htm for more information.

Sean Ruthen is a Vancouver-based architect and writer.

Project Waterfront Station
Architects VIA Architecture; Hywel Jones Architect (renovations to existing station complex)
Structural Read Jones Christoffersen Consulting Engineers
Mechanical SNC-Lavalin Inc.
Electrical Applied Engineering Solutions Ltd./Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Project Vancouver City Centre Station
Architect VIA Architecture (Prime)/PBK Architects (Collaborating)
Structural Read Jones Christoffersen Consulting Engineers
Mechanical SNC-Lavalin Inc.
Electrical Genivar

Project Yaletown Roundhouse Station
Architect VIA Architecture
Structural Read Jones Christoffersen Consulting Engineers
Mechanical SNC-Lavalin Inc.
Electrical Genivar
Landscape Durante Kreuk Ltd.

Project Olympic Village Station
Architect Stantec
Structural RJC Consulting Engineers
Mechanical/Electrical Stantec Consulting Ltd.
Landscape Durante Kreuk Ltd.

Project Broadway-City Hall Station
Architect Stantec
Structural RJC Consulting Engineers
Mechanical/Electrical Stantec Consulting Ltd.
Landscape Durante Kreuk Ltd.

Project King Edward Station
Architect DIALOG (formerly Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden)
Structural Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers
Mechanical SNC-Lavalin Inc.
Electrical Stantec Consulting Ltd.
Landscape Durante Kreuk Ltd.

Project Oakridge-41st Avenue Station
Architect DIALOG (formerly Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden)
Structural Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers
Mechanical SNC-Lavalin Inc.
Electrical Stantec Consulting Ltd.
Landscape Durante Kreuk Ltd.

Project Langara-49th Avenue Station
Architect DIALOG (formerly Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects)
Structural Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers
Mechanical SNC-Lavalin Inc.
Electrical Stantec Consulting Ltd.
Landscape Durante Kreuk Ltd.

Project Marine Drive Station
Architect VIA Architecture (Prime)/PBK Architects (Collaborating)
Structural Fast & Epp
Mechanical/Electrical Genivar
Landscape Durante Kreuk Ltd.

Project Bridgeport Station
Architect VIA Architecture (Prime)/PBK Architects (Collaborating)
Structural/Mechanical/Electrical Genivar

Project Aberdeen Station
Architect Busby Perkins+Will
Structural Fast & Epp
Mechanical/Electrical Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Project Lansdowne Station
Architect Busby Perkins+Will
Structural Fast & Epp
Mechanical/Electrical Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Project Richmond-Brighouse Station
Architect Busby Perkins+Will
Structural Fast & Epp
Mechanical/Electrical Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Project Templeton Station
Architect Walter Francl Architecture
Structural Fast & Epp
Mechanical/Electrical MCW Consultants Ltd.
Landscape Sharpe & Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc.

Project Sea Island Centre Station
Architect Walter Francl Architecture
Structural Fast & Epp
Mechanical/Electrical MCW Consultants Ltd.
Landscape Sharpe & Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc.

Project YVR-Airport Station
Architect Kasian
Structural Read Jones Christoffersen Consulting Engineers
Mechanical/Electrical MCW Consultants Ltd.
Landscape Sharpe & Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc.




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Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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