Granville Island

A view down Granville Island's Duranleau Street reveals the industrial shed structures that have been repurposed for new uses.
A view down Granville Island’s Duranleau Street reveals the industrial shed structures that have been repurposed for new uses.

TEXT Luke van Tol

Granville Island is a Vancouver success story, with over 10 million visitors annually and longstanding praise from the architectural community for its approach to adaptive reuse. So, it is surprising to reflect on how challenging it was to convince authorities—and Vancouver at large—to preserve Granville Island’s industrial past in the 1970s.

In August 1980, The Canadian Architect applauded the recent work done on Granville Island, a 38-acre peninsula located across False Creek from downtown Vancouver. The Island comprised a conglomeration of industrial buildings that were becoming increasingly run-down as businesses shifted their manufacturing operations to Vancouver’s outlying regions. The development of South False Creek as a residential area spurred the Granville Island Trust to imagine an open green space to complement its adjacent neighbourhood. Architects Norman Hotson, FRAIC, and Joost Bakker, FRAIC, then of Hotson Bakker Architects, envisioned more: in Bakker’s words, “a place of public interest with a diversity of uses that recycles the old industrial structures while maintaining 15 acres of open space.”

How did Hotson and Bakker persuade the Trust that Granville Island’s old buildings were icons rather than eyesores? Bakker reflects that there was a uniqueness to that moment in time, when eco-thinking was just emerging. The philosophy of “reduce, reuse, recycle”—part of Bakker’s definition of adaptive reuse, with its ethical, economic and environmental implications—had expanded into the public consciousness. Moreover, Postmodern thinking gave value to heritage attributes, and industrial sheds and rail tracks were viewed as important artifacts of the city’s history. The space was appreciated partly for its character, and partly because of public nostalgia for the past.

Economics also contributed to the argument for an adaptive reuse approach. “To dismantle and then construct a space of equal scale to some of these structures would be costly,” explains Bakker. As an alternative, “smaller alterations to support the new functions were preferred.” An economic model proposed by Urbanics Consultants was influential in the final decision. They anticipated an economically sustainable result: although revenue would not be maximized, the proposal would give back to the community by supporting public programming. The happy outcome is the bright and busy Public Market, which serves as the main economic engine—and gathering hub—for the project.

Granville Island is a federal project, and thus has a specific governance model that played in favour of the architects’ vision. The City’s engineering standards could be bypassed by the Queen’s royal prerogative—a process invoked when an interlocking paving system was proposed in lieu of separated sidewalks. The resulting roadway allows pedestrians and slow-moving vehicles to share the same space, better representing the area’s industrial character.

The Canadian Architect and similar publications played a significant role in realizing an adaptive reuse approach for Granville Island. International interest was bolstered by articles like the one in the magazine’s August 1980 issue, and by recognition such as The Canadian Architect Award of Excellence that it earned two years earlier. As the magazine looks back through its archives, it commemorates not only 60 years of Canadian architecture, but also its own role in that history.

Luke van Tol is a recent graduate of the McGill University School of Architecture.