I See You See Me, CBC

PROJECT CBC/Radio-Canada Vancouver Redevelopment, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Bob Matheson

In the heart of downtown Vancouver and adjacent to the central library and two important theatres, Hamilton Street has nonetheless long projected the forlorn solitude of a de Chirico painting, minus the sunshine. Pedestrians have been scarce on the ground; the south faade of the famously convivial coliseum-cum-library is truly the indifferent rear end. And across the street sat the longstanding CBC British Columbia broadcast centre, a rain-streaked concrete behemoth that responded to passing citizens with mutual indifference.

These days, much has changed at the CBC, thanks to a reinvention of sorts by Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects. Working with project architect Kate Gerson, the interior design firm SSDG Interiors, and CBC BC senior manager Ken Golemba, Joost Bakker has transformed not only the immediate broadcast centre, but the entire neighbourhood. “The idea was to make the buildings and the CBC more of a part of the community,” says Golemba, “and to welcome the public back into our facility.”

To this end, the design team reconfigured the original building into a kind of launch pad, from which the large new integrated newsroom protrudes. The reconnection with the public is as literal as you can imagine. At ground level, an L-shaped corridor-atrium accessible to anyone runs through the centre and out the side of the building, allowing glimpses of the actual newsgathering going on behind the glass walls. Driving downtown at night, one can actually see news anchors Gloria Macarenko and Ian Hanomansing at work on the curtain-wall-glazed second floor. And from the sidewalk, the faade beckons stray pedestrians with coffee and information kiosks. “The whole block was conceived as having a CBC presence,” says Bakker.

The designers’ mandate was to incorporate transparency, integrate the diverse and discrete news and radio operations as much as possible, and engage with the street. Consequently, HBBH developed a master plan for the entire block defined by Hamilton, Georgia, Cambie and Robson streets. A density-transfer package allowed the construction of two adjacent residential towers by architect Walter Francl with IBI/HB and Concord Pacific, and generated funds for the overhaul and expansion of the broadcast centre itself. But despite its low-rise massing, the CBC building visually and programmatically dominates not only its own section of the block, but the entire vicinity.

What is particularly remarkable is the ideological contrast of the new design approach compared to the original building. “Formidable” is one way to describe the original 1973 building, a seven-storey Brutalist structure with several storeys below grade. Today, its rain-streaked concrete walls reinforce its image as a dark and impenetrable fortress. Yet the original made sense in the context of its era. At the time, long before the era of citizen journalism, that opacity served the broadcaster well. Thompson Berwick Pratt designed what would be a “media factory”–an architectural iceberg, of which outsiders could only see the tip. The express purpose wasn’t so much to hide the media production but to insulate it for lighting and acoustic reasons. Since that time, the quality of microphones and other technical equipment has improved to the point where the newsmaking process can become a sort of tableau vivant, a show of creative nonfiction for the general public.

Technical factors aside, the public perception of the media in general–and the CBC in particular–was starkly different 35 years ago. Broadcasting by its nature was an exclusive industry, an activity associated with specialized training, glamour and mystique; who would want to let daylight in upon magic? As well, Vancouver was at that time poised to become a major media production centre.

But in the mid-1980s, the federal government began its ravaging of the CBC’s core funding, hacking its budget so mercilessly that the broadcaster would never be the same again, in Vancouver or anywhere else in Canada. From its mid-’70s peak of 850, the staff at CBC British Columbia has dwindled to about 375 personnel, according to Golemba. Part of that reduction was due to certain kinds of jobs vanishing in the wake of enhanced technology. With computer-controlled desktop editing and so forth, the nightly news requires half the technical staff of yesteryear. Still, it’s undeniable that in Vancouver and across the country, the cutbacks eroded CBC’s once-dominant role as arbiter of Canadian culture.

For years, CBC Vancouver remained quietly hunkered in its downtown site, mostly invisible to passersby, even as the concept of a media factory grew obsolete. Making one’s way around the interior meant negotiating a dark labyrinth where one false turn could land you in the faraway English-language radio section when you wanted the French section, or vice versa. On entry and exit, the walk though its barren windswept plaza suggested an edifice and an outfit that was both uncared for and uncaring. To this occasional visitor, the rabbit’s warren felt spooky, the way I’d imagine the interior of a dilapidated CIA headquarters, full of darkness at noon.

“There were perceptions of the CBC that just weren’t right,” agrees Golemba. “People were almost afraid to approach us, because the old building and that plaza were so daunting and intimidating. We wanted to tell them that we are not the elite CBC looking down on them; we wanted them to be a part of what we do here.”

The new CBC British Columbia bureau is now the conceptual opposite of its predecessor. Its curvilinear storefront faade is literally transparent: anyone can view what’s going on inside. News production and delivery is now amalgamated–French and English, television and radio, on- and off-air personnel in one huge space. The centrepiece of this space is a circular overhead steel framework filled with television screens and backlit banners–the newsy-looking backdrop for migrating anchors and reporters. Even though this is the British Columbia bureau, “Vancouver” is the place-name emblazoned on the banners–simply because it’s conveniently unilingual, requiring no French translation. Its curving faade is almost completely glazed, but the acoustics are protected by enormously thick glass, double-glazed with a much thicker airspace than regular window-wall, notes Gerson.

For the design team, the program was, and is, a moving target. With reporting, processing and broadcasting now portable and near instantaneous, the whole idea of architectural permanence is upended. CBC reporters can plug themselves in and broadcast their stories at various locales throughout the station, so the concept of a backdrop is highly fluid. What viewers at home perceive to be a map of Canada or a night shot of Vancouver is likely a solid “green screen” behind the reporter, with the digitized landscape projected as an illusory backdrop.

With its high-tech fittings and red-and-white fritted glass, the new CBC British Columbia space strongly evokes two other major signifiers of our national culture: the Canadian flag and the contemporary airport (especially the Air Canada counter). The abrupt shift in architectural identity is jarring at first glance, with its intimations of modern consumer culture. And no doubt it’s posed some challenges to a staff used to working in isolation and far away from the public eye.

“We’re not used to live audiences,” smiles Claire Martin, the CBC’s beloved meteorologist, who now delivers the national weather reports from the fully glazed second floor while curious passersby look up and wave. Unnerved at first, especially on those days when she wore a skirt to work, Martin points to her own ad-hoc architectural solution: a “modesty panel” that she jerry-rigged from ordinary black cardboard and plas
tered onto the lower portion of the glazed wall. With that minor concession to human modesty, Martin calls the new broadcast environment “fabulous–you can actually see the idea put into play.”

The interaction with the street is remarkable, courtesy of several key elements. The most basic is the visual interaction, as one can look up from the sidewalk or through a car windshield and see the on-air staff delivering the goods. The literal interaction comes by way of a coffee shop, a JJ Bean franchise also designed by HBBH. The design team has also added a series of “media lanterns”–air vents that pop up through the Hamilton Street sidewalk, which are double-purposed as advertising screens for CBC personalities or programs.

And, in a most publicly generous gesture, the CBC and the design team worked with the Vancouver Heritage Foundation to create “The Wall,” a rectangular concrete screen facing the street, upon which a changing series of images will be visible to passersby, created by Canadian artists and inspired by the CBC archives. Finally, the city’s seasonal festivals–the summer Jazz Festival and autumn’s literary fair–will enliven this Hamilton Street strip. As Bakker himself puts it, “It’s not so much capital-A architecture as good urban design,” an observation that could arguably serve as the firm’s motto.

The Vancouver overhaul is part of a low-key nation-wide reconsideration of the national broadcaster’s aging and outdated building infrastructure. “Basically, the CBC recognized a few years ago that we had these huge real estate assets across the country and there was potential to leverage them for financial gains,” says Golemba. The regional bureaus in Edmonton, Ottawa and Quebec City have already been transformed, and the broadcaster is now looking at the network centres in Montreal and Halifax. “There’s the potential to expand this across the country,” says Golemba, “providing there’s the business case to do them.”

Ah, the business case. As with so many other publicly supported institutions, the CBC is subject to the tyranny of democracy–the ill-informed perception that spending taxpayer money on architecture is wasteful. That nefarious attitude tempers what should otherwise be a joyously noisy celebration of the CBC British Columbia revamping, but its personnel are careful not to vaunt the new architecture too openly.

That’s a pity and an irony, because the CBC’s new West Coast headquarters is all about communicating with the wider public. The architecture is already creating urban density and a sense of vitality in the once-bleak streetscape. It’s a staggering transition from high, dull, opaque and sequestered to low, bright, transparent and engaged. But it’s been a far-from-straightforward challenge. As Bakker puts it: “Seeing the world through a television lens is far different than seeing it through an architectural eye.” CA

Adele Weder is an architectural critic and curator based in British Columbia.

Client CBC Real Estate Division
Architect Team Joost Bakker, Alan Boniface, Kate Gerson, Deryk Whitehead, Bruce Haden, Eric Stedman, Tina Hubert, Teresa Lowe, Mona Tsui, Roland Kpfer, Ouri Scott, Ali Stiles
Structural Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers
Mechanical/Electrical AECOM, Flow Consulting
Landscape PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc.
Interiors SSDG Interior Design, Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects
Contractor Scott Construction, Oxford Construction
Development Consultant MKT Arkle Development Management Inc.
Building Envelope Read Jones Christofferson Ltd., Wells Klein Consulting Group
Code B.R. Thorson Consulting, LMDG Building Consultants Ltd.
Costing BTY Group
Surveying Underhill & Underhill Geomatics Ltd.
Project Management MKT Arkle Development Management Inc., SNC Lavalin Profac
Graphics Kent Allan Design Group
Authorities City of Vancouver
Specifications Morris Specifications Inc.
Traffic Ward Consulting Group
Acoustic BKL Consultants Ltd.
Security R.A. Duff & Associates
Lighting Joseph Scott
Area 31,000 m2 (9,000 m2 new construction; 5,700 m2 renovation)
Budget $48 M
Completion November 2009