Owning the Podium

PROJECT Fairmont Pacific Rim, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECT James K.M. Cheng Architects Inc.
TEXT Trevor Boddy

With every success, the career of Vancouver’s James K.M. Cheng becomes an ever-greater challenge to the conservatism of Canada’s contemporary architectural culture. A protg of Richard Meier during his studies at Harvard, for a quarter century Cheng has been a key intellectual engine for Vancouver’s highly regarded accomplishments in city-building. Rather than the city planners and politicians who usually take credit for these innovations, it is Cheng who has surest claim on the status as principal author of the tower-podium typology, the best-known symbol of “Vancouverism.” Cheng was subsequently amongst the first to push for alternatives to tower-podium, once it had been reduced (by others) into a dull developer’s formula. One of the first of these–the waterfront Shaw Tower–places elegant condos on top of one of few substantive creations of new office space built on Vancouver’s downtown peninsula in the past decade.

With the just-opened Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel-condo hybrid next door to the Shaw Tower, James Cheng has produced his most sophisticated and nuanced work to date. This is also the largest building in the city’s history–at 813,000 square feet, it is larger in floor area than the new Vancouver Convention Centre addition located just across the street. Cheng was an early supporter of Vancouver’s design review panel system that has subsequently been adopted in various forms by Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. Not incidentally, he has major projects underway in all of these cities, in large part because of an excellent reputation with developers and approving authorities for crafting superior designs with significant public benefits.

Contrast the nature and scale of these successes with our best recent indicator of the state of Canada’s architectural culture, the winners of the 2010 Governor General’s Medals. With three exceptions, all of the dozen prizes this year went to extraordinarily small-scale projects–cottages, additions, spa or gallery renovations, and park pavilions. Unprecedented in the history of Canada’s top design award, Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe’s firm won three medals: the conversion of a heritage building into an art gallery; a workspace addition to a 1997 medal-winner; and a guest house in a ravine. It is worth noting that James Cheng’s first and only GG winner was Willow Court in 1983, a cleverly planned and accented Fairview Slopes housing complex. Clearly, Cheng occupies an alternate architectural universe from the one currently validated by the GG awards jury and its sister gatekeepers of professional and academic recognition.

In my view, the two finest 2010 GG medal designs premiated–the Grande Bibliothque du Qubec in Montreal by Patkau Architects and the Telus Centre for Performance and Learning in Toronto, designed by Marianne McKenna of KPMB Architects–are two significant acts of city-building by any standard, but depressingly, both were actually designed in the 1990s. The odd project out is the St. Germain Aqueducts and Sewers building outside Montreal, a modest project that would be hard to imagine getting a major design award anytime or anywhere else than Canada right now, where tasty and self-consciously detailed but otherwise ambitionless miniatures of Neo-Modernism rule the land. The nine remaining modest but beautifully crafted 2010 GG prizewinners tend to the art historical in their revival of the small moments of Modernism–either deft, as in Shim-Sutcliffe Architects’ extensions from Aalto and Scarpa, or else clumsy, as in gh3’s take on the glass house. Is nothing but Modernist villas being taught in our architecture schools?

This tendency has increased over the years. Of the 45 projects given GGs over the past decade, virtually all have been either private residences or institutional and government works, and the scale gets smaller with every round of prizes. As an entire category of work–multi-family housing–is all but missing from this list, with only one social-housing project by Gregory Henriquez, and two private apartment buildings by LWPAC and Atelier Big City. The only entirely private-sector project amongst the 45 is the offices for Winnipeg’s Smith Carter, an architecture firm whose main design work is in the public sector. Modernist in their stylistic quotations but not in their commitment to tectonic innovation or engagement with social issues, have leading-edge Canadian architects given up on the creation of new forms and details, abandoned the transformation of cities, and moved out to the cottage? I worry that we have come to accept a paradigm of architecture that ignores city-building, diminishes social engagement, and rejects a priori anything built by a developer. Moreover, this is no Vancouver versus Toronto debate, which has been a common but shallow reading of this year’s prize list. When leading lights of Vancouver’s design scene were recently asked by an urban weekly what contemporary building they admired most, the most praised turned out to be Bill Pechet’s 1993 Woods Columbaria at Capilano View Cemetery. Cottages in the east, architecture for the dead in the west–are we not all missing what matters? American and European architecture organizations manage more balanced national design prizes–surely Canadian ones can too.

Of course, there are very good reasons why our best designers and ambitious young academics aim so low–these tiny projects are the only ones where outcomes can be controlled, and perhaps more importantly, where the artful detailing and photo-friendly compositions can be devised for an era when a disempowered profession turns to aestheticism for its identity. Recent awards and exhibitions tend to reify architecture towards status as isolated works of fine art, and away from its social, technical and programmatic complexity.

Since I am deeply admiring of nearly all the designers on this year’s GG list, I am forced to opine that most have more substantive recent work than got premiated here. My problem is less with them than this jury’s choices and the overall evolution of the awards, where designers as talented as Cheng no longer submit entries. Most 2010 winners maintain deep commitments to bettering housing and urban spaces, but most are not given–or do not take–opportunities to build at a larger scale. Heightening the dichotomy, Canadian architecture is increasingly dominated by bloated corporate practices where the source of architectural ideas is overpaid marketers. What is worse, building commissioning has become ever more conservative in Canada, where even mid-career designers bristling with awards face a dismal choice between arty little essays like these, or slots as drones in design-by-rote juggernauts. Except in Quebec, Canadians seldom mount the design competitions that are the standard means for small practices to break into larger commissions in Europe.

The work of James Cheng poses a challenge to this situation. His buildings are almost entirely for private real-estate developers when such projects are thought to be sub-architectural. As city-builder and innovator in high-density housing, he is without rival in this country, fighting for public amenities and public open space in his city-transforming projects at a time when autonomous architectural sculptures get the praise. The supreme irony is that Cheng is radical in his ideas for the contemporary city, while the designs that increasingly dominate awards are deeply conservative in their aesthetic choices and self-alienation. Cheng’s firm is as much a single-sensibility atelier as any of these GG winners, but one committed to the cause of city-building. Moreover, James K.M. Cheng, architect to some of Canada’s largest developers, is as bold, creative and original a designer as anyone on this list. To establish why, I will pass briefly by one early and one mid-career work by Cheng to argue how
his ideas have transformed downtown Vancouver, then review the new Fairmont Pacific Rim in more detail.

James K.M. Cheng in Three Steps

A native of Hong Kong, James Cheng’s first architectu ral studies were at the University of Washington in Seattle. After several summers spent working with firms there, Cheng moved to Vancouver expressly to work for Arthur Erickson from 1972-74, where he was a junior designer on the Robson Square/Law Courts project team headed by Bing Thom. Further study at Harvard focused his interest in urban design, and deepened his passion for Le Corbusier–via protg Jerzy Soltan, and second-hand via Richard Meier. Cheng’s early houses and high-rise designs demonstrate an initial understanding, then assimilation of Meier’s take on Le Corbusier. Cheng’s breakthrough pre-Expo ’86 commission was for Li Ka-shing and son Victor Li at Cambridge Commons, a trio of mid-rise towers around residential courts near Vancouver City Hall.

A few years later, Cheng pushed the concept to much greater heights and densities at 888 Beach, between the Granville and Burrard bridges. An unusual block for downtown Vancouver in not having a mid-block public lane, both here and at the subsequent Marinaside for the Li family’s Concord Pacific development company, Cheng devised a raised garden at mid-block, ringed by a perimeter block of stacked townhouses, one set having direct access to the raised interior garden (parking is below this datum), with the bottom row of townhouses opening out onto the surrounding streets. Streets animated with stoops and doorways, above which rise one tower of 32 storeys, another of 22 storeys, and a six-storey mid-rise tower at the corner of Beach Avenue and Howe Street. I draw attention to the latter, which features a complex layering of compositional grids on varying planes and in differing materials–a clear precursor to the lower floors of the Fairmont. “I was thinking about the ‘New York Whites’,” says Cheng, referring to the provisional critical category of the early 1980s that lumped Meier with Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and even Michael Graves. The Vancouver tower-podium typology is effectively invented with this hybrid of tall thin towers with continuous street and raised garden-flanking townhouses, and then the even larger Marinaside that followed. Cheng’s urban amalgam was foundational to urban design rules subsequently developed by Larry Beasley and colleagues. Beasley, who now lives at 888 Beach, is the former city planner most associated with codifying, then promoting the tower-podium as downtown urban design policy.

Canada’s most architecturally creative partnership between designer and developer is Cheng’s ongoing relationship with Ian Gillespie of the Westbank-Peterson Development Group, producing over two billion dollars worth of housing and hotels together in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario over the past 20 years. If 888 Beach was the experiment, Westbank’s Residences on Georgia (1998) has become the paradigmatic standard for tower and podium. Here, Cheng abstracts the principles of the brownstone housing he knew from Brooklyn and Boston’s Back Bay neighbourhood, exemplifying Jane Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” dictum without the more typical bricky romanticism. Elegantly thin towers anchor each end, made higher by the inclusion of public art, gardens, and heritage conservation acknowledged under the now codified Vancouver bonus density program. The faade along Alberni Street is modelled and the townhouse proportions are deft–the proposition of urban houses melded with towers is rendered complete for the 234 apartments at The Residences on Georgia.

Tower with podium townhouses was never an option for the block occupied by the new Fairmont Pacific Rim. Here, the synergy between Cheng’s work as urban designer and as composer of buildings comes to the fore. He played a key role in setting massing guidelines, new street elevations, and land uses for this entire precinct, former railway lands controlled by Canadian Pacific-owned Marathon Realty. Included in this framework plan is the newly improved Vancouver Convention Centre (VCC), the recently completed Fairmont Pacific Rim, the Shaw Tower for Westbank, and two more towers to the west, also designed by Cheng for Aspac Development’s Harbour Green. A landward view of the new Convention Centre is not possible without inclusion of several of these four Cheng towers. This is appropriate, given that Cheng’s guidelines were devised to pull the Fairmont tower back to permit views to the VCC’s prow from all along Burrard Street, notably with a bench-lined mini-park paid for by the developer.

This is no thinly elegant Vancouver tower–at 18,000 square feet per high-rise floor, it is triple the average size of the typical Vancouver floor plate, and more akin to a New York or Miami condo tower. A key form-giver is accommodating distant views towards the Art Deco Marine Building across the street, and the Pacific Rim’s plan geometries are aligned to give 70 percent of the condo floors (which surmount the hotel) a view of the harbour. Deferring to their differing prospects, each of the tower elevations is unique, and Cheng employs a range of devices to break their scale and integrate them with their urban settings. The Burrard Street elevation is a tour de force, with a mid-building section in white, contrasting with hotel rooms below and the larger condos above. Cheng creates elevational interest with two-storey units, a device he pioneered at the Shangri-La Hotel in Vancouver, and which were subsequently used at Woodward’s W-43 Tower designed by Gregory Henriquez seven blocks east on the same street. Cheng’s hotel floor elevations have one configuration where the cut letters of British artist Liam Gillick’s text-based artwork wrap at windowsill level, followed by a lighter-coloured curtain wall to wrap the building’s corner. Vertically and horizontally, these devices reduce the perceived bulk of the massive tower and generate possibilities inside–the hotel has 44 different room types.

Cheng’s real breakthrough is found at the lower levels of the 21-storey hotel portion, where ballrooms and kitchens provide him the rare opportunity to fashion walls which are not floor-to-ceiling glass. (Vancouver’s grey and temperate climate means that entirely glazed condo elevations are possible, usually without air conditioning.) Cheng views Fairmont Pacific Rim as one of his first complete works of architecture in the round: “More walls, more mass, more refined details.” Along Cordova Street, then wrapping around the corner to face the arrival plaza adjacent to the Shaw Tower is a perforated stainless-steel plate exo-elevation on outriggers. Steel plates here are broken with slit gaps to accommodate views from kitchen prep areas, and their surfaces are set with laser-cut holes of varying diameters–pixels that come together to form a composite image of a West Coast rainforest. “I was inspired by Herzog & de Meuron’s similar detail at the de Young Museum in San Francisco,” says Cheng, where it was also employed to create visual interest in a zone not needing fenestration.

Dramatically punctuating the poolside raised deck facing the VCC is the cantilevered black box of the Chairman’s Suite, the flashiest lodging available in Canada’s highest-end new hotel. This bold touch does much to complete the design: it contrasts with the trapezoidal Convention Centre with its green roof; it turns the corner and creates interest along what might have been a dead street; it transforms a motel village-like raised pool deck into a variegated pleasure zone. Top to bottom, all around each side, Fairmont Pacific Rim is a bold creation from an architect in full command of his art. Now, if Cheng could only shrink his tower one hundred fold, cast it in concrete, then call it a “garden marker,” would he again earn a GG? Or, if he barged away the Chairman’s Suite to new life as a seashore cabin, would this inventive architect get the attention he deserves?

In the early
decades of the 20th century, conflict and economic uncertainty boiled away the aestheticized fat of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. A century later, the same thing is happening again in most places, with the added imperative of energy conservation. I believe that Canadian architects should remain committed to shaping beautiful things, but they need to mature into the knowledge that there are many forms and scales of beauty, with no more important a place for it than our downtown streets. CA

Architecture critic Trevor Boddy is the curator of the exhibition Vancouverism: Architecture Builds the City, which features the work of James Cheng along with many others.

Client Westbank Project Corp./Peterson Investment Group Inc.
Architect Team James Cheng, Terry Mott, Adeline Lai, Dennis Selby, Don Chan, Julian Carnrite, Ly Tang, Richard Lee, Scott MacNeil, Eva Low
Structural Jones Kwong Kishi Consulting
Mechanical Sterling Cooper & Associates
Electrical Nemetz (S/A) & Associates
Landscape Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
Interiors Residential–James K.M. Cheng Architects Inc.; Hotel–James K.M. Cheng Architects Inc., CHIL Design Group, Kay Lang & Associates
Contractor 299 Burrard Landing
Area 818,044 ft2
Budget $260 M
Completion April 2010