Suburban Shift

Project Aberdeen Centre Expansion, Richmond, British Columbia

Architect Bing Thom Architects

Text Jim Taggart

Photos Nic Lehoux

The transformation of our suburban municipalities from vehicle-oriented, discretely zoned environments into pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use communities is one of the most formidable challenges facing architects and planners today. If streets are the essence of urbanity, then pedestrian activity is what consummates the city. It flourishes best where vehicular movement is controlled, where the street edge is clearly defined, and where a variety of commercial activities animate the sidewalk.

Typically in suburbia, the scale of vehicular infrastructure is immense, the standard building typologies are isolated and inward-looking, and the street edge is a morass of parking lots, always uninviting and sometimes unnavigable by pedestrians. This is certainly the picture one sees in the community of Richmond, south of Vancouver, where urban aspirations may yet be stimulated by the arrival of the SkyTrain in 2009, in addition to the Greater Vancouver Region’s participation in the Winter Olympics just a few months later.

Currently, the north end of the city is given over to vehicle-oriented retail flanking No. 3 Road, Richmond’s main thoroughfare. The area experienced a surge of Asian investment and immigration prior to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. In terms of numbers, this new Chinatown now rivals downtown Vancouver’s more famous counterpart of the original Chinatown which was established in the 19th century by mainland Chinese immigrants. Within this close-knit community, a new generation has emerged which harbours a more global perspective and urban sensibility. It was with this particular demographic in mind that the new Aberdeen Centre was conceived.

The client was Thomas Fung, founder and chairman of the Fairchild Group media empire and a developer with the perceptiveness, patience and pocketbook needed to create a retail environment with a unique mix of international tenants. Bing Thom Architects (BTA), already working on the transformation of another suburban shopping mall at Surrey Central City (see CA, March 2004), joined the project at the rezoning stage in February 1999. At this point, the proposals depicted a rectangular seven-storey addition to the existing mall, with two storeys of retail supporting five more floors of parking, in an intensified version of the original typology. With several interruptions to the project, the final design was completed in December 2003.

Initial enquiries at the City of Richmond determined that the municipality was interested in improving traffic flow in the area by realigning Hazelbridge Way which formed the eastern boundary of the site. This gave Fung the opportunity to purchase additional developable land, and gave BTA a curvilinear boundary that became a primary generator of building form. For technical and programmatic reasons, BTA proposed the demolition of the existing Aberdeen Mall, replacing the old typology with its complete opposite–a five-storey parking garage completely enveloped in a three-storey retail building whose exterior wall would be built on the curving property line. To their credit, both Fung and the Planning Department recognized the potential of the scheme to create a unique retail environment that would be both an anchor and a landmark for the northern end of the city centre.

Programmatically, the building breaks new ground in Richmond, with sidewalk-oriented retail spaces on the ground floor, including provision for a produce market to spill out into an elliptical exterior courtyard. Without a traditional department store as anchor, visitors are drawn through the interior by the placement of the skylit food court on the top floor, and by the tiered section of the central atrium that permits views to all the retail levels. This section also enables the atrium to be used as a performance space with good sight lines from most vantage points. A central water feature can quickly be transformed into a stage for fashion shows, high-school band concerts and other performances. The availability of this space has also enabled Aberdeen Centre to attract tenants such as Science World, reducing their need for dedicated space and effectively subsidizing their outreach programs.

Architecturally, Aberdeen Centre is all about its skin, a sinuous three-storey glass wall whose transparency animates the street by day and illuminates the neighbourhood by night. Financed in part by the project’s public art budget (BTA became the “artists of record” for the building), the glass wall is a unitized rain-screen system that includes coloured, translucent, transparent and fritted panels in 15 combinations. The result is an extraordinary and dynamic range of interior and exterior lighting effects. At night, with its faade swept repeatedly by car headlights, the building flickers like a vast Chinese lantern. However impressive this achievement, one is left questioning the fate of public art, routinely pressed into service as an interpreter of local historical and cultural context–and now commandeered to advance private commercial interests in a sort of corporate branding exercise.

Already a regional draw, Aberdeen Centre will soon have its own captive audience, with the adjacent Phase 2 apartment complex already well underway. The SkyTrain will complete the picture with Aberdeen Station being constructed just a block away. The result, at least in the short term, will be an interesting anomaly with an elegant and highly accessible oasis of urbanity amid the soulless boxes and expanses of blacktop. In the longer term however, Aberdeen Centre’s vision of the future may prove a compelling one for planners, architects and developers. The City of Richmond has already embarked on a paradigm shift, rezoning the area around Aberdeen Centre from auto-oriented retail to pedestrian-oriented mixed use. Perhaps after all, with patience, persistence and precedents like this, we can truly secure a viable future for suburbia.

Jim Taggart, a retired Vancouver architect, works as a freelance journalist and educator.

Client Fairchild Developments Ltd.

Architect Team Bing Thom, Luciano Zago, Francis Yan, John Camfield

Structural Bush, Bohlman & Partners

Mechanical Keen Engineering Co. Ltd.

Electrical R.A. Duff & Associates Inc.

Landscape Fred Liu & Associates

Interiors Design International

Contractor Dominion Construction Company Inc.

Area 280,000 Ft2

Budget: $62 M

Completion December 2003