Taking in the View

The urban system finds its form through a city’s unbuilt spaces, where the definition of an internal profile becomes an element of stability, connecting separately conceived parts with the complexity of the remaining urban material, which surrounds and relies on it.

–Vittorio Gregotti, Inside Architecture (p. 72)

Coal Harbour Community Centre, Park and Parkade, Vancouver, B.C.

Henriquez Partners Architects

Vittorio Gregotti argues that the city derives its form and order through its unbuilt spaces because it is here that the built fabric finds its connections, relationships and meaning relative to separately conceived parts of the city. This is certainly true of traditional European cities, and forms the basis of what we understand urbanity to mean in city design: that the urban form resonates with an understanding of its civic life. But what then do we make of an intermittent and fractured city like Vancouver, where the urban fabric is increasingly defined by point towers in an otherwise open landscape rather than by street walls defining civic space?

As those of us acquainted with Vancouver know only too well, the prevailing cultural mindset is overwhelmingly preoccupied with view. By this I mean the long view, the view of the greater landscape that surrounds and defines the city. It is the view of mountains, water and horizon, rather than a concern for the street edge, the facade or the resulting urban spaces, which dominates and shapes Vancouver’s urban landscape.

This preoccupation with view has resulted in an architecture that neglects the more immediate spatial environment, creating a city of glass curtain walled point towers derived from view corridor guidelines rather than street walls and edge conditions, and facades designed entirely on the basis of view rather than the internal consequences of floor-to-ceiling glass. This lack of street level urbanity and attention to the interior life of buildings in Vancouver is out of favour when compared to cities with greater apparent density and quality of urban fabric. But if we can set aside Eurocentric preconceptions of urbanity and look with fresh eyes, this urban landscape begins to take on a delicate character, like a net tossed over the landscape with points of density littered across a more vacant field, utterly dependent not on immediate adjacencies but on its larger physical context and the cultural value placed on it.

The question might become not how one creates a more typical, traditional urban streetscape in Vancouver, but rather how the city’s particular style of urban design can be given greater meaning through the enrichment of its basic predisposition. Two recent projects in the Lower Mainland–the Coal Harbour Community Centre on the downtown peninsula by Henriquez Partners Architects, and Walnut Grove Aquatic Centre in suburban Langley by Roger Hughes + Partners Architects–certainly conform, albeit through very different strategies, to this preoccupation with the long view. But, interestingly, both projects also deviate from the norm, struggling to find a middle landscape within and around the building itself. This suggests that while Vancouver will continue to develop along its own peculiar terms as a city, these terms are enbroidering on the general and pervasive theme of view.

The same zoning guidelines and planning strategies that gave rise to a city defined by its view corridors informed the conceptual strategy for the Coal Harbour Community Centre. Located within the new Marathon Development lands in downtown Vancouver, the surroundings are an extension of the prevailing morphology of glass-skinned residential point towers which deny the city life at their base in favour of a meditation on the North Shore mountains. The Coal Harbour Community Centre completes this landscape but through a strategy of inversion, taking advantage of the topography of the site to compress the community centre under the weight of a public park, preserving the view for surrounding towers. This tactic also resolves an otherwise undifferentiated ground plane into a focal point for the community as a collective viewing platform. There is a generosity in the civic quality of this gesture that begins to redeem those same zoning guidelines that have created such a fractured urban landscape.

Coming down from the park level to the water, the community centre provides an edge to the seawall and a sense of containment to Coal Harbour marina. Significantly the view here is of Coal Harbour and Stanley Park rather than the mountains, bringing the essentially visual idea of landscape closer to the realm of tangible experience. While both the edge condition of the building and the park above are perhaps over-articulated, the success of the basic strategy lies in the resolution of the urban fabric with multiple focal points, still based on view, but in a manner that organizes and clarifies the reading of the landscape of towers, the linear edge of the seawall and the waterscape beyond.

The building also internalizes this preoccupation with view, holding the promise of a richer experience of the immediate environment. The Coal Harbour project has been fractured at several points along its programmatic sequence to provide views into and through the centre itself, linking the activities visually rather than spatially. Although this strategy is used throughout the building, its most compelling moments are found in the underground parking garage. This space, transiently occupied, has been redeemed from its utilitarian status by means of overlooks into the gym and a remarkably adept drop off turnaround which has been punctured at a number of points, linking it to the centre’s entrance and to the park above through a bamboo garden that cuts decisively through the false ground plane into the garage below. These moments, as in the larger strategy, organize and relate the adjacent activities through a focusing of views.

The Walnut Grove Aquatic Centre also embodies strategies regarding view, interweaving the complex program spatially, but primarily visually. The project is an addition to an existing centre built in the early 1990s which, while complex in its form, was, in true suburban fashion, highly internalized and set in a landscape of parking derived not from view corridors but rather from the primacy of the car. The new addition establishes a view of the mountains to the north, countering the internalization of the original building with an elegant glazed screen on the north edge of the pool.

The screen is given visual complexity through the use of glass block that obscures the view across to the adjacent school and focuses attention on the mountains to the northeast or the forest to the northwest. The remaining programmatic elements, including some from the original building, are organized around the pool space to achieve diagonal views across and to the distant mountain view using the pool as foreground. While this may be how the project was conceptually formulated, the truth is that the Aquatic Centre itself, with all its complexity of water slides and intermediate sized pools, becomes the primary view, with the distant mountains taking a secondary position.

What the Walnut Grove project shares with Coal Harbour Community Centre is the attention given to the internalization of views. While the original Walnut Grove was concerned primarily with achieving legibility of the program through a differentiation of form, the addition achieves a greater legibility through precise cuts in the fabric which link adjacent spaces in sometimes very surprising ways. Very restricted views are focused through apertures from pool to change room and exercise room to pool, while incisions into the concrete stair tower highlight the structure of the water slide. It is these unexpected moments that enrich the experience of the building.

The glazed screen to the north, artfully organized and detailed, is operable along almost its entire length: a series of glazed overhead doors open onto a patio space beyond. While this affords a more intimate connect
ion with the exterior, and in particular the nearby park, the most compelling aspect is in its use as a poolside bleacher directing views back into the facility. Due to its malleable character, this glazed pool also engages the community at large visually, drawing attention into the pool and its activities rather than focusing outwards.

It is significant that both these projects are community centres, allowing the architects to investigate strategies to interconnect and organize spaces through the control of views with an emphasis on community engagement through visual access. This is where the West Coast preoccupation with view can begin to shape and inform an architectural approach based not just on designing for the distant vista, but the more immediate urban environment. These two projects are hopeful signs suggesting that our peculiar strategies of city-making may evolve into a richer and more layered urban experience than has previously been achieved.

Elizabeth Shotton is a Vancouver architect and a Lecturer in Practice at the UBC School of Architecture.

Client: Vancouver Parks Board/Marathon Developments Inc.

Architect team: Gregory Henriquez, Yijin Wen, Frank Markowsky, Shawn Strasman, Jaime Dejo, Rui Nunes, Frank Stebner

Structural: C.Y. Loh and Associates

Mechanical: Stantec

Electrical: Arnold Nemetz

Landscape: Phillips Wuori Long

Interiors: Henriquez Partners

Contractor: Darwin

Area: 7,950 m2

Budget: $10 million

Completion: 2000

Photography: Derek Lepper

Walnut Grove Aquatic Centre, Langley, B.C.

Roger Hughes + Partners Architects

Client: The Corporation of the Township of Langley

Architect team: Roger Hughes (partner-in-charge), Darryl Condon (project architect), Robert Drew, Wanda Felt, Natalka Lubiw, Stuart Maddocks, Steve Palmier, Dejana Radjenovic, Margot Ready, Jeanna South, Nick Sully, Nathan Webster

Structural: Read Jones Christoffersen

Mechanical: Keen Engineering

Electrical: Richard Walker Engineering

Recreation: Professional Environmental Recreation Consultants

Landscape: Durante Kreuk Ltd.

Civil: N.D. Lea Consultants

Cost consultants: BTY Group

Acoustics: Brown Strachan Associates

Code: Graham Harmsworth Lai

Signage: Gallop/Varley

Contractor: DGS Construction Company Ltd.

Area: 5,500 m2

Budget: $11.5 million

Completion: November 1999

Photography: Gary Otte