Viewpoint (November 01, 2009)

In February, Vancouver (along with Whistler, Richmond and West Vancouver) will host the 21st Winter Olympics, and the world’s media will focus on one of North America’s most dynamic cities. However, considering the staggering amount of new construction over the past several years and the many high-profile projects that have literally paved the way for the 2010 Winter Olympics, what does Vancouver have to show for itself in terms of precedent-setting and innovative architecture in the public realm?

Certainly, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will not be anything like the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, where China showcased its new iconic architecture to the world with unparalleled bravado. In the case of Vancouver, competition venues like the Richmond Oval and non-competition venues like the Olympic Village and the Vancouver Convention Centre West exist as effective catalysts for urban development to occur around their respective sites over a period of time–rather than operating as instant icons of architecture for the purposes of global media consumption. However, in the opinion of some within Vancouver’s design community, the projects being completed for the Winter Olympics have largely resulted in architecturally flaccid entities whose greatest success will be fostering the development of places like Richmond and Southeast False Creek. What could have been done to avoid this perception of lacklustre buildings, and did the conservative assembly of public-private partnerships hinder the expression of the architecture?

With so much of the Olympics being about media, and with so much of Vancouver’s new architecture being about the pragmatics of providing cost-effective sports facilities, one begins to wonder how the architectural experience of these facilities could someday be heightened through “augmented reality” (AR), a term used to describe the indirect experience of a physical real-world environment that has been mediated with–or augmented by–a computer-generated virtual reality. AR is already being heavily promoted and developed for certain applications like broadcast sports. An example would be digitally placing virtual yellow lines over scrimmage lines, or digitally colour-enhancing the lane of the fastest swimmer to better identify her progress in the pool. Recently, the software company Yelp released the first AR iPhone application that enables users to aim their phone’s camera at a restaurant, and a review of that restaurant will instantly appear on screen. Other offerings will soon include the possibility of simply aiming the phone at a person in the street to access his or her social networking page. Layar, an Amsterdam-based software company, has developed an application that lets people see pictures and information about World War I battlefields simply by holding up their phones at certain intersections or empty fields in and around small towns in northern France. Already, the Royal Bank of Canada is experimenting with AR to further the objectives of energy efficiency, and the campaign is being promoted throughout the Olympic torch relay.

As the concept of AR advances, perhaps we’ll be able to satisfy architectural critics by giving them a special iPhone application that will allow them to see the world through a lens that reveals the dream potential of what a building could have been without the reality of budget cuts, free of the detrimental effects of value-engineering to satisfy short-term financial requirements. Let the Games begin.

Ian Chodikoff