Modernity and Modern Urbanism

“The construction of the Distributor Street and the absence of skyscrapers will spread business evenly over the area and prevent undue traffic congestion.”

Harland Bartholomew. A Plan for the City of Vancouver, British Columbia. 1929.

In 1929 the Bartholomew Plan sounded a warning about skyscrapers that has gone generally unheeded in the modern world. While on the one hand, a general consensus was established after 1960 that tower districts would make up the business district of most cities; on the other, towers as the default option for neighbourhood intensification typically face strong opposition. More puzzling still is the view that towers, or skyscrapers, are the proper expression for sustainable urbanism. A position that carefully avoids answering certain irrefutable facts. Consider that Modern urbanism has failed to produce any timeless places. We experience even the best tower streets in Manhattan as dark, and dingy places. Consider suburban sprawl, the other cypher of Modern urbanism produces the opposite result: Clean and green close up, it builds relentlessly monotonous, and isolating places.

Modern urbanism has always been ‘the new solution’ playing against a continuously evolving modernity we seldom analyze, much less understand. Today, Modern planning projects face articulate opposition clamouring for better urban design. The protesters—often cast as NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard)—are the neighbours themselves. They are the ones who will have put up with the Modernist project at distances much closer than the postcard aerial view, or the coffee table book. Once it is built, the NIMBYs are the ones that will either have to live with the ‘thing’ right in their face, or pack up and go somewhere else.

Therefore, if Modern urbanism confronts strong local opposition whenever it is proposed, and has failed to create any model places, then perhaps it is time to re-examine that other tradition—the project of modernity, responsible for our most memorable places, and boasting a continuous historical development. In order to bring this dilemma into clear focus let us examine four of the best buildings from Vancouver’s early urbanism:

    • The Europe Hotel (1908)
    • The Dominion Building (1908)
    • The World Building (Sun Tower, 1911)
    • The Marine Building (1930)


The Sun Tower juxtaposes an eight-storey base, or podium, with a slender ten-storey tower capped by a well proportioned classical dome. A question arises: how tall is this building? Is it eight storeys, or eighteen? The Smith Tower in Seattle presents another example of the same type. These compositions make use of the brand new steel cable elevator technology to contrast the girth of the base with the slender narrowness of the shaft. The dichotomy is left deliberately, and poetically unresolved. These slender towers are counterpoints, and exclamation marks in an urbanism “without skyscrapers”.

Slender towers accent human-scaled districts in the manner of the dome of St. Paul’s, and the spires by Gibbs, Hawksmoor, and Wren in London.

This characteristic of the Sun Building is visible when travelling east on Hastings Street (see photo above: today, the impact is severely lessened by the downtown hi-rise buildings). Yet, while their extreme slenderness guaranteed their impact in the skyline, the smallness of their floor plates made them unpalatable as real estate. Thus, in an experiment that would not last, a kind of self-selection keeping the towers in check succumbed to market forces.

Three years earlier the Dominion Building had set up an altogether different scale on the north side of today’s Victory Square. There, 13 storeys rise uninterrupted, topped by a double-storey, Mansard roof referencing the 6-storey Paris maisonette. However, unlike the Paris urbanism, the Dominion Building fails to add to the sense of place. It stands alone as a symbol of power, in its day the tallest building in the British Empire.

Today, the Dominion Building is a prototype of the Modern tower-and-plaza-ensemble that will dominate corporate architecture by mid-century. All that is missing to complete the transformation is “the turd in the plaza”. The monicker used to identify the practice of installing a piece of Modern sculpture—sometimes good, sometimes not—to claim the barren, often windswept, empty real estate at the base of the corporate box. Early towers like these are the vanguard of a new corporate style that is either oblivious, or antagonistic of urban values.

This is the ‘New Age’ trumpeted by the Marine Building. Terminating the street-end vista west, along Hastings Street, the Marine Building is the next cipher of tower Modernism in our city. Making no references to the urbanist tradition, it is a tower pure and simple. This is the building type that will first dominate, then ravage urban space in the service of private, and corporate interest.

Thus, Modern urbanism most often fails on two counts:

  1. It betrays the human-scale, and
  2. It fails to engage the social functioning of urban spaces.

A tower’s performance as sustainable urbanism is problematic for many reasons. Energy demands are high. All live, and dead loads must be mechanically lifted. Sealed windows create the need for year-round mechanical ventilation, heating and cooling. The tower stands exposed on all sides, making contact with the ground on its smallest side. Heat loss, and heat gain are at a maximum. Uneven solar exposure in daylight hours has one side of the tower calling for heat, while the other requires cooling. Rising above the treetops to claim spectacular views, it cannot make use of ground-oriented passive solar design. Towers cast long shadows, and can also disrupt the environment by creating untested wind effects. Overlook of neighbouring properties takes away privacy, and lowers property values. Towers create point-loads of demand on municipal services (i.e. traffic management, water, sewer, and fire-fighting). As 9/11 demonstrated, towers are difficult to evacuate. However, tower performance is unassailable in one area: income & profit.

GoogleEarth shows Burrard Street in shadow from Dunsmuir Street to the waterfront.

The Modern corporate tower finds its suburban counterpart in the Modern automobile. By the 1940s automobile use achieved dominance. The speed limit was raised from 20 to 30 m.p.h. (30 to 50 km/h), and the project of building the city was given over to Modern engineers who slated a tradition they did not understand for complete annihilation.

This other tradition is exemplified by the Europe Hotel. Fronting on the most important urban space in the city, it presents a timeless lesson in urbanism. Just six stories high, it soars above its site by using the forced perspective of the ‘flat iron’ block. Yet, this triangular building retains the scale of its neighbours helping to define the place experience for the visitor, and providing magnificent views for the prow apartments. Bustle has been the hallmark of this place for over a century, and it is hard to imagine it ever changing. The intrusion of car is the sole dysfunctional element.

In the final analysis we must choose between two options. On the one hand, the object fixation of Modern urbanism that ignores place making, and social functioning, to express the desire to be bigger, grander, and greater than everything else. On the other hand, the continuing tradition of ‘good’ urbanism that frames each site within the greater urban whole, and shapes architectural expression with sure-handed restraint. Having suffered one hundred years of Modern urbanism, it is time to strike out in a new direction.

© Lewis N. Villegas, Vanvcouver, February 2012

10 thoughts on “Modernity and Modern Urbanism

  1. The Sun Tower dome isn’t actually copper, it’s steel

    The Other David

    Thanks for the input, David. That looks like copper green to me, like the top of the Vancouver Hotel, the Parliament Buildings in Victoria and Ottawa, the Frontenac and so many other roofs in Quebec City Citadel. I suppose we should take none of these ‘sightings’ for granted. However, we are happy to hear otherwise.

    The photo link shows an aerial view of Victory Square with the Dominion Building on the lower left corner. Note how—seen from the air in the new perspective made available by Modern technology—all is well. Victory Square appears as the perfect place—its short-comings due to severe sloping conditions hidden from view. The Dominion Building appears the same height as the Province Building, kitty-corner on the NW corner of the hundred-block Hastings. The Maidens decorating the top storey of the Sun Tower’s podium base are not visible, but the parking structure across the street is far less objectionable from this ‘Airplane View’. And the only remarkable feature in this sepia-brown vision is the sweeping curve of the Georgia Viaducts, the recent subject of a City-sponsored competition to do away with them altogether.

    The photo is a snap-shot version of the essay that a new scale is introduced along with Modern technology. But, that the warning cry is that the new modernist scale does nothing to take away the relevance of the old humanist one. Sooner or later, we descent the airplane, the car, etc., and we find ourselves once more living among values that remain timeless, and bound to our own biological evolution.

  2. Someday I should take a “now” photo, it’s been 30 years. Almost nothing has changed in the lower (foreground) half of the photo, almost everything in the upper (background) half has changed. I’m sure you know that both the Dominion Building and subsequently the Sun Tower were the tallest buildings in the British Empire… at a time when Americans were building 3 times the height

    I’m afraid I have a less critical view of the Marine Building…maybe a soft spot for Art Deco ornamentation.. Cathedral Place tries to replicate the old Medical Dental Building.. the old power station at Main & Georgia has some ornamentation Maybe it’s because my first sighting of the Marine Building was from the old CPR ferry from Nanaimo… in the 70s it stood out on the waterfront… today not as much The Marine Building may no longer stand out on the waterfront, but I kind of like how it defines the view along Hastings, better a 1930s Deco Skyscraper than a modern glass tower, imo

  3. Please excuse one other minor quibble! The 14th century spire of Salisbury Cathedral, at 404 feet, significantly exceeds the all three of these Vancouver towers and must have been the empire’s tallest building until well into the twentieth century.

  4. A minor quibble but a very important point. The Bartholomew quote (in 1929) is alerting us to ‘problems with towers’. Chicago was building load-bearing brick skyscrapers at the time the CPR was building the transcontinental. The Brooklyn Bridge’s use of steel cable (elevators) and steel girder (do away with load-bearing brick) finally solved all the technical problems for building towers.

    What we are contemplating with the VHQ analysis is something different. We are after trying to establish the best possible approach to building urban neighbourhoods. We are looking at design applied to an array of concerns (each the subject matter of a different tab on the site). When it comes to building type, the verdict would appear incontrovertible. Outside the downtown peninsula we do better with a human-scale building to achieve urban quartiers.

    The point that I discovered writing the post is that the Europe Hotel, at six storeys, still soars above its site. But it achieves this architectural effect in great measure due to its siting… Thanks in no small measure to the urbanism all around, the Europe does its height trick and gives us a building without equal on the west coast of North America.

  5. I’m afraid I have a less critical view of the Marine Building…maybe a soft spot for Art Deco

    I have a soft spot for the Marine building too—I wonder if that’s copper on its roof? The real tale is that is was completing as Wall Street crashed in 1929. I wonder if it was privately financed, or if the job went through a bit of a bump? Others coming across this post should be recommended to go into the building and see the lobby. The carvings and metal work are very good, and all west-coast motifs as you say “a la Deco”.

    As urbanism, it closes the street end vista on Hastings very well. But, it looks best on the last couple of blocks. At 1/2 mile long, this stretch of Hastings is too long for the Marine Bldg. to hold it. Yet, as urbanism too, one has to wish that the base were more involved with the sidewalk space, that there would be more activity on the sidewalk. I’ve never gone around back, but my memory tells me you can’t. Those are all tower issues in the making.

    Now, your point of seeing the city from the water, or from Stanley Park, stands on its own…

    If we may escape to Nanaimo for a second… The view of Nanaimo from the water is superb. And if you take time to notice, the location of Dallas Square from the water confirms the intention of the original town plat. Dallas Square seen approaching from the water is presented square in the centre of the hillside, the intended heart of the town.

    The Malaspina Tower in Nanaimo, along with the whole other lot of towers building there, are actors in a morality play about what happens when a town plan that in Nanaimo’s case is expertly laid for the walking experience of place, gets the wrong scale imposed over it.

    It’s worth a trip to Nanaimo, and a couple of hours walking around to get the quality to the platting, and experience the regrettable results of what has come in just the last 10 years.

    There is no more stark contrast than Commercial Street, with its gently curving path as it negotiates the topography. Today, we have on the east side the new Modernist über scale. On the west side, the original buildings now seem dwarfed, made small and less significant. Yet, there can be no mistaking which architecture carries of the intentions of good town planning.

    As a final tid bit, it is instructive to drive out on each of the six or eight streets that radiate out from the downtown and see how many of them have a tower terminating the street end vista. In this case, of course, the street end vista would be better terminated by the bay and the water. But the developers seek every advantage they can to promote their product, and a small Hall doesn’t always posses the capacity to check every fact.

  6. The Marine building’s construction did indeed overlap the crash of 29.. it was completed, though the developers were forced to sell has many photos of the Marine Building’s features….

    The one building that did suffer the effects of the 1930s depression was the current Hotel Vancouver…. It sat unfinished for years from 1928-39..
    the skeletal outline must have been a constant reminder that times were tough…

    I understand the argument against skyscrapers… highrises.. tower blocks…. though our city has embraced them (within height limits for the most part)… downtown… This view in 1980 would not have the towers in the left 2/3 of the photo… They create wind tunnels, they block the sun… I live in Brentwood, where highrises have sprouted in the past 10 years, along the Millennium Line… on the one hand, this is a good thing.. The platforms are more crowded now than 6 years ago… and one could argue that the towers at Glimore-Brentwood-Holdem that were built on vacant or light industrial land are different from building towers on former single family or 3 storey walkups on Cambie..though both are similar re: proximity to rapid rail transit…

  7. Great post O.D.

    In the spirit of the Season, let me disagree, or cast your statements in a slightly different light. My photo-montage of Brentwood, Burnaby is here

    I took that image because, from a point of view of the urbanism, it is about as bad as we want to get. And, that too is the point behind the Bartholomew post, warning against traffic congestion. In 1929 they were not able to predict the “open wasteland” effect of the SOV arterial. Now we can just stand near Lougheed and Willington and squeeze the shutter button.

    I am in favour of tower zones. The West End in particular, jutting out into the Inlet, land locked, ringed with amenities (Stanley Park, English Bay Beach, and the Downtown District) is a terrific site for that. Besides, there is no way to ban the towers. And, this is my argument. The issue is not to ban them, so much as to control them.

    The difficulty for local Councils becomes “saying no” to tower development, and the flush of cash that accompanies them. In my opinion, that poses a threat to our ability to govern ourselves. There is a possibility of corruption, and there is the possibility of falling asleep at the switch, and having tower form as the default position for redevelopment at City Hall.

    Urban policy in the City of Burnaby is a moot point. One only has to read the Plan for the city published sometime in the 1960’s or so. Read like a Suburban Manifesto to me when I was designing buildings in Burnaby. My site was required to build a lawn fronting Kingsway. Metrotown, from an urbanist perspective is a fiasco. Brentwood is not much better. Lougheed Mall, and especially Burquitlam-North Road are about to get the treatment. Let’s see what happens…

    In part, we may be seeing the result of zoning “shopping centres” as private development rather than building “civic centers” as the focus of urban neighbourhoods.

    In Vancouver, we are seeing towers slipping in the last weeks of a two-year planning process in Mount Pleasant; towers or slab hi-rise on Cambie; towers in Marpole Safeway parking lots; and towers in the Arbutus Village mall reno.

    We showed in our FormShift competition entry that we can achieve a doubling of Vancouver’s population simply by building out human-scale high-density along the arterial lots with single family cottages. We showed how to implement transit along those corridors, and use redevelopment to revitalize the street section and return it to social or neighbourhood functioning. The same concerns drive the VHQ presentation here.

    This approach we are calling New Paradigm planning, although it is based on principles that have been around forever in urbanist circles. It is not so much an argument about towers. Towers are being proposed as the alternative to the other urbanism. Yet, the towers do not engage the other issues. Community centres are fine. But they don’t make living fronting the arterials healthier or safer.

  8. You might be interested in what’s planned for Brentwood.

    Towers up to 48 stories at the SW corner of Lougheed and Willingdon have been in the planning stages for some time now.

    And kitty corner, plans for Brentwood Towne Centre (a vast parking lot, anywhere else would be built over with TGI Lobster and other “restaurants”…

    (Demolish London Drugs? It’s barely 10 years old. Not that it’s a heritage structure, but still)

    Public Display at the food court, 3 7 PM… Jan 16 or 17.. Burnaby Now had an announcment, but it’s been recycled; can’t find it on the net.

    Apologies for the large amount of material.. I’ve yet to read it all through myself

  9. Burnaby is not the only place in the Lower Mainland, David, as you probably well know. I remember seeing a model for the area in Surrey Centre where the old A&B Sound store used to be, east of the Skytrain Station if I have my bearings right. Point towers very much like LeCorbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris back in the 1920’s.

    I’ve been to Coquitlam Centre in the last few days. Towers there as well. Port Coquitlam, New Westminster, North Vancouver, everywhere you look. I think that the land lift economics are behind this, and to some extent one has to expect municipalities jumping on the band wagon.

    However, the point we are making here is that it is not ‘good’ urbanism, and it is certainly not ‘sustainability’.

    The tell-tale sign is always the experience on the ground plane. In Coquitlam Centre, the towers are surrounded by rivers of cars. New West, the towers have been building since at least the 1960’s and one cannot see any noticeable improvement in the quality of the public realm. North Van—haven’t walked there in 10 years, probably won’t go there again.

    I think we can safely say the towers are coming. What we are interested to point out is whether or not there are any other ideas in the pipe? Given that we can do high-density with fee-simple, human-scale products, are any municipalities interested in testing that out?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s