“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:
- It betrays the human-scale, and
- 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