Vancouver is just days away from opening its new rapid transit system, The Canada Line. It’s a big deal here, one decades in the making, and remains unpopular in some circles, a landmark achievement in others. There has been much debate about this line—where to locate it, how to build it, who should pay for it, the impact of construction on businesses along it, etc. etc. Add to that the many recent station open-houses and photo opps, and one can’t help but feel the official opening is somewhat anti-climactic.
It’s hard to pinpoint precisely where the firsts are here. The Canada Line is functionally a SkyTrain (something we’ve had since the mid-’80s), but serves a denser, more urban swath of Vancouver than either of the two SkyTrain routes, and the Vancouver portion of the line is entirely underground. Our first subway! It’s certainly the biggest construction project in the city’s—and the province’s—history, at least in dollar figures. $2.05-billion in all. And if nothing else, it comes at a time when few other cities are building transit projects of this size and scale; it’s the equivalent to a 10-lane highway and expected to remove 100,000 cars from the daily downtown commute.
Yesterday, at the Yaletown-Roundhouse station (pictured above), construction crews were busy restoring brick and concrete outside the new building; essentially righting a landscape obscured by construction fencing for nearly three years. I’d set out to review the design of the individual stations, starting with this one. I soon realized why there hasn’t been much written about them to date: they’re designed to blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Here, glass panels on four sides offer clear site lines from every angle (a safety measure, to be sure), while concrete and wood lend structure. Though different architecture firms worked on different groups of stations along the 19-kilometre route, they all look and feel pretty much the same. Dull? Maybe. But they’re also simple, streamlined, and self-explanatory. A nice premise. The real disappointment is the way-finding signage, which looks to be designed to the exact specs of other TransLink projects. The aim there, as with the stations themselves, seems to be to fit into an existing system, an existing context.
After the ribbons are cut on Monday, the question will be how that context—i.e. those streets in the immediate vicinity of the stations—will change. This question was at the heart of the debate that took place in Cambie Village, the section of Cambie Street between West Second and King Edward Avenues. Businesses in that area were particularly vocal about the negative impact the line’s cut-and-cover construction method had on their livelihoods. They sought compensation. At least one judge ruled in their favour. So, why didn’t Yaletown or Richmond Centre merchants respond similarly? Launch their own lawsuits? Because the identity and fate of those areas was decided long ago. The Yaletown station sits amongst historic brick warehouse buildings that have already survived major redevelopment; it looks like it’s been there for years, providing an obvious and needed rapid-transit link for a populous neighbourhood. Anti-climactic indeed.
Cambie Street, specifically Cambie Village, has a far different story. It grew up along very different lines, and is comprised mostly of its original low-rise, “six-pack” apartment buildings and single-storey mom-and-pop shops. Aside from a few big-box developments that have recently sprouted near Broadway and Cambie, many of the sites have never been redeveloped. That will soon change. The zoning along Cambie Village allows for multi-storey residential buildings with commercial storefronts on the main floor (picture the Olive condo development at Cambie and West 16th). When will the landowners redevelop? Which businesses will stay? Which will go? Which will come? Stay tuned.
Image credit: Rosemary Poole
We’ve reached the halfway point in our “Vancouverism by Bicycle” tours, which examine the recent history of urban planning and architecture downtown and around False Creek. (The tours run Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. from now til August 22. Click here for details or to register.)
Condensing decades of history into a two-hour format—including riding time between stops—has been a fascinating, challenging project. We’ve been forced to reconsider how people, be they tourists or locals, experience the city’s built form. One recurring discussion point has been the role public art plays in creating a sense of place, particularly in shiny, new neighbourhoods that have been all but wiped clean of their past, or were previously undeveloped. Two examples stand out.
The work Red Horizontal (pictured above) by Montreal-based artist Gisele Amantea is a featured stop on the tour, and was embedded in the seawall near David Lam Park in 2005. Essentially, it’s a bright red strip of porcelain enamel panels that depict 228 interiors of nearby apartments, condominiums, converted lofts, and seniors’ housing; 29 images repeat, a reference to the recurring unit sizes and layouts, and the uniformity of the spaces. Red Horizontal serves a documentary function, freezing those living rooms and kitchens in perpetuity. It also poses an important question: once stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops are no longer in fashion, what will False Creek North—and indeed, Vancouver’s many other master-planned communities—look and feel like? Will False Creek North go the route of Science World, representing a vision of the future from the past?
Just beyond the city limits, a new art installation lends context to another new neighbourhood. Last week, UniverCity, the residential neighbourhood at Simon Fraser University, unveiled Yellow Fence, a series of 15 gates fronting the townhouses of a just-completed building (one of them is pictured left). (Full disclosure: I’m related to Jonathan Tinney, their director of community development.) Here, Vancouver artist Erica Stocking references yellow wire-meshed construction fencing—something as much a part of local material culture as glass and concrete. Each gate bears a different grid pattern; a Crayola-yellow delineation of public and private space. As Stocking described in a release: “I wanted to use the material of the temporary fence as a metaphor for shifting boundaries and as a reference to the site’s built history.”
Both projects push traditional approaches to public art. They are not only integrated into their sites in compelling ways, they also challenge the very neighbourhoods of which they are a part, capturing a particular moment in their development, history, and story.
This Saturday, the Museum begins an eight-week run of cycling tours that examine the term “Vancouverism”—that mixture of urban design, architecture, and city planning that this city has become known for globally. Vancouverism encompasses everything from the architectural vision of the late Arthur Erickson, to green-glass towers that dot the north shore of False Creek, to developer-funded public parks and schools.
Where did the term originate? Best guesses indicate it came from architects and city planners who visited Vancouver in the 1990s and were inspired by its success luring people back downtown. A decade or so later, Vancouverism has become a political ideology, a lifestyle, and an export (see Dubai, San Diego, Toronto, and Seattle). It has also become a success story: Vancouver has more than doubled its downtown population in the past two decades, bucking the trend of many other cities.
The MOV tours deconstruct “Vancouverism” by looking at the term in practice, and the people behind the major examples. It starts at the Museum, crosses over the Burrard Street Bridge into the West End, then wraps around False Creek to Yaletown, Southeast False Creek (the site of Vancouverism 2.0), False Creek South, and back to the Museum. Our Velo-City exhibit is a fitting conclusion, exploring similar themes of livability and progressive city planning.
We hope you can join the conversation. Click here to register.
Image credit: Kenny Louie