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How did you first get involved with Westbank’s work?

I met Ian while I was sitting on the Urban Design Panel (for the City of Vancouver) about five years ago reviewing the Shangri-La Vancouver tower at the first special tall building review for the City. It was a unique and more rigorous examination than usual, including for example, the importing of a couple of big name architects from Chicago. While the focus of the Urban Design Panel is really on urban design considerations, in this case architectural excellence was part of the approval criteria as the Shangri-La building was over the 400-foot mark.

It was a very public venue, because it was a test of this first tall building process and so the room was quite full, the director of planning for the City of Vancouver was there and it actually went on for two days. I was asked by the chair of the panel to start the review so I thought, what I’ve got to do first is define what “architectural excellence” is. So I went through that description and then there was a long and very interesting discussion about what characterizes excellence in tall buildings and what the aspects of the projects were. Then we had to vote on whether we felt the Shangri-La building fulfilled that criteria.

Remember, it’s an advisory body, so it’s not an approval vote, but in general most proponents choose to go back and redesign if they don’t get the support of the panel. I explained my perspective, which is that I believe one of the challenges of tall buildings is that they are so dependent on the level of detail resolution and as such, it was almost impossible through this process to define architectural excellence at this stage. I mean you could have all the detail models at a certain scale but the building could still suck in the end, not to put too fine a point on it.

And so, that night I actually voted against the Shangri-La tower.

But what was interesting was that although I had literally never met him before, Ian came up to me afterwards and said, “I really appreciate your commentary and I thought it was highly insightful and helpful to the project.”

I was immediately impressed by that. Some people would have reacted with anger and frustration, but instead there was a genuine interest in how to actually get to the next level. This indicated a kind of design maturity, I felt.

In the end, the panel voted in support for Shangri-La, but not an overwhelming vote. And I think that was the right thing because for such a consequential building one of the challenges would be, for example, if a design team gets unanimous support, they might think, “Oh well, thanks for the support,” and they’re done. In this case there was a genuine effort made by Ian’s team to respond in a fairly high level of detail to all of the considerations.

What does such a high level of attention to detail add to the work?

Design quality is a kind of nested series of considerations Is the big picture ok? Is the intermediate level of design okay? But the detail of design often ends up at the development permit level and to some extent it’s very easy for the developer to sort of cheap out on that part of the building process.

But I can give you three recent examples where Westbank has been extremely successful Shangri-La, Woodward’s and Fairmont Pacific Rim. Each of these projects has demonstrated really different and elegant detailed façade strategies. You’ve got the reflective exit sign strategy components of Shangri-La which were unique in the city. And on Woodward’s there is the orange steel framing that will get covered in plants. And then there’s the text on Fairmont Pacific Rim. Whether you like them or not, these details are interesting pieces of work which make the buildings more distinctive and it would have been very easy to not do them, in the end. All of these are examples of creative and distinctive responses to façade.

In many cases the whole agenda of a developer would be to do as few of those kinds of things as possible, but with Westbank they are always willing to make that extra level of investment to make a distinctive contribution to the cityscape. And that’s an unusual scenario because it’s hard to argue that any of those individual pieces actually make Westbank any money, in fact it’s almost certainly the opposite.

But I believe that Ian has a real interest in multiple definitions of success. I mean projects have to work financially, but I think he wants to be remembered as someone who has made a genuine contribution to the cityscape.