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Founder of BIG shares design approach at preview of Gesamtkunstwerk: The Exhibition.
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For years, the unusual shape of the building site in the 1400-block Howe in the shadow of the Granville Street bridge stymied developer Westbank. Site restrictions, including a 30-metre setback from the bridge, left only a triangular chunk of land of 6,000 square feet.

And that, as architect Bjarke Ingels said, was prohibitively tall for a condominium tower.

Ingels, a Danish architect whose firm Bjarke Ingels Group has offices in New York and Copenhagen, approached the problem differently. If the intent of the city’s regulation was to provide a minimum distance from the bridge for residents of a tower, what would happen once you rose 100 feet above the bridge? Residents would be well above the bridge sightlines.

If that was the case, then a design solution would be to start the building on a triangular base and slowly change the form into a rectangular as it climbed higher.

The simple and elegant design freed up the upper building envelope for development. In essence, it found unused developable space in thin air.

“Behind any rule or regulation, there is intent,” Ingels said in an interview. “There is the letter and the spirit. If you understand the spirit, then there might be ways of addressing those concerns that are the underlying reasons why the code is the way it is.

“In order to bend or break the rules, you have to master the rules. We don’t believe so much in the idea of thinking outside of the box. We try to find all the space available within the box – maybe like bending the membrane of the box without destroying it.”

Ingels said the unique design for Vancouver House came out of the very first meeting his architectural firm had on the project which is now known as Vancouver House, a distinctive 52-story residential tower by the Granville Street Bridge. Vancouver House will have 407 condominiums and 95 rental apartments. Being built by Ian Gillespie’sWestbank Projects Corp, it is expected to be finished by 2018.

The project includes public art on the underside of the Granville Street Bridge in the form of backlit photographs in lightboxes and a spinning 18th century chandelier by Rodney Graham.

Ingels doesn’t describe Vancouver House as a twisting tower. He descries of it as an expanding tower that spreads out into the building’s rectangular footprint. He pointed out that it doesn’t encroach onto the street.

The form comes out of a practical response to the site, Ingels said. The building is striking because the design is “in the bones” of the building, he said. There is also the added benefit that the design not only increases the amount of space by 50 per cent, it also creates more valuable units with views and sunlight.

“I think there is this misunderstanding that creative people should run wild,” he said.

“We always say: give us all the parameters. Criteria that you get at the beginning of the process become like ingredients you can cook with. Criteria that come at the end, become like obstacles or show stoppers.”

Ingels was in Vancouver for the media launch of Gesamtkunstwerk. Pronounced Geh-ZAHMPT-kunst-verk, it’s a German word that means a total work of art where everything is considered and chosen so that all the parts work together to achieve whatever effect is intended.

The exhibition records the seven-year process of designing and developing Vancouver House and how the tower fits in with the development of Vancouverism, a building form that matches a thin vertical tower with a horizontal podium of townhouses. Vancouver-style residential towers are now being built all over the world.

Although the building may look top-heavy, Ingels said being in an earthquake zone means the building is required to be stiff and have structural redundancy. That extra structural capacity, he said, can be used to support the overhang.

He said the building has what are called walking columns that in their most extreme expand gradually from a point to a wall. As each floor rises, the column is never more than 25 cm over the one below.

“In Denmark, we say that a lot of little creeks create a great river,” he said. “A lot of small moves can create a massive transformation.”

Trevor Boddy, the exhibition’s curator, dates the beginning of Vancouverism to a pencil drawing from 1955 by Arthur Erickson when he was a professor at the University of B.C. The sketches show twisting and 30-storey, terraced towers in the West End and Kits Point and a bridge linking UBC with West Vancouver. Found in an archive in Calgary, Boddy said the exhibition is the first time the sketch has been shown in a public exhibition.

“This is an amazing anchor drawing,” he said. “ I think the key ideas of Vancouverism were anticipated in this single sketch.”

During the media preview, Boddy said there was a large object in the show but not in the exhibition room. He walked outside to the entrance platform and pointed south, southwest to 888 Beach, Vancouver’s first tower and podium residential development. The building and the low-rise rooftop garden were designed by James Cheng, the architect that Gillespie has used many of his projects including the Residences on Georgia and the Shaw Tower on Cordova.

Boddy said Cheng came up with the idea of putting townhouses with doors on the street around the base of the tower. Although other cities have towers with podiums, no-one had ever combined a residential tower with continuous townhouses as Cheng first did.

Larry Beasley was a young planner when he bought one of the first units in Cheng’s building. Beasley later became the city’s director of planning in Vancouver responsible for making the tower and podium the dominant style of the city’s condominium developments.

The exhibition Gesamtkunstwerk at 1460 Howe is free. It’s open seven days a week, 11 am to 5 pm to Sunday, May 18. Visit for more information.

Read the full article at Vancouver Sun.