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Vancouver House might just put us on the architectural map
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Not since a handful of futuristic-looking SkyTrain stations — from funky spaceships and inverted canoes to glowing glass tubes — began dotting the Metro Vancouver skyline a decade ago has there been such an out-of-the-box architectural newcomer on the city’s horizon.

Vancouver House is a 525-foot, 59-storey tower — said to be the fifth tallest in the city — designed by Bjarke Ingels, a dynamic 39-year-old Copenhagen architect who cites our own forward-thinking Arthur Erickson for much of the building’s sculptural inspiration.

Approved Monday in a unanimous city council vote, Westbank Corporation’s proposed tower at Beach and Howe, on three acres on the north end of the Granville Bridge, is slated for 2018 completion.

Ingels’s thinking, he says in a video on the project’s website, is that Vancouver House is, literally, a sophisticated twist on the “slender tower on the urban podium” that — and the following are my words — has formed a relentlessly dull-faced dark wall of soulless skyscrapers crowding the downtown Vancouver core like a mouthful of bad teeth.

This is a building, with all its curved cantilevered promise, that will radically shift the paradigm on how Vancouver defines itself architecturally.

This is a building that one wants to look at.

The tower starts on a triangular base and increases in size as it twists skyward — “to take in views and daylight,” says Ingels — evolving into a rectangle at its height. Its exterior forms a honeycomb of 388 units which, when lit at night, will glow like an arena of Bic lighters at an 1980s concert, reflecting aluminum balconies lined with copper.

It’s a bonafide talker, unlike anything interesting that has gone up downtown since, let’s say, the distinctive 1930 Art Deco Marine Building, today considered one of Vancouver’s few remaining treasures after 100-plus years of haphazard, mostly ugly, downtown construction.

Let’s not argue that, over the years, Vancouver city hall had made many bone-headed infrastructure decisions that have little to do with actual urban planning involving foresight, esthetics and historical preservation, and much to do with rejecting sensibility in favour of boosting the tax base through unbridled development.

In the downtown core, the debate has long been raging over the charmless towers that increasingly blot out the sun, the anecdotal blame being that too many remain unoccupied in the midst of a housing crunch, purchased by absentee offshore owners seeking to launder their money through Vancouver real estate.

And that criticism may well be justified, as is the puzzler that if the city is trying to attract families into its downtown core, why is much of the new development so small and expensive, and built on streetscapes bereft of child-friendly necessities like, you know, schools?

Who builds and who buys the city’s housing stock also rankles outside the downtown core, as heritage enthusiasts continue to launch emotional campaigns decrying the ongoing destruction of century-old homes in the city’s leafy westside enclaves. Hundreds of pretty wood-frame homes have been systematically razed and replaced, ironically, with faux versions that are bigger and more cheaply constructed.

(It’s hardly a new story, of course. Every municipality in Metro Vancouver has seen a version of this movie — new generations moving in and erasing the previous generation’s footprint, replacing bungalows and ranchers with monster homes, backyard cherry trees with carriage houses. Arguably, the situation has been much worse in suburbs such as Burnaby and Richmond, perhaps locales not on the preservationists’ bucket list of civic safaris.)

Which is why Vancouver House, and its sexy profile, may herald a refreshing new civic vision, at least on the skyscraper front.

It will have market rental units and retail outlets. It will have public plazas and a green roof with a rooftop pool. Prices will range from about $550,000 to more than $2 million, with square footage starting at about 370 square feet for a studio to a 3,034-square-foot, four-bedroom unit.

More importantly than amenities, though, is that this is a building that will change the perception of what a big-city Canadian skyline could and should look like.

Coincidentally, on the same day that Vancouver city council approved the new tower, the inaugural Vancouver Urban Design Awards recognized 10 buildings and landscapes considered to be among the city’s best.

From modern to sustainable, the diversity of those choices is what stands out, perhaps speaking to a still-young city struggling to define what kind of architectural legacy it wants to leave once it’s all grown up.

Could be there’s a new kid on the block that might help with that.

View the full articline online at the Vancouver Sun.