Saturday, December 12, 2009

City as Panoramic Skyline

posted in altered form on Beyond Robson.

Brent Toderian, Vancouver city planner, will see a proposal before Vancouver city council in late January to allow four buildings (three on West Georgia, one on Burrard) higher than the usual allowed, one with a height of a possible 700ft. For some perspective, Vancouver's current tallest building, the Shangri-La building on West Georgia, is 646ft from floor to roof (the second tallest is the Wall Centre at 491ft). The height restrictions were originally created in order to protect 'view corridors'--allowing citizens of Vancouver mostly unobstructed views of the mountains, but as land grows scarce in the downtown core, and density reigns its green head Vancouver might be heading for taller buildings, and this doesn't have to be a bad thing.

There's no doubt that Vancouver's skyline is a beautiful and arresting sight. Traveling over any of the bridges offers some amazing views that mesh ocean, coastline, skyscrapers, and mountains into one sparkling liquid smear (I particularly like view coming over the Burrard bridge as it seems to bisect the city perfectly). But it is a skyline that resembles a buzz-cut, with the notable exception of the Shangri-La building which looms tall above it all, like a blade of grass missed by the lawnmower. It stands alone. For the moment.

Visually arresting city skylines depend on variation in height: Seattle, New York, Dubai, Toronto. In Vancouver, the eyes are immediately drawn upwards past the similar towers towards the mountains; this, of course, was a deliberate planning decision: protect the mountain views. Not a bad idea, but any regulation gone on too long and held too strictly seems to result in a visual monotony. Those images also reveal Vancouver's obsession with glass towers, which although has become the city's trademark, has also quickly gone too far. This is most prominent in Yaletown, an area which has undergone vast and quick condo tower development, leaving the area with the bitter taste of architectural boredom in ones mouth. Skylines need diversity in height and material.

I don't support getting rid of the view corridors, but I do support a case-by-case look at firms that propose buildings over the restricted height limit. They don't have to be a blight on the skyline, but could enhance it, they could--as the Globe and Mail article pointed out--rise and fall like the mountain skyline behind them, become a feature rather than a hindrance. Buildings can be beautiful, too.

I think Vancouver could benefit from taking more risks in the future with the look of the built city, whether that is variation in the types of material used, embracing strange and risky architecture, or altering the skyline with a smattering of tall buildings. If it's done right then we can have an arresting skyline that compliments the mountains behind it, instead of either one overshadowing the other. Architects in Vancouver have a unique hurdle in that the canvas they are painting on is already decorated with artwork, but this should be seen as a challenge by the city, not a reason to build boring buildings.

1 comment:

  1. I find that we don't think of the City as an environment as much as we should. We tend to think of 'nature' when we hear the word 'environment. Especially in conjunction with the words 'protection'and 'enhancement'. I, for one, am concerned for the Vancouver's skyline; buildings that came before the restrictions on height, material and glass colour are slowly being overrun by our (the market's) obsession with condo towers. I particularly like the area around the foot of Burrard where there are many office towers that seem out of place in our Glass City.