A New Vancouverism

Moving beyond the City of Glass.

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ph5 architecture

Despite its perennial perch at or near the top of multiple livable cities rankings, Vancouver has found it difficult to shake one common critique: that all its buildings look alike. As explored partly in Douglas Coupland's symbolically titled book City of Glass, Vancouver's downtown is dominated by a wide cluster of similar-looking glass condo buildings. It's a "podium-and-tower" style, with a few floors that fill up most of the block and then a significantly narrowed tower jutting up from the middle, rising like a tall candle on a big, flat cake.

While the reputation has stuck, the reality has evolved. Development patterns in the city are starting to change, which has some Vancouverites thinking and dreaming about how the city will be reshaped in the coming years. A recent exhibition explored how the perception of Vancouver's urbanism – or Vancouverism – can be expanded or updated.

"Tangential Vancouverism" brought together eight design firms and writers to propose new ways of thinking about how people interact with the densifying city, and with each other. Instigated by Alex Buss and Alexandra Kenyon, two graduate students studying architecture at the University of British Columbia, the project is aimed at developing ideas for ways that urban development can diversify and create a new perception that goes beyond previous interpretations of Vancouverism.

"This city is completely different than what it was 10 years ago and that term requires updating to reflect what the city needs to offer now," says Buss. "As Vancouver continues to be a place that people want to be, there's going to be greater pressure on public spaces that are available in the city."

The projects included in the exhibition, which wrapped up this past weekend at the city's 221A Artist Run Centre, range from "fantastical provocation" to "real pragmatism." One project, by the design firm Rural / Urban / Fantasy Project, proposes building a Tower of Babel-like winding walkway structure on a plot of land where the viaducts empty into city streets.

Another project, by ph5 architecture, seeks to build on the success of the city's food cart program to meet neighborhood needs through small businesses by creating mobile "micro-hubs of social and economic activity."

"Vancouver is known for its development," says Buss. "We're trying to take that and push it into different forms, whether it's small scale development or a spinoff project."

He sees the city's expected population growth of roughly 139,000 people over the next 30 years as an impetus to push for an enriched public realm. Buss and Kenyon hope to kickstart even more conversation about the future of the city and how its development will have to change to meet new demands.

"We want to create a dialog between those responsible for citymaking and those that development projects will affect," says Buss. "Things that weren’t possible five or six years ago start to become possible."

Images courtesy Alex Buss/ph5 architecture/RUF Project.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.