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Urban Planning + Architecture

Vancouver, Supermodel

A young city dresses up to make winners in the global economy swoon. Like what you see?

Matthew Soules 2 Jul

Matthew Soules is adjunct professor in the School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia. This essay is excerpted with permission from A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver, just released by D&M Publishers.

[Editor's note: This is excerpted from A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver, just published by Douglas and McIntyre. A previous excerpt on Vancouver's architectural revival by Adele Weder ran last week.]

It's 8:00 a.m., the elevator door opens, and there he is -- just beyond the lobby's glass. Only yesterday I caught a glimpse of him when he was gliding between the towers, his reflection ricocheting across the countless window walls. Now he seems consumed with foraging the sub-surface depths of our building's roof-top pond. Strange when you think about it, at this moment many of my thousands of neighbors in this forest of condominiums are aligned with this bird, this Great Blue Heron -- connected by a common activity occurring in shared proximity; eating breakfast. By the time I get down to the seawall, the joggers are out in force. And the ocean, wow, it's so calm -- totally serene. Kayakers already! Doesn't anybody work? I've read that this part of the city is the second densest in North America. How can that be? It feels so spacious... so orderly. And the mountains, I can see them so easily. By the time I finish the short walk to my office it's practically impossible to suppress the feeling that this place, this city, just might be utopia.

Utopia!? How is this feeling possible? We all know that utopia can't exist. But the sentiment persists and proliferates. In recent years city-makers from Dubai to Dallas have come to view Vancouver as an urban paradise and now seek to more or less imitate it. During the time-span covered by this guidebook Vancouver has emerged as an unlikely archetype, a place that cities everywhere look to as the prime example of the 'Livable City.' Vancouver is a supermodel.

Much of the city's utopian character derives from its spectacular location. Where else does such a relatively large and dynamic metropolitan condition exist in immediate proximity to beaches, rainforests and snow-capped peaks? Where else can we witness high-density urbanism co-existing with such vibrant and healthy natural ecologies? Deer filled forests sit right at the city's edge. Waters within the metropolis teem with millions of migrating salmon. But it's not the city's fortuitous siting alone that has garnered so much attention. Architecture, urban design and planning have capitalized on the city's natural assets to produce an exceptional built environment that has secured its supermodel status.

Part of Vancouver's anomaly arises from the fact that it is dizzyingly new. If you're going to build utopia, you need the opportunity. Within the period of this guidebook the city's population has ballooned by more than 67 per cent. Since 1995, more than 150 high-rise residential towers have been built in the downtown peninsula in what constitutes a radical and wholesale transformation of central Vancouver.

A bulk of these towers are located in two master-planned communities, Concord Pacific Place on the north shore of False Creek and Coal Harbour to the west of the Central Business District, and together they cover an astounding one-sixth of the downtown peninsula. Few cities in recent decades have been so significantly and directly determined by master-planned urban design. These two neighbourhoods, along with areas of the city they have inspired, have come to define Vancouver as the apotheosis of contemporary urban livability. Glassy, slender, and well- spaced podium towers maximize views and light while enlivening the sidewalk. The public seawall and a generous amount of parks and civic amenities offer recreation, leisure, and community-life all within easy walking distance. It is a safe, clean, calm, and highly designed form of urbanism. It also registers the logics and modes of globalization.

At the dawn of the 21st century there is no such thing as a non-global city. Globalization has impacted everywhere... even Antarctica. Nevertheless, the degree to which the heightened liquidity in people, goods, and money has informed supermodel Vancouver is remarkable for its legibility. The population explosion that has fuelled Vancouver's makeover has been determined to a large degree by remote geopolitical events and international migration -- the city was, for instance, a primary destination for the pre-1997 exodus from Hong Kong.

The speed and scale of Vancouver's development entails construction financing made possible through the workings of global capital -- Concord Pacific Place, for example, was built with money from Asia. A not insignificant number of condominium units are purchased by foreign investors, and many condominium towers have been primarily marketed in foreign cities. In these ways, the thicket of towers that represents supermodel Vancouver is the iconic and palpable result of globalization.

More significant, however, is that the very concept of 'livability' for which new Vancouver is famed is itself a manifestation of globalization's dominant worldview. As an ideological condition that is founded upon liberalism and capitalism, globalization prefaces a lifestyle urbanism that is shaped by the preoccupations of the influence-wielding upper middle class. Situated within this ideological context Vancouver's livability translates into an urbanism that elevates fitness, leisure, and comfort as the ultimate barometers of city life. This value system synthesizes perfectly with Vancouver's natural setting. Activities such as jogging on the seawall or sipping a cappuccino while taking in a natural vista emerge as ideal urban behaviour. Architecture and urban design that facilitate this experiential symbiosis between lifestyle and nature not only belong to the condominium mega-developments -- the contours of this livability can be traced to buildings throughout the city.

While glass and transparency are a common preoccupation of contemporary architecture almost everywhere, their role is more deeply entrenched in Vancouver. This phenomenon results from the combined impact of the natural landscape and livability on the Vancouver psyche and allows Vancouver architecture to achieve multiple effects. Of course, it facilitates the view. Building types that are usually hermetic become open. The Olympic Speed Skating Oval with its vast north facing glazing opens up to the North Shore Mountains that rise in the distance. The Vancouver Convention Centre's West Building exposes its circulation and break-out spaces to the harbour.

But the provision of views is only the most obvious implication of glass. At a more fundamental and pervasive level the prominent role of glass serves to diminish the schism between the interior and exterior. If the interior is the primary domain of architecture, it belongs to the artificial world, while the exterior, in the broadest sense, belongs to nature. Glazing merges these domains by minimizing their threshold of separation. The relative immateriality of glass also allows architecture to flirt with non-materiality, and ultimately, non-existence. This signals perhaps a latent desire within much of Vancouver's buildings. That is, to not be there at all -- to allow the landscape to remain as intact and pure as possible.

If glass facilitates a certain synthesis of natural and artificial, Vancouver architecture also privileges wood in what can be described as a material semiotics of the natural. A large number of Vancouver buildings feature manufactured wood products. These products play a double role: signifying the forests surrounding the city and indicating increasingly 'sustainable' building construction. Their reconstitution of small wood pieces into larger components both realizes and communicates the increased material efficiency and therefore sustainability of our modes of production. The fact that these components are often deployed in a visually demonstrative and almost ornamental manner reveals the importance of their expressive content in imbuing a building with an emotionally satisfying sustainable naturalism.

Sustainability is the latest variation on nature in the livable city and is fully integrated with supermodel Vancouver. The round of mega-projects that follow Concord Pacific Place and Coal Harbour inflate this aspect of design to a new prominence and scale. This involves incorporating artificially constructed ecological systems directly into buildings and urban space. The Vancouver Convention Centre's green roof and 'bio-engineered' marine habitat are massive ecological investments. The master-planned community at South East False Creek deploys an array of sustainability techniques among its roughly 8,000 units, including the construction of 'Habitat Island' -- an artificial island meant to replace lost shoreline while achieving a net increase to inter-tidal fish habitat that supports heightened biodiversity.

The leisure oriented nature of the livable city as represented by structures like Coal Harbour's seawall is now expanded to include the non-human residents of the city; residents such as the Great Blue Heron that frequents my condominium tower. Ecological livability is thus the defining double adjective of utopian, supermodel Vancouver.

At the same time that Vancouver is regularly rated as one of world's most livable cities it is also the most murderous large city in Canada, is prohibitively expensive, and the Downtown Eastside includes the most impoverished postal code in the country along with what is reported to be the highest HIV infection rate in the developed world. These are -- no doubt -- big and serious problems that no urban paradise can claim. But are even the city's utopian aspects so wonderful? Part of the answer is clearly affirmative. That I and thousands of others can live and work in high-density neighborhoods that are defined by light, openness, safety, quiet, and recreational abundance and in which neighborliness extends to wildlife is anathema to the harsh reality of dense settlement for much of human history. But nothing comes without costs and it's interesting to consider just what those costs might be.

To advance this consideration it's useful to think of Vancouver in relation to another even more influential west coast supermodel of utopian urbanism: Disneyland. The livable city and Disneyland have numerous similarities. As the American architect and critic Michael Sorkin reminds us: "Disneyland favors pedestrianism and 'public' transport. It is physically delimited. It is designed to the last detail. It is segmented in 'neighborhoods.'... Its pleasures are all G-rated. It's safe." If Disneyland was built today it would undoubtedly be a model of the most advanced sustainable and ecological design.

It's easy to criticize the simulation of the good life that a place like Disneyland represents. Its superficiality and lack of authenticity are obvious. But its example is a useful reminder of the risks inherent in building utopia. Paramount of which, I would argue, are those related to control. Disneyland promises clean safe fun but does so as Sorkin says by offering a "city-like construct that radically circumscribes choice, that heavily polices behavior, that understands subjectivity entirely in terms of consumption and spectatorship, and that sees architecture and space as a territory of fixed and inflexible meanings." It is tempting to see amongst the advantages to utopian Vancouver a resonance with Disneyland's overarching authority that threatens to constrain the expansive and liberating possibilities of the city.

So ask yourself as you explore Vancouver and its architecture: In what ways has the city succeeded in building a benevolent utopia and in what ways has it built its inverse; an attractive and comfortable but ultimately dissatisfying dystopia?

Whatever the answer, it is clear that Vancouver's architecture and urbanism is unique. As a relatively young city that at the outset of the 21st century is still inventing itself, it is exciting to witness so clearly in Vancouver the defining hopes, preoccupations and struggles to realize the best possible city of the future.

More than many other places in the world, Vancouver succinctly manifests this contemporary quest for a new type of city. As an open-ended search it requires both success and failure, but it is the trajectory of the search itself that makes Vancouver such a relevant and fascinating place.  [Tyee]

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