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Uncool: Vancouver's Olympic Architecture

It's ever more clear we should have set designers free.

By Adele Weder 17 Dec 2008 |

This article is part of Adele Weder's Tyee series on B.C. architecture. Many thanks to the Practitioners, Critics and Curators of Architecture grant programme of the Canada Council of the Arts, which is sponsoring this series. Adele Weder can be reached at

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Richmond's skate oval: splayed heron?

Why is Vancouver, with design talent that more than matches Beijing, shaping up to offer such an unremarkable Olympic architectural legacy?

Sure, Winter Games are smaller-scale, lower-profile and a lot colder than Bejing 2008. But aside from that, it's a bit of a head-shaker. The firms responsible for the 2010 venues include a few of Vancouver's top architects. Neither their names nor their imagination, though, will carry much weight in 2010. China used architectural bravura to argue its new importance in the world. VANOC, by contrast, seems determined to keep its architecture as unremarkable and anonymous as possible. The VANOC website brags about the impending world-class facilities, yet there isn't a trace of information about the architects, apparently because that would dilute the value of the corporate sponsors' names.

And as the main venues rise out of the ground, we're reminded that corporate culture, more than any other kind, is the bane and bedrock of this Olympiad.

'Richmond Oval... a lasting symbol': Campbell

When the Richmond Speedskating Oval officially opened last Friday, we got our first flush of Olympic architecture. Premier Gordon Campbell declared that "Like the Bird's Nest Stadium, or the Water Cube in Beijing, the Richmond Oval will be a lasting symbol, known around the world."

To this, I'd say that the premier has farcically misspoken. The network of design teams behind the oval is made up of generally solid talents. But if the world shows us any mercy, the Richmond Oval will not be judged against the visually stunning Bird's Nest by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, or Water Cube by Australia's PTW Architects. It would just be cruel.

On the inside, the oval is grand. The multinational firm Cannon Design is the oval's architect of record, with Victoria-based sports architect Bob Johnston designing a splendid interior of pine-beetle infested wood. Fast + Epp deserve heaps of praise for their engineering prowess. Rounding out the project is Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden and Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, who have done fine work in the open space and overall urban design. But from the outside, in terms of architectural beauty, alas, the Richmond Oval is a dog.

Or -- more apropos -- a very odd sort of bird. It's supposed to be inspired by the heron, the municipal symbol of Richmond. What it evokes is a giant fowl splayed flat on the ground, with a line of winglets sticking out on one side. Beijing had its Bird's Nest Stadium, so perhaps it was inevitable that Vancouver would attempt its own ornithological gesture.

Oh, and by the way -- don't be that impressed by VANOC and civic boasting of the oval being "on budget": the cost overruns were quietly contained by gutting the landscape architecture and other design elements.

The managed message

I suspect a preponderance of corporate culture may have hindered the creative process. Oval architects Marion LaRue and Bob Johnston of Cannon Deign have been restrained from responding directly to media inquiries. All calls to Cannon were deferred to Richmond City Hall or to Cannon's U.S. public-relations office; the architects clearly didn't boast much public authority. My plea for a simple one-on-one interview or studio visit was torpedoed in favour of an officious PR-monitored meeting at Cannon's Vancouver office boardroom.

The two architects sat quietly at the boardroom table, while two marketing and public-relations professionals led the conversation and the disembodied voice of Cannon's Virginia-based president of professional services, Ken Wiseman, emanated from a StarPhone at the centre of the table. The meeting concluded with a soft-focus DVD presentation of various designers and City of Richmond officials riffing on scudding clouds and soaring gulls.

Then Wiseman's voice piped up from the StarPhone: "I hate to disappoint you, but it was really a collaboration."

No doubt about that. It is the architectural repository for everything the stakeholders seem to covet after Beijing: splashiness, birdliness and bravado.

The oval's design process and results suggest collaboration of not just architects but also civil servants and paper-pushers. A classic case of design by committee -- but that's no way to build a masterpiece.

Symbolism rocks: the curling facility

A better architectural flagship for the Games is the subdued and banally named "Vancouver Olympic Centre" -- the curling venue designed by Hughes Condon Marler Architects, located on the eastern shoulder of Queen Elizabeth Park. It's no Bird's Nest, but it's basically a good, sophisticated, clean design. Earlier this year, its lead designer, Darryl Condon, was happy to give me a thorough, in-office explanation of its design features and rationale, without a squad of PR professionals vetting our conversation as with the Richmond Oval.

The programme and circulation patterns make sense, and it's slated for a well-thought-out conversion to a community ice rink/swimming pool/library after 2010. Its roofline swell is a reiteration of a form we've seen before, in Hughes Condon Marler's own very fine West Vancouver Aquatic Centre. So: nothing earthshakingly new. Yet this version is somehow more Olympian: its canted facades make it look as though the whole building is lunging forward, like a curler heaving the stone down the ice. There you have it: the Vancouver Olympic Centre, leaning towards Nat Bailey Stadium in a half-predatory, half-amatory stance. Pretty much like the Vancouver citizenry itself, as we lurch towards the Olympic maw.

Athlete's Village: condo overreach

The other major new structure in the Olympic-venue family, the Athletes' Village, is now under construction on False Creek South. But if the oval defines our Olympian overreach, and the Olympic Centre our muted ambitions, the Athlete's Village may turn out to generate a legacy even more trenchant and memorable than the Richmond Oval. That's because it defines what the Vancouver Olympics have largely been about to now: high-flying real estate speculation. And a whole bunch of spectators watching in anticipation of a crash at the gate.

The village is a complex three-phase project by GBL Architects, Merrick Architecture and Nick Milkovich Architects -- esteemed creators all.

Each phase has its charms, and its requisite sophistication and LEED-certified sustainability features.

But at the end of the day, it seems destined to be just another swish condo project. Of the many, many designers involved, several have privately expressed deep frustration at the constraints imposed upon them during the multi-stage design process. "They're looking to us all for some kind of wonderful solution," fumed one architect I interviewed, "yet everything we bring forward gets whacked for some reason."

Destined to become a residential community post-2010, the Athletes' Village might end up being the greatest missed opportunity of the Games, Richmond notwithstanding. The potential for true legacy-making diminished when Vancouver's last city council upended the generous mix of equal parts non-market, mid-market and upper-end housing that the previous Vision government had helped craft.

Sam Sullivan's government cut the one-third-of-each-sector formula back to 20 per cent non-market. That scale-back transformed the Athletes Village from an audacious social experiment -- which, sure, probably would have had big cost overruns -- to a garden-variety mega-development, which -- surprise! -- also has big cost overruns.

Poetic intonations

Yup, the project boasts the requisite eco-wood cabinetry and water-saving faucets, but how environmentally responsible is a hive of half-empty condos? If we're going to take huge financial risks with public money, the stakes had better be worth it. A socially inclusive and architecturally daring housing project might have been.

Let's pull the last words directly from the developers' sales bumph -- specifically, the lavish Millennium Water marketing brochure that unfurls like a centerfold to show False Creek bathed in the lavender and ochre hues of a Vancouver sunset. The brochure concludes by quoting a Kashmiri proverb: "We have not inherited the world from our forefathers -- we have borrowed it from our children."

Safe to say that the brochure copywriters had no idea just how prophetic and financially apropos those words might turn out to be.

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