“Compare and despair” is good advice, but I can’t help it. Here are two skyscrapers designed for the same public corporation, BC Hydro. The first, shown above, is a modernist beauty in the international style by Ned Pratt and Ron Thom of Thomson Berwick Pratt, 1955. It was Vancouver’s first skyscraper. It became the first commercial building in the city to be designated heritage, and now it’s a condo tower which, as soon as it was converted, sold out in 8 minutes. The second tower, below, is a commercial bit of 1980s-style eyesore by Musson Cattell Mackey Partners, built 1991-1992. I cannot express just how deeply I dislike this latter building. Maybe it’s the blunt blankness of the exterior done in two tones of bandaid, topped by a faux greenhouse that looks as if it belongs in a suburban mall and what’s worse, the roof’s shape (badly) mimics the corporate logo in some sort of belated postmodern gesture. Also, the proportions of the window grid are, to my eye, clumsy and uncomfortable for no good reason. They are either too big or too small for the scale of the building. The cladding and the overall form are odd too; they seem to want to mimic earlier local stone or brick-clad buildings, which is just dishonest and awkward on a steel frame and glass building (and which is probably the key to its poor window proportions). The building is trying to be too many things at once and inevitably failing at all of them. I spend a fair amount of time in the art centre housed in the pleasant little Del Mar Inn that this building looms over, and every time I go there I try not to look up. How did this unsightly design get passed by the city’s design panel? And it’s not a one-off; there are many others like it by this firm and others.
Curious fact: Today, thirty years later, the Wikipedia entry on BC Hydro features a photograph of its 1955 building, but not its current headquarters. It would be interesting to find out who made that choice. Maybe the company itself knows it made a mistake?
Note: You may have noticed that I have re-run two of these photos from other recent posts on completely different topics – George Riste’s Del Mar Inn, and the architect Ned Pratt. Those earlier posts are what sparked this comparison.
Photos above from Heritage Vancouver, Robert Ciavarro, Jason Vanderhill. Below, photos by Shallom Johnson and Geoff Peters. Thanks to the photographers. Click on photos for more information.
What actually happened to architecture between 1955 and 1990, and why? Not a rhetorical question. If I had to answer it I’d say that developers is what happened, the corporatization of architecture and the concomitant loss of vision, and the triumph of a provincial mindset pathetically trying to be “world class” but having entirely incorrect ideas about how to achieve that.
Internationally renowned Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson once told the Vancouver Sun newspaper: “There are a few attempts to put up good buildings, but mostly the plan is to get something up and get what you can out of it… I blame the city government for this, to a large extent. They have no respect for the consequences. Any building can go up, with any finish. There are no teeth in the design committee [at city hall].”
And: “In those countries with centuries of a craft tradition behind their building methods, techniques are tightly coordinated under the direction of the architect…. Nowhere has specialization penetrated so deeply into the building professions as North America.” What he seems to be talking about here is the dilution of architectural vision thanks to the increasing autonomy of engineering and other departments.
And taking a longer historical view he said “The Achilles heel of the Americas was the lack of cultural confidence typical of new settlers… We settled this continent without art. So it was easy for us to treat it as an imported luxury, not a necessity.”
Here’s a window grid handled better: Arthur Erickson’s MacMillan Bloedel building of 1965. Click on link for more images.