BC Hydro now and then – what happened between 1955 and 1991?

The Electra

The Electra

BC Hydro Building, Vancouver, BC

“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.

Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide

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.”

BC Hydro building

Here’s a window grid handled better: Arthur Erickson’s MacMillan Bloedel building of 1965. Click on link for more images.

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5 Responses to “BC Hydro now and then – what happened between 1955 and 1991?”

  1. Tweets that mention BC Hydro now and then | ouno -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ouno, The CDR. The CDR said: Couldn't agree more RT @ounodesign: 1955 vs .1981 – BC Hydro's 2 towers. No contest. http://is.gd/ialFn […]

  2. LB Says:

    Thanks, Canadian Design Resource. Many others have written me to agree, but since architects in BC are not allowed to criticize the work of other architects according to the draconian and 19th C-style rules of the Architectural Institute of BC, they can’t comment publicly. These rules don’t exist in other jurisdictions; there should be an uproar about it. Tell the AIBC! http://www.aibc.ca/
    These rules are yet another reason for the decline of architectural quality in this town. An interesting young architect who recently made an alternate proposal for a building complex in Vancouver that was razed by a very suspicious arson fire was recently reprimanded by the AIBC. Apparently by the very act of making an alternate proposal for this public site she was inadvertently criticizing another architect’s proposal. There has been a fair amount of exasperation out there among architects but due to the constraints, no one can even effectively oppose the AIBC’s opposition.

  3. Erik Says:

    The MacMillan Bloedel building I did not know, but it looks a bit like a new design by David Chipperfield. http://www.worldinteriordesignnetwork.com/news/peek__cloppenburgs_vienna_store_celebrates_topping_out_101115/

    Actually it’s even more beautiful.

  4. LB Says:

    My photos of the Mac Blo building by Erickson aren’t very good – it’s a great building. Thanks for the link – hard to tell from that image whether the Chipperfield bldg will work – what do you think?

  5. Erik Says:

    I don’t know, it doesen’t seem to be his best building, but who knows.

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