Just to prove I don’t hate all tall buildings, this early 1970s brutalist concrete highrise in Vancouver is a long-time favourite of mine, and one that I think has held up really well over the years. It’s known as the 805 Broadway Medical Dental Centre or the Frank Stanzl building. Completed in 1974, the 20-story tower was designed by Vladimir Plavsic.
I have been going to the same dentist in this building since I was about 14, and I’ve always liked walking into it. I think this is partly because while it may be an example of an international modernist style, its shape and its use of local materials makes it feel as if it belongs here. Every time I walk in I notice the thoughtfulness and quality of its many details. In fact, it’s so nice inside that building that it actively makes me wonder about the architect and tradespeople who worked on it. For me this is a striking change from the way I feel about most other buildings in the city.
Unlike most of the tall buildings that have gone up cheaply in Vancouver since the early 80s, this one will last a long time, and not just because it’s aesthetically pleasing and its inhabitants like it and will therefore care for it. It is more well-built and energy efficient than recent glass buildings. The inset windows and concrete structure defeat the problem of the “heat bridge” between too much gain on the sunny side and chill on the north, a problem that besets all the glass towers in the city. And it will be far easier and cheaper to repair its windows as the years go by.
I went to the dentist there on Friday and mentioned to my hygienist how much I like the building. She immediately agreed, saying she loved working there for many reasons but especially because “every window opens! You almost don’t feel as if you’re shut up inside.” That’s the paradox of it—it might look like a fortress from outside, but inside it’s a pleasing aerie. Even on the lower floors.
You approach the building across an open courtyard and enter into an airy, skylit, wood-accessoried lobby. As in the rest of the building, the interior is still exactly as it was in 1974. The elevators and building directory bear the same 1970s supergraphics they always have.
The elevators, which form such a key social area in any highrise, are well done done in every detail. On each floor the elevator waiting area is a nice central open area where the elevator doors almost function as art, so that somehow you really don’t feel you’re in a faceless institution. In addition the graphics on the elevator doors, which depict the building’s side profile, are different colours on various floors. Like the building’s other interior details, the 70s supergraphics give you a sense of the building’s own history without making you feel trapped in the 70s—which would perhaps have happened if the design hadn’t been done right the first time. I love that the beautiful stainless steel inset ashtrays by the elevator are still there too; someone has lovingly refused to depart from the original design features of this building. The elevators are still lined with the same oak panels installed in 1974, and as is usually the case with solid wood, the dents, scratches, wear and discolouration are a plus rather than a minus.
The stairs are a nice cream-coloured plain marble with anti-slip bands carved into them, in a pattern consistent with the building’s strongly geometric exterior. The chunky Douglas Fir L-shaped bench in the lobby has been there right from the beginning. All the fir and oak (and cedar?) panelling on the walls and ceiling is original too, and still beautiful.
What’s especially remarkable about the building is the quality and beauty of its concrete form work, which is gorgeous nearly 40 years later. It is so appealing to see the grain of Douglas fir (and some cedar I think?) stamped into the concrete at every turn—it’s endlessly interesting to look at (and even touch) while I’m waiting for the elevator. When you’re sitting in the dentist’s chair, the horizontal stripes of the form work continue from the inside wall to the outside of the building, with only the slightest interruption of the windows. Which, on that late May day, were wide open.
This is how you build a tall office building in this climate. Just a beautifully realized building with strong local westcoast modernist flavour. This is a building made by an architect and a developer who had some pride, sensitivity and vision, and who actually considered things in a manner that had nothing to do with money.
Sorry about the photos; I only had my iPhone on me. For more buildings in the brutalist tradition in Vancouver, see this one. And 805 Broadway was clearly influenced by Arthur Erickson’s MacMillan Bloedel Building.
Above, beautifully made solid Douglas fir bench in the lobby, under an angled skylight you can read by on the darkest day. Notice the bevel on the inner legs. Someone should copy this, if there’s any old growth left, or any good fir that’s not being exported in raw logs. Below: beautifully rough-textured concrete stairways with original Douglas fir handrails.
Above, looking up above the bench in the lobby through the skylight. Concrete, wood and glass; classic westcoast modernism. Even the concrete deliberately indexes the wooden boards it was formed inside, boards of exactly the same dimension as the panelling that abuts them. Even if you don’t consciously notice these details, the brain registers it all unconsciously as a calming harmony. Plavsic thought of everything.
UPDATE: photos of the stairwell graphics and women’s bathroom by my friend Kate Armstrong – thanks Kate!