Brutalist Vancouver building that hasn’t dated

805 Broadway Centre, Vancouver
(Thanks to Steven Ballegeer for this photo on Flickr)

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.

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver

IMG_1295

IMG_132805 W. Broadway, Vancouver8
Elevator area just off lobby.

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver
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.

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver

IMG_1805 W. Broadway, Vancouver312

IMG_13805 W. Broadway, Vancouver36

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver
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!

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver - floor number

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver - Women

IMG_805 W. Broadway, Vancouver - bathroom1129

805 W. Broadway, Vancouver - bathroom tile

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12 Responses to “Brutalist Vancouver building that hasn’t dated”

  1. CM McLellan Says:

    Thanks for this post! I love this building and how cohesive the design is. It has aged very well. It’s also a testament to the role that maintenance plays.

  2. KFA Alder Says:

    When I’ve been in this building during a rainy spell I’ve noticed water seepage through the concrete (particularly around the windows) and wondered whether this was a performance problem or not.

  3. LB Says:

    I think that small amount of leakage is old, no? No one in the building has ever mentioned leakage to me. There are some water stains in the office I go to, but they’ve been there for decades and those problems were solved early on. Concrete in a rainy climate definitely faces problems, but then so do most building materials in this climate. I hope we avoid brick, though, a material that doesn’t reference our surroundings, looks like Toronto or NYC and appears ridiculous at skyscraper height.

  4. Steve Says:

    Great post about a beautiful building — thanks for your detailed description. Here are a few biographical details about the architect from UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium page:
    “One of the most intriguing aspects of the stadium is its architect. Award-winning Yugoslavian-born, Vladimir Plavsic is the story behind the stadium’s look. A brilliant yet recalcitrant architectural student at UBC, it wasn’t long before he became responsible for many landmarks in Vancouver and around the world. He was a ‘mover and shaker’ in Vancouver and beyond, could speak five different languages, was a trumpet virtuoso who once played in Stan Kenton’s band, a world champion swimmer and water polo player, and a renowned sailor who won Canada’s first international racing trophies.”

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    Your photos look pretty good to me, and really point out the interesting detail. I think we tend to overlook this kind of detail, because we don’t look for it in modern buildings.
    Douglas Fir handrails, for goodness sakes…

  6. Paul Says:

    I spent a lot of years working in that building “on the inside” per se. Worked for Stanzl/805 for close to 10 years putting myself thru high school and engineering. Stanzl still holds an interest in the building. The whole thing was built by European craftsman right down to the bench in the lobby. Yes, like the odd leak, the design has a few “quirks” but overall a very unique design.

    Here’s a little known tidbit – there were preparations in the structure and foundation to have a mini “twin” tower on top of the wing where the bank is. Of course, the plans were never followed through.

    Brings back some fond memories.

    Thanks,

    Paul

  7. Glissando Remmy Says:

    I have mixed “fillings” about this building. On one hand, I like the erect Harmonica look, on the other hand I have to confess … I lost my “nerve” to a Periodontal Dentist in there. She was beautiful, I was under a freezing spell. Brutal!

  8. LB Says:

    Remmy, that gave me a toothache! And I’m talking about the puns here. :–)

  9. Jamez Says:

    This building reminds me of another example of great brutalist bauhaus architecture – The Abbey Church of St. John the Baptist in Collegeville, MN. It too has the linear impressions in the concrete leftover from the wooden lathe forms. It also has the mountainous concrete form that communicates a solid permanency. Having gone to college there, I had the privilege of worhipping in the space often and developing a sense deep down of its rootedness and plainness and how it was people that stood out in the space bringing it color and life…

  10. Luke Says:

    I love the interior! its nice to see a solid example where the 70’s futurism was preserved, especially in the graphic details, its a shame to see so many modernist buildings where the insides have been stripped and recreated in beige/grey corporate blandness.

  11. LB Says:

    @Luke That is so true, especially in Vancouver.
    @ everyone – I have added more photos of the stairwells and bathrooms, courtesy of my friend Kate. Including some 70s graphics.

  12. Vancouver 1966: The Erickson/Massey proposal for block 61 and the Downtown core « Voony's Blog Says:

    […] architect: he has designed the 805 Broadway Medical Dental Centre known as thethe Frank Stanzl building Share this:EmailDiggTwitterPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted by Voony Filed […]

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