Post-mortem on the old Eaton’s building: an interview with Cesar Pelli

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The TD Bank building and Eaton’s building by Cesar Pelli, photo © Michael de Courcy, mid-1970s

This is not a true post-mortem, since Cesar Pelli‘s 1973 Eaton’s building has not actually been demolished—and how rare it is to be able to say that in Vancouver, now one of North America’s capitals of demolition. However, the building might as well have been demolished because it has effectively disappeared.

Pelli, one of the first big-name postwar architects to design in Vancouver, built the Eaton’s department store as one of a pair: the smaller white cube of Eaton’s sat next to his tall black TD tower. The formerly white building is now being re-faced by local architect James Cheng, who is the designer of a growing number of what I feel are undistinguished, cheap-to-build, high glass towers such as the Shangri-La, a luxury hotel and condo tower that dominates the Vancouver skyline. Cheng was chosen for the project by incoming American department store Nordstrom and the actual owner of the site, property investment and management company Cadillac-Fairview.

It’s not that I unambivalently adored the old Eaton’s building (which recent newcomers to Vancouver might have known as the Sears Building, or that will in future be known as the Nordstrom building). It did have its problems. Its blank, non-porous face made sections of Granville, Robson and Howe streets a bit of a pedestrian wasteland. However it at least provided some visual and colour differentiation from the epidemic of cold glass that afflicts Vancouver. Its whiteness functioned to lighten a city whose general colour, much of the year, is a darkish grey. And the white square clearly played off the neighbouring black tower. Unfortunately the building did suffer from an unfortunate top-floor renovation in the 80s which came to be known as the toilet seat or urinal, but as far as I know, that lip that was not Pelli’s doing. Pelli himself says that the store wasn’t pedestrian-friendly at street-level, but that to some extent this is a problem with department stores in general, and it could have been modified.

But inherent architectural value is not only subjective, it’s also not the only issue. A sense of a place builds up around custom and continuity. Landmarks play a role in the recognizability and character of a place, and relationships between buildings are important.

eatons in 1980, the unfortunate lip being added on top
Eaton’s building in 1980, during addition of unfortunate curved cornice on top. © Vancouver Sun

As someone who’s not a fan of towers—because they are energy inefficient, have poor longevity, are too expensive to maintain over time, play a key role in property speculation and are shadow-imposing especially when they proliferate—I should have further problems with Pelli since he is famous for his role in building the tower form worldwide including the twin Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, at one time the tallest in the world. But that’s irrelevant here. I confess I miss Pelli’s old white Eaton’s building. I seem to be in a minority on this, I think mainly because of that carbuncle of a top cornice that was added in the disastrous 80s, but still I know many people who feel the way I do. Even though it’s too late for the white building now, I think our side needs to say something. Cheng’s new facade is nowhere close to an improvement.

[UPDATE: I was belatedly alerted to this article that defends the two original buildings. It contains some great photos, especially of the great street lamps that were part of the original street-level design.]

The re-cladding job is almost complete now. I happened to be downtown last week and I was pretty startled by the change in atmosphere at that key Vancouver location. Not only is the new facing of the building undistinguished, banal and clumsy, it is so similar to other undistinguished downtown architecture in texture and colour that I had trouble orienting myself. It’s difficult to get a good photo of it, but the shot below should give you an idea. It looks as if some attempt was  made to break up the glass with a little tile, perhaps to reference the old, but what we have here is a mostly glass Frankenstein’s monster. On one side, Howe Street, it’s a boring, corporate 80s glass cube, and on Granville it’s a mix of pseudo-1930s International Style modernist elements: incoherent, messy and unappealing. I have sought architectural opinion to the contrary but haven’t heard a convincing rebuttal. What might have looked acceptable on a model is now pretty depressing at street level.

Nordstroms by James Cheng. Ugh.
2015 refacing of the building, by architect James Cheng. © Lindsay Brown

In October of 2012 when I first found out that James Cheng was to be the architect who would re-face the building, and that it would be done with the very glass that is already so ubiquitous in Vancouver, I looked Pelli up. I found out that he was 85 but still working and had an office, so on an impulse I emailed him. He agreed to chat on the phone and what follows is the bulk of our conversation. Throughout he is—not surprisingly—very diplomatic about the renovation and he was certainly not about to criticize another architect’s work or ideas, especially since he hadn’t seen the plans. But he does make some very interesting remarks about architectural legacy and history. He is very warm, has a beautiful Argentinian accent and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to him.

LB (me):  Hello Mr. Pelli! As I’m sure you know there are plans to alter the Eaton’s building.

Cesar Pelli:  I did not know until I got your email!

LB:  Oh! Really! I guess that answers my first question which is whether you’d been consulted or hired to look into that alteration.

CP:  Not at all, not at all.

LB:  Would you have been willing to alter that building had they asked you, and if you had, what you would have done with it?

CP:  Ha ha! I would have had no problems altering it. The first thing I would have done is to talk to the new user to see what they needed!

LB:  Of course! Personally I liked the building, in its original form anyway. But one of the criticisms of the building given the pedestrian and traffic patterns in the downtown today is that it’s not permeable enough at street level.

CP:  That is probably correct, yes. I mean, it’s a correct criticism. It’s a pity that you could not make it into a museum; it would have been great for a museum.

LB:  That was another question. It was the desire of some of us in the art scene in Vancouver— I work in the arts—to have the art gallery expand into that building. As you know the art gallery is now occupying the old courthouse across the way. I think when you built the building, I believe 1973…

CP:  41 years ago! Ha!

LB: And at that time there was an old colonial building across that was the courthouse and the art gallery now occupies that building, so…

CP:  Oh, wonderful! But it would have been a better art gallery, it would have been a great art gallery.

LB:  It would have been fantastic! I think the only issue would have been the large columns in the interior which… I’m not sure how that could have been dealt with.

CP:  Oh, I mean you can deal with that easily. Once you clear all the partitions and all the other junk the columns would not have mattered. I guess the issue is money… I’m sure that Nordstroms is paying a good amount of money and the art gallery is not.

LB:  Yes and since the City of Vancouver owns the VAG, they are also the ones who’d be receiving commercial taxes from any entity that goes into that spot so it might not have seemed a very good tradeoff in terms of cash, and City Hall is nearly bankrupt, so…

CP: Like most cities, yes.

LB:  Yes. But maybe can we go back to what you were thinking when you built that pair of buildings. I mean how long did you foresee them lasting, I mean the white building in particular? What did you see as its future?

CP:  Not those kinds of buildings—those kinds of buildings were designed as fit for their purpose at the time. I have no problem with it being changed in character with the skins removed and making it glass.

LB:  It’s interesting that you say that!

CP:  (laughing) It had 40 years of life! That’s not bad for a building like that!

LB:  Ha, well I take your point. One thing people have said about the glass cladding idea, which has not been finalized yet, is that we are already a city of glass, and many people have criticized the overuse of glass in the city so in terms of the context, turning one of the only opaque buildings into the city into a glass… it’s just more glass upon glass, and I was interested in your thoughts on that.

CP:  Well that sounds like a very good argument but I have not been in Vancouver in a long, long time, so I cannot judge that.

LB:  Right. I mean in general your thoughts on this? I mean it’s a city of glass towers and I think you’d be pretty surprised if you saw it now.

CP:  It is, indeed. I have seen other cities or neighbourhoods that are mostly glass and they are very disappointing. They don’t have the life that one expects the glass would give. I think the glass buildings are better if they have other more solid buildings with light and shadows to reflect.

LB:  I was wondering if that’s what you’d say. What’s so interesting about the Sears building or the Eaton’s building as it was known when you built it is that it is a very gloomy climate here so the whiteness reflects back a certain amount of light downtown but it does also provide a counterpoint to all of the glass that surrounds it.

CP:  That is correct, that is correct, but as I said I cannot give my opinion in this case in particular as I have not seen it recently.

LB:  In terms of that era, the historical era of the 70s, the style of building at that time—well, we’re a city that tends to demolish everything and start over. I wanted to know your thoughts on the importance of the legacy of keeping examples of different eras. Why are we always replacing with the new, especially when the new is pseudo-old?

CP:  In principle I am very much for keeping examples of as many eras of possible and to sense the past of the city as you walk through it. But it all depends on the specific circumstances, cost, functions, changes in flavor or changes in fashions, all of those things need to be taken into account. I cannot just state a blanket opinion that all buildings that reflect a particular ere must be kept. Not necessarily. Cities are very complex organisms, and they need to be looked at very carefully, like we look at a person’s body.

LB:  Yes and that’s why context is so important.

CP:  Yes I agree, but I am in principle in agreement that a city that maintains the character of its buildings is richer; representing more periods of time makes it a much more interesting city, a nicer city to live in.

LB:  I agree. We are a bit of a gold rush city, well a resource rush city in a way, and there’s a certain sense that we don’t have a sense of being here permanently, a sense of constant replacement, so that’s a big part of our context here.

CP:  Yeah but Vancouver is not unique in this (laughs)—not in the Americas at least. Europe is something else. The Europeans, not always but by and large are more respectful of their past.

LB:  Yes, but even San Francisco, which has many similarities with Vancouver in terms of that…

CP:  Yes San Francisco is much more careful, it has a very strong streak of preservation, yes.

LB:  Yes. So is there anything else you’d like to add about that building?

CP:  No no I’m just interested to talk to you because this is all new to me!

LB:  My understanding is that you built those 2 buildings as a pair in dialogue with each other?

CP:  One almost black, and the other almost white.

LB:  So what happens, does it matter to you that they won’t be paired that way anymore?

CP:  Not anymore. They were not really… those sorts of buildings retain their use, and you have to expect that times change, functions change, buildings change. And I have no problem with that.

LB:  Thanks for chatting today!

CP:  Nice talking to you! Have a very good day!

LB:  You too!

CP:  Bye bye

LB:  Bye bye

Untitled

Come on, Vancouver.

As my friend Miguel added in summer of 2015, upon seeing the renovation: “Ugh, its so nouveau canada.”

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10 Responses to “Post-mortem on the old Eaton’s building: an interview with Cesar Pelli”

  1. LB Says:

    One comment on FB just now: “The urinal” is what some people called it, because of the tiles. It was, however, a functional and distinctive structure. Now it’s another big nothing; there is a sad symmetry where the former central library, previously given a similar character-less makeover, and the redone Eaton’s are bookends for the old courthouse and Robson Square.

  2. LB Says:

    I would agree with all of that except that I think the “urinal” or “toilet” references were mostly based on the curved top lip (or toilet seat) added in 1980.

  3. LB Says:

    Some great twitter responses:
    https://twitter.com/de_calage/status/572547101642661888
    https://twitter.com/nlamontagne/status/572550191959560192

  4. LB Says:

    Another post defending the building: https://designkultur.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/retail-architecture-r-i-p-cesar-pellis-eatons-pacific-centre-1973-2012/

  5. Cathy Barzo Says:

    I never minded the Eaton’s building. It was interesting to learn about the original build, ie black tower and white cube. I first visited Vancouver in fall of 1978 and probably didn’t even realize that the top lip was added in 1980. I whole-heartedly agree about the over-use of glass. The white building had much more presence and definitely identifiable when looking for a landmark.

  6. Migs Says:

    Ha I thought the Eaton’s building was an ottoman a la Oldenburg. Now I can see the toilet reference. I would love to see a Rennie Condo Urinale. By the way sadly the Shangri La Vancouver is far less urritating than the Toronto La.

  7. LB Says:

    Your command of the urinary is impressive, Migs. Perhaps Vancouver should start a developer-funded art biennale just called the Urinale. But yeah, the urinal top was not Pelli’s fault. Not sure which genius thought that up.

  8. Migs Says:

    Thanks LB. I pride myself on the command of the urinary. Well obviously urinary post architectural enhancements are conceived by some genius architecture enthusiat with deep pockets. Oooh the Urinale Biennale. Could be a Bodgers-Site Projects initiative?

  9. John Ormand Says:

    The whole Pacific Centre complex was an architectural disaster from the beginning … how one could lament the loss of what was a modern monstrosity and replaced by an equally bad monstrosity, is beyond me. When one compares the eyesores that occupy Granville and Georgia with the beautiful buildings that were there before, it is enough to make you cry. This is what we have lost.
    http://oldcanada.tumblr.com/post/33955453676/vancouver-bc-1900-1925-hotel-vancouver
    http://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/birks-building-southeast-corner-of-granville-street-and-west-georgia-street

  10. LB Says:

    Oh, John, I agree what was there was far superior. I just don’t see the Nordstrom reno as any better; it seems even worse. But I do think examples of each decade should be kept – unless you can do better. And I don’t think Nordstrom is better. The Cesar Pelli buildings are worse that what was originally there, though. No doubt.

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