City of Glass: Under Construction

Posted on
July 7, 2017

The other day I took a walk to photograph some of the high rises under construction around the neighborhood. The photo above is the view facing East from the Howe Street on-ramp to the Granville Bridge. I did the same thing two years ago and it's interesting to see which projects have progressed rapidly and which have languished in (I can only imagine) the land developer version of bureaucratic Purgatory. You can see my 2015 photos here and the 2017 photos here and you can read the 2015 post here.

I'd be remiss if I didn't start out with an update on the yellow house that used to be the entrance to Il Giardino restaurant. It's still here, and the now empty lot next door has been cleared, seeded and set up as a "pop-up" park, which is this odd thing that Vancouver does sometimes with lots that are slated for future development. If it's going to take a year or so for the project to move forward, the developers will sometimes turn the lot into a temporary park, with the understanding that it will eventually become a building or whatever it's going to be.

What looks like a photo in the middle above the street map, is an artist's rendering showing the yellow house relocated so it sits on far back corner of the empty lot on the corner, facing Pacific Street, with its right side paralell with the alley between Hornby and Howe Streets.

This will allow the developers to combine the empty lots on either side of the house into a single parcel, on which a 39-story high rise has been approved. You can see one of the artist's renditions below—this view is taken from the perspective of Pacific Street, as if you were hovering ~30 feet above the opening to the alley looking North. You can see a slideshow of these aspirational images and read all about the project plan on the developers' website. I especially like the tile work on the alcoves that break up the water feature (moat?) along Pacific street in the picture below. It reminds me of the Elektra building's lobby. I'll be really impressed if it actually looks like that.

This is as good a time as any to shift gears and talk about a few of the new buildings that have cropped up in the last couple of years and what I hate about them... For the record, I am PRO- density, pro-buildings—the taller the better, in fact—and generally pro-progress. Yay, futurism, etcetera! However, architecture has its fads and trends just like fashion. Some buildings are destined to age gracefully and become classics, symbolic of but not bound by the times in which they were created. Others, you just know it's only a matter of time before they look like the 40-story equivalent of a 1970s avocado refrigerator.

More and more buildings have started appearing in Vancouver with these colorful glass panels in crayola shades of red, blue, yellow, green, or varying tones of orange and rust brown. At first, it seemed like the only buildings that had it were social or subsidized housing, but now you can see it everywhere—on "market rate housing," normally overpriced condo developments and commercial buildings alike.

I have nothing against adding a splash of color—and I've been railing against the uniformity and lack of imagination in our green-tinted glass cookie cutter condos for years—BUT. Does anyone actually think these cheesy color panels will age well?? Not sure? If you're on the fence, here's a little thought experiment. Imagine this trend had come into vogue not in the early 2010s but 25 or 30 years earlier. So picture the exact same panels, only glazed in shades of pastel turquoise, lemon yellow, mauve and electric blue. While we're at it, let's throw a Cultural Revolution-sized Patrick Nagel mural on the side of the building?

Alright, enough said about that. Here's another common theme with high rise buildings—OUT: grand, high-ceilinged lobbies sparsely decorated with non-threatening artwork mounted high enough to discourage vandals. IN: the well-meaning water feature FAIL.

Not obvious from the photo above is the fact that this residential building sits in the last block of Howe Street before it turns into a Granville Bridge on-ramp, and therefore has no reasonable expectation of foot traffic. The thin, shallow moat filled with blackish water featuring a ledge of nondescript ("hardy") vegetation, backed by an 8 foot high fence made up of two mismatched styles of metal grating. On the other side of the fence—which, from the inside, provides neither privacy nor a clear view out—is what will pass for some poor (rich) bastard's backyard, a concrete strip about 6 feet wide by 14' long. Just past the vegetation, there's some backless bench seating and a handful of oversized, spiky, dandelion puffball-looking "art" things.

I love water features done right, which is why I find these failed fountains so annoying, especially at a brand-new building. Down the street, taking up about a third of a block, is an empty monument to well-meaning fountains past, its manicured greenery providing little distraction from the mocking blue of the tiles at the bottom of the long-dormant pool.

But enough bitching about what Vancouver is doing wrong... Let's look at one building that's set to take the skyline to a whole new level, especially for anyone entering downtown via the Granville Street Bridge, like I did—well, technically the second but the first time in living memory—in 1996. Driving into the city from the south you get this amazing panoramic view that's also a timeline of high rise living, from the concrete beachfront apartments of the '60s in the West End to the still-booming development of the Expo lands (and before that, logging-industrial wasteland) that make up today's Yaletown.

Sprouting up in the dead-center of the skyline is Vancouver House. Construction is finally underway on this highly anticipated 52-story (or 59, depending on which source you believe) building that will soon be literally towering over the Howe Street on-ramp to the Granville Bridge. This first photo was taken from Pacific Street, looking towards the bridge with the on-ramp visible on the far left. In the foreground you can see the artist's rendering of the tower, as viewed from the same perspective. The metal gridwork and crazy, angled roof-looking thing belongs to one of the adjacent low-rise buildings that will be used for retail space, galleries, grocers, etc.

[Above left: From the side/back on Pacific St. Above right: Approaching the Howe St. on-ramp.]

Walking up the top of the on-ramp to take these pictures, two things became evident to me that otherwise might not have. First, that the Granville Bridge—unlike the quaintly formal Burrard Bridge to the West of it—was not designed for pedestrians. Even walking to the end of the on-ramp is an extremely unsettling experience, made all the more so by the presence of this several-stories deep trench being excavated underneath. This will soon be filled in with low-rise multi-purpose buildings in the same complex as the tower, which will be seeded to create green rooftops. But in its current state, the whole area feels inhuman and forbidding. The second thing that occured to me, staring up at the massive cranes looming over the construction site, is that when this building is finished, its going to look absolutely fucking insane.

See the rest of my pictures here, and check out the marketing brochure to learn more about Vancouver House than any normal person could want to know... but be warned, its silhouette might start appearing in your dreams like it has in mine.

(I also have to "shout out" a great blog called What was there before, which tracks construction projects in Vancouver and posts excellently researched articles with details about the developers, architects and, often, what was rejected in the original design proposals, in addition to Before, Proposed and After pics.)

In Which We Feed (Vicariously) on Tragedy

Posted on
July 4, 2017

[Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz," 1939]

I saw The Wizard of Oz when I was very little, like every other kid alive. And while I can't claim to remember this exact conversation taking place in my home, I'm sure that somewhere in the Wizard-watching world, an exchange like this occurs every Easter, or whenever they watch it now. As the final strains of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" fade away, a faint whistling can be heard. The sky on the black and white screen darkens and the wind begins to pick up speed, blowing down trees and fence posts. Soon Dorothy and Toto are trying desperately to outrun the twister, which dances on the dark horizon like a menacing cobra. Cut to:

LIVING ROOM, where a family is watching the scene on TV.

Kid: <gasps> Oh no! Is that the twister?! Is it going to get them??

Parent: A twister is a tornado, honey. Don't worry, just watch the movie.

[Two hours later... your mileage may vary.]

Kid: The tornado was scary! I'm glad they're only in the movies—like witches, right?

Parent: Well... actually, tornadoes are real.

Kid: What?! But... not that big, right?

Parent: Well, um, actually they can get pretty big sometimes...

Kid: But not big enough to pick up your house, right??!

Parent: Um... actually...


Parent: Oh, no! Oz is just in the movies, sweetie, like Middle Earth—and witches.

Kid: Oh.

Kid: ...okay...

Kid: When real tornadoes pick up houses, where do they take the people?

Parent: Uh...<almost inaudible> they pretty much just kill people.

Kid: <inaudible> ?!!

Had this conversation taken place in my childhood home, I imagine the next line of questioning would have centered on the apocryphal "Kansas," home of killer tornadoes. At which point, I would have learned that Kansas is indeed a real place and that much of it looks remarkably like in the film, only with newer farm equipment. Then depending on what year this little exchange didn't happen, I would have been reassured to learn that Seattle or Florida or Arizona does not have tornadoes. (Banana slugs, stinging jellyfish and tarantulas would be awkward conversations for another day.)

Kid: So... is the real Kansas in black and white?

Parent: Yes... yes, it is. Weird, huh? <winks at camera>

So, speaking of movies about disasters... (Just go with it.)

The other night I found myself watching the 2016 action movie "Deepwater Horizon," based on the real event that took place on April 20, 2010. To recap, mismanagement and greed led to a catastrophic blowout of an oil well 18,360 feet below sea level in the Gulf of Mexico. The blowout led to a fire that killed 11 workers and the resulting oil spill went on for nearly three months before the well was finally secured. An estimated five million barrels of oil were spilled, as well as an unknown amount of the carcinogenic chemical cocktail "Corexit," a dispersant BP used to cynically minimize the visual impact of the oil while worsening the deadly impact on people and wildlife.

The oil spill is now considered the worst environmental disaster in US history, with lawsuits dragging on for years, damages awarded to victims in the multi-billions and lasting health impacts on virtually every form of life and all non-extraction based industries in and around the Gulf.

The movie is like a high-budget episode of "Seconds from Disaster"— an intense, gripping, blow-by-blowout account filled with shocking explosions and punishing shots of oil-soaked workers being tossed around the deck and propelled like sock puppets through a flaming obstacle course of drills and rigging as the oil platform is violently ripped apart around them.

Since this is an action/drama based on a real-life tragedy that struck down hard-working American family men who were just doing their manly, thankless jobs, I probably don't need to tell you that Mark Wahlberg is in it.

It also stars John Malkovich whose cartoonishly sleazy BP executive speaks in one of the most affected Louisiana drawls in cinematic history (presumably because his character doesn't have a mustache to twirl). In the movie, two BP executives are onboard to kvetch that the project is over budget and overdue, and to bully the rig operators into cutting corners on their usual safety tests protocols which will ultimately lead to the disaster. Just in case the audience is in any doubt about who the bad guys are going into the movie, the casting of John-fucking-Malkovich makes it crystal clear.

"You know, Burke, I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage." Oops! Sorry, wrong movie, but you get the idea.

The script gets a lot of mileage out of abusing the Malkovich villain as BP's proxy. He gets an implausibly close-up view as events unfold on deck. He's right there next to the drill operators, getting drenched in mud and oil, then tossed around like a fishing lure and almost burning to death. He finally makes his way to the bridge, only to come face-to-face with the badly-injured rig Commander (played with craggy gravitas by Kurt Russell), who gives Malkovich a piece of his mind but stops short of giving him an audience-pandering (and historically unlikely) punch to the face, before packing him into the crowded lifeboat full of scared, angry workers who look like they'd rather throw him over than ride with him to safety).

Since Deepwater Horizon was directed by Peter Berg (see also: Patriots Day, Lone Survivor and Friday Night Lights), there are a ridiculous number of gratuitous, literal flag-waving shots like this one, but it's also chock full of vicarious thrills and, in the end, I think it does a reasonable job of honoring at least the first 11 victims of this tragedy.

That wasn't the only movie I found myself watching unexpectedly this weekend, but it was the only good one. I also sat through Here Alone, an apparently Tribeca Film Festival award-winning, yet absolutely terrible movie that somehow rose to the top of my Netflix recommendations. I think the algorithm and I need to have a little chat about not assuming that just because someone liked The Girl with all the Gifts*, they'll want to see every low-budget, indie, contemplative, female-character driven zombie movie that comes across its radar. Only the high budget ones—or the ones with an Oscar winner in a peripheral co-starring role (which she presumably did as a result of losing a poker game or promising someone a favor before she got famous and they finally came to collect).

(*Okay, and Warm Bodies, Train to Busan and every episode of iZombie every Wednesday...)