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Old December 17th, 2008, 10:29 AM   #1
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Uncool: Vancouver's Olympic Architecture

Posted by Sponge G from SSP, thought it was worth a read... I kinda agree with the general message. Our olympics is all about the legacy, doing it cheaply and sustainability, etc, but our architecture is way too understated and restrained by corporate interests. I think Cannon Design gave us an awesome Oval, but firm culture there as mentioned in this article is pretty much the problem with this city... collaboration produces well-rounded decent-looking buildings, but often strangles aspirations of outstanding architecture or individuals.

Uncool: Vancouver's Olympic Architecture

It's ever more clear we should have set designers free.
By Adele Weder
Published: December 17, 2008


Why is Vancouver, with design talent that more than matches Beijing, shaping up to offer such an unremarkable Olympic architectural legacy?

Sure, Winter Games are smaller-scale, lower-profile and a lot colder than Bejing 2008. But aside from that, it's a bit of a head-shaker. The firms responsible for the 2010 venues include a few of Vancouver's top architects. Neither their names nor their imagination, though, will carry much weight in 2010. China used architectural bravura to argue its new importance in the world. VANOC, by contrast, seems determined to keep its architecture as unremarkable and anonymous as possible. The VANOC website brags about the impending world-class facilities, yet there isn't a trace of information about the architects, apparently because that would dilute the value of the corporate sponsors' names.

And as the main venues rise out of the ground, we're reminded that corporate culture, more than any other kind, is the bane and bedrock of this Olympiad.

'Richmond Oval... a lasting symbol': Campbell

When the Richmond Speedskating Oval officially opened last Friday, we got our first flush of Olympic architecture. Premier Gordon Campbell declared that "Like the Bird's Nest Stadium, or the Water Cube in Beijing, the Richmond Oval will be a lasting symbol, known around the world."

To this, I'd say that the premier has farcically misspoken. The network of design teams behind the oval is made up of generally solid talents. But if the world shows us any mercy, the Richmond Oval will not be judged against the visually stunning Bird's Nest by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, or Water Cube by Australia's PTW Architects. It would just be cruel.

On the inside, the oval is grand. The multinational firm Cannon Design is the oval's architect of record, with Victoria-based sports architect Bob Johnston designing a splendid interior of pine-beetle infested wood. Fast + Epp deserve heaps of praise for their engineering prowess. Rounding out the project is Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden and Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, who have done fine work in the open space and overall urban design. But from the outside, in terms of architectural beauty, alas, the Richmond Oval is a dog.

Or -- more apropos -- a very odd sort of bird. It's supposed to be inspired by the heron, the municipal symbol of Richmond. What it evokes is a giant fowl splayed flat on the ground, with a line of winglets sticking out on one side. Beijing had its Bird's Nest Stadium, so perhaps it was inevitable that Vancouver would attempt its own ornithological gesture.

Oh, and by the way -- don't be that impressed by VANOC and civic boasting of the oval being "on budget": the cost overruns were quietly contained by gutting the landscape architecture and other design elements.

The managed message

I suspect a preponderance of corporate culture may have hindered the creative process. Oval architects Marion LaRue and Bob Johnston of Cannon Deign have been restrained from responding directly to media inquiries. All calls to Cannon were deferred to Richmond City Hall or to Cannon's U.S. public-relations office; the architects clearly didn't boast much public authority. My plea for a simple one-on-one interview or studio visit was torpedoed in favour of an officious PR-monitored meeting at Cannon's Vancouver office boardroom.

The two architects sat quietly at the boardroom table, while two marketing and public-relations professionals led the conversation and the disembodied voice of Cannon's Virginia-based president of professional services, Ken Wiseman, emanated from a StarPhone at the centre of the table. The meeting concluded with a soft-focus DVD presentation of various designers and City of Richmond officials riffing on scudding clouds and soaring gulls.

Then Wiseman's voice piped up from the StarPhone: "I hate to disappoint you, but it was really a collaboration."

No doubt about that. It is the architectural repository for everything the stakeholders seem to covet after Beijing: splashiness, birdliness and bravado.

The oval's design process and results suggest collaboration of not just architects but also civil servants and paper-pushers. A classic case of design by committee -- but that's no way to build a masterpiece.

Symbolism rocks: the curling facility

A better architectural flagship for the Games is the subdued and banally named "Vancouver Olympic Centre" -- the curling venue designed by Hughes Condon Marler Architects, located on the eastern shoulder of Queen Elizabeth Park. It's no Bird's Nest, but it's basically a good, sophisticated, clean design. Earlier this year, its lead designer, Darryl Condon, was happy to give me a thorough, in-office explanation of its design features and rationale, without a squad of PR professionals vetting our conversation as with the Richmond Oval.

The programme and circulation patterns make sense, and it's slated for a well-thought-out conversion to a community ice rink/swimming pool/library after 2010. Its roofline swell is a reiteration of a form we've seen before, in Hughes Condon Marler's own very fine West Vancouver Aquatic Centre. So: nothing earthshakingly new. Yet this version is somehow more Olympian: its canted facades make it look as though the whole building is lunging forward, like a curler heaving the stone down the ice. There you have it: the Vancouver Olympic Centre, leaning towards Nat Bailey Stadium in a half-predatory, half-amatory stance. Pretty much like the Vancouver citizenry itself, as we lurch towards the Olympic maw.

Athlete's Village: condo overreach

The other major new structure in the Olympic-venue family, the Athletes' Village, is now under construction on False Creek South. But if the oval defines our Olympian overreach, and the Olympic Centre our muted ambitions, the Athlete's Village may turn out to generate a legacy even more trenchant and memorable than the Richmond Oval. That's because it defines what the Vancouver Olympics have largely been about to now: high-flying real estate speculation. And a whole bunch of spectators watching in anticipation of a crash at the gate.

The village is a complex three-phase project by GBL Architects, Merrick Architecture and Nick Milkovich Architects -- esteemed creators all.

Each phase has its charms, and its requisite sophistication and LEED-certified sustainability features.

But at the end of the day, it seems destined to be just another swish condo project. Of the many, many designers involved, several have privately expressed deep frustration at the constraints imposed upon them during the multi-stage design process. "They're looking to us all for some kind of wonderful solution," fumed one architect I interviewed, "yet everything we bring forward gets whacked for some reason."

Destined to become a residential community post-2010, the Athletes' Village might end up being the greatest missed opportunity of the Games, Richmond notwithstanding. The potential for true legacy-making diminished when Vancouver's last city council upended the generous mix of equal parts non-market, mid-market and upper-end housing that the previous Vision government had helped craft.

Sam Sullivan's government cut the one-third-of-each-sector formula back to 20 per cent non-market. That scale-back transformed the Athletes Village from an audacious social experiment -- which, sure, probably would have had big cost overruns -- to a garden-variety mega-development, which -- surprise! -- also has big cost overruns.

Poetic intonations

Yup, the project boasts the requisite eco-wood cabinetry and water-saving faucets, but how environmentally responsible is a hive of half-empty condos? If we're going to take huge financial risks with public money, the stakes had better be worth it. A socially inclusive and architecturally daring housing project might have been.

Let's pull the last words directly from the developers' sales bumph -- specifically, the lavish Millennium Water marketing brochure that unfurls like a centerfold to show False Creek bathed in the lavender and ochre hues of a Vancouver sunset. The brochure concludes by quoting a Kashmiri proverb: "We have not inherited the world from our forefathers -- we have borrowed it from our children."

Safe to say that the brochure copywriters had no idea just how prophetic and financially apropos those words might turn out to be.

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Old December 20th, 2008, 03:55 AM   #2
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I completely agree with the article. The archetiture for Vancouver Winter Olympics is grossly underwhelming. To be honest the entire BC Place roof deal ruined it for me.
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Old December 20th, 2008, 08:37 PM   #3
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I also agree that none of the venues will become "iconic", but, the flipside is that taxpayers will not be on the hook to pay back a giant debt, like the Montreal or Athens events were.

Last edited by DrT; December 20th, 2008 at 09:59 PM.
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Old December 21st, 2008, 05:50 AM   #4
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It's great to be able to pull off the Games with the lowest Olympic budget in recent history, (the idea being that the world will discover Vancouver and love it whether or not we cheap out on the venues), but we've wasted an opportunity to really dream big. The last thing anyone wants is for this place to be tainted with a Frank Gehry or some other flashy alien form, but if there was any time where good architecture will be appreciated by the most people and most worth the extra money, now would have been it.
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Old December 21st, 2008, 05:58 AM   #5
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It would generally be the same elsewhere in the Western World. Look at London 2012 compared to Beijing. The UK and Canada have accountable, elected Governments. Compare that to Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014, where huge funds are allocated towards extravagant venues at little public outcry.
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Old December 25th, 2008, 11:19 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Alphaville View Post
It would generally be the same elsewhere in the Western World. Look at London 2012 compared to Beijing. The UK and Canada have accountable, elected Governments. Compare that to Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014, where huge funds are allocated towards extravagant venues at little public outcry.
Hmm.. What about Montreal 1976? Or Mirabel? Or the fast ferries? Or even the current VCEC expansion?

Sorry, Alphaville, but given that the current global economic crisis is due to the failure of these "accountable elected Governments" in the Western World to stand up and act when it really counted -- ie regulate mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps -- I think pointing a finger at Beijing 2008 or Sochi 2014 and using the old "authoritarian regimes don't have to worry about due process" starts sounding a bit lame and, well, a just plain old sour grapes.

Why is it that budget limitations (not to mention world hunger issues) are used as a crutch for mediocrity? It IS possible to have inspiring architecture without breaking the bank. I for one would have liked to see Vancouver 2010 prove that.
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Old December 27th, 2008, 03:43 AM   #7
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its really unfair to compare summer and winter olympics

most of the winter venues are out in nature anyway
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