27 January 2009

Draping Vancouver

accidental urban typologies
Joey Giaimo
The perpetual buzz of building activity in downtown Vancouver — 46 residential complexes currently [2007] under construction — is contributing to the accumulation of a single building type. The exalted condominium tower on a podium has resulted in thousands of hastily injected living units in the downtown core. Planners have long recognised the shortcomings of this typological saturation, yet have had to accept the consequent exhaustion of downtown lots.
Besides a questionable density of inhabitants, with each concrete pour the end product is clear: another podium, another tower, another quasi-public space. Difference is presented in tweaks and gimmicks rather than forceful pushes towards less predictable, more challenging directions.

Fleeting Occurrences
Every new hole in the ground, the inevitable erection of the crane and its associated surface activities interrupt, disrupt and reorganise public space. In Vancouver the choreography of city building is well-rehearsed, as are the concessions made by those who walk, pace and wander through it. Downtown flâneurs have prudently unleashed those turtles that haven't already been crushed by the ten-ton trucks which jerk and chug from one site to the next.
There is always room for optimism — these transient disruptions provide an alternate way to negotiate city surfaces and form. But a different kind of construction activity is also taking place, one linked with two words, leaky and condo, always spoken under Vancouver's breath, and one that, catalysed not by construction fever but by its failure, inadvertently re-represents or even de-represents architecture in the cityscape.

Ghost Building
In the frenzy of building activity a number of scaffolds wrap previously completed structures. Scaffolds come in various guises buy typically are cloaked with an emerald green perforated fabric — a unique and detailed veiling. However, there are variations: several skids of brick in the lane behind one building signal cladding replacement. To maintain a consistent mortar temperature, the scaffolding has been wrapped in an opaque, silky white sheathing to hold tempered air between drape and façade.
A phantasmic presence, this wrapped building marks a striking difference to the stock of condo towers dotting the downtown core. It may look like just another leaky condo but it is also a spectacular and captivating phenomenon, a changeling in this ephemeral condition.

Mute Rendering
Formally, the Ghost Building presents itself like all the others, twenty to thirty-something storeys extruded vertically and placed the bylaw-eighty-feet from its neighbours. In its simple slip, it has masked itself from the city and bowed out of the point-tower posturing race. However, this new typology has inadvertently transformed the everyday into event.
Ghost Building grabs attention with an undeliberate ingenuity that other condos would like, but can't have. The draw of its pillowy skin is immediate. It undulates. It shakes and shivers. It billows and shimmers. At night it is a glowing collage with subtle punctuations of colour from the still-occupied units inside. Positioned in a field of static sameness, this wrapped building makes no overt claims for attention, but its silence commands attention anyway. Muffled and mute the building is inconclusive. Ghost Building's detached, new intensity contests the city's zealous efforts to provide the perfect mould for city living. The decorative nips, tucks, swirls and swooshes of the neighbours look insufficient and superfluous against its tremulous mass.
Androgenous, silkily clad and not its usual muscular brick self, the Ghost Building also obscures all those involved in its original presence: the planners, the advisory design panels, the city's council, local community groups, the architects, the engineers, the endless assortment of building consultants, the marketing team and ultimately even the building's own inhabitants, who register only when their lights are on at night.

Something of Difference
I don't wish to present Ghost Building as good architecture or as an urban success story. Its premise is based in failures that are a menace to its inhabitants; it is ethereal but an aberration. But by effectively shutting itself off, it questions both the external and internal uniformity of high-rise residential living throughout the peninsula.
While condo marketing and architecture collude to sell the ideal interior condition, Ghost Building has propelled this condition to its absurd apotheosis. Ghost Building's fabric has imprisoned the inhabitants in an interiority that has everything they paid for, except that all-important view. In a further irony, the fabric delights only those looking at if from the outside, turning he whole notion of privileged lifestyle on its head, and pointing out how transitory a thing lifestyle is.

Beyond Lifestyle
Processes of construction, decay and repair flag the shortcomings of unrelenting urbanistic production: Ghost Building's interruptive architecture displays all the urban and formal contradictions of Vancouver's insistent residential tower type.

Giaimo, Joey. 'Draping Vancouver'
On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Joey Giaimo and On Site review

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