When the Olympic torch touches down at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver this month, it’s going to land not in a flashy new stadium like Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, but in an aging arena known as BC Place, a relic of the 1986 World’s Fair. With its inflatable Teflon roof and concrete frame, it won’t likely wow the critics—and in Vancouver, that’s the point. Rather than trying to rival the architectural pizzazz of the Summer Olympics two years ago, Vancouver’s games reflect the very Canadian and Pacific Northwest values of sustainability, urban planning, and collaboration.
“Unlike China, Canada has hosted Olympics in the past,” said Vancouver architect Bob Johnston of Cannon Design, whose firm was responsible for one of the largest new venues here, the Richmond Olympic Oval. “Montreal as host of the 1976 Summer Olympics had architecture that was monumental, but there were also massive overruns on cost. Vancouver was more interested in sustainability and legacy. The architecture, I think, is a reflection of a Canadian approach: buildings that serve long-term purposes, that are affordable but still reflect quality.”
In a nutshell, the approach is what’s known as Vancouverism: a vision of urbanism marrying high-density, mixed-use green buildings, mass transit, and access to open space. The Olympics embody this shared quest for urban livability, with a mix of high-profile new projects and sensibly repurposed old ones, knit together with newly expanded public transit lines. The result has helped make the city a destination for smart urban design. “We’re wanting to be known for being clever as opposed to being about fashion,” said Scot Hein, senior urban designer for the City of Vancouver. “We had about ten years of city building in about three. It led us to have a collegial conversation about how we wanted to portray sustainability and urbanism on the world stage.”
The idea of Vancouverism is most powerfully expressed in the $1 billion, 100-acre Olympic Village development, which reflects the city’s strategy of savvy over showmanship. Set within a masterplan by HBBH Architects with VIA Architecture and PWL Partnership, the village lies just south of downtown across a waterway known as False Creek. Occupying an industrial brownfield site 600,000 square feet in size, it will accommodate more than 2,800 people during the games. Sustainability is a hallmark: All 16 of the residential buildings meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Gold certification level, and the village generates up to 70 percent of its power from converted sewage, thanks to the nation’s first sewer heat recovery utility. An extension of the city’s waterfront seawall path for pedestrians and bicyclists links it to BC Place, where major Olympic ceremonies will take place.
Configured with midrise buildings instead of narrow, highrise residential towers more typical of the city, the village offers a new twist on Vancouverism. “The design professions here rallied around the fact that for this opposite side of False Creek that’s adjacent to industrial land, a lower scale should reinforce the kind of fabric that used to exist in this part of the city,” Hein explained. The project is sustainable in other ways, too.
For one thing, it relies on locally sourced talent: The renowned Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, who died last May, designed one waterfront residential building, and he collaborated with colleague Nick Milkovich and Vancouver firm Walter Francl Architects on the village’s web-shaped waterfront community center. Other buildings were designed by local firms Merrick Architecture, GBL Architect Group, and Lawrence Doyle Young Wright Architects. After the games, the area is set to become a mixed-use community for an estimated 16,000 residents, including 250 affordable housing units planned for the first phase, plus an elementary school and public plaza.
Sustainability also played a key role at the Vancouver Convention Centre— another project dating to the 1986 World’s Fair—which has added a new wing in time for the Olympics that will provide 1.2 million square feet of new space, and during the games will serve as a hub for about 7,000 media members. Located on the downtown waterfront adjacent to the original building’s iconic pier, the addition was designed by LMN Architects of Seattle in collaboration with two Vancouver firms, Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership and DA Architects & Planners.
Besides exhibition space and meeting rooms, the addition includes retail space and 400,000 square feet of public areas, including bike and walking paths. The expansion is expected to earn LEED Gold certification, thanks in part to its 6-acre green roof, the largest in North America. Underneath, the five-story, concrete- and-glass building relies on a seawater heat pump system to provide summer cooling and winter heating. Approximately 80 percent of gray water for toilets and irrigation of the green roof will come from sewage water treated onsite, while potable water will be drawn from the harbor and processed through an onsite desalinization plant.
Designing structures for reuse as civic amenities is another way that Vancouver is capitalizing on the games. The Vancouver Olympic Centre, for example, will host competitions for the shuffleboard-like sport of curling. Designed by Hughes Condon Marler Architects to meet LEED Gold certification, it provides a four-sheet competition surface surrounded by 6,000 temporary seats. The center includes its own refrigeration plant to cool the ice surface; waste heat from that facility will be recaptured to provide heat for other areas of the building and the adjacent Percy Norman Aquatic Centre. Following the games, the facility will be converted to a multipurpose community center with a community ice rink and a branch library.
Still another legacy of the World’s Fair—the SkyTrain system—has helped make the Olympics just a walk or rail ride away. While a total of nine competition venues will be used during the games, spread across Vancouver, Whistler, and the neighboring areas of West Vancouver and Richmond, many are clustered around both sides of the Fraser River on the southern edge of downtown Vancouver. Among these are the 55,000-seat BC Place, designed by Studio Phillips Barrett; the General Motors Place arena, opened in 1995 and designed by Brisbin, Brook and Beynon; and the Pacific Coliseum. The smaller Thunderbird Sports Centre is a short ride to West Vancouver on the SkyTrain, which has been expanded for the Olympics by the addition of the Canada Line. Opened last August, the line links to Vancouver International Airport and neighboring Richmond, where events will be held at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
If there is a signature work of new architecture in Vancouver, it is the Oval. The 355,000-square-foot facility is a literal and symbolic reflection of local culture. With one of the longest clear- spanning wood roofs in North America—nearly six acres—the Oval’s forms recall the city’s official bird, the heron. Built with glulam arches spanning 100 meters, the structure is interspersed with an array of wooden panels that produce an undulating visual effect.
Using wood for the Oval’s roof was a priority given not only the local vernacular—which has long favored this bountiful regional material for its warm look and natural beauty—but also the unusually large amount of timber available due to the pine beetle’s decimation of over 30 million acres of British Columbia’s forests. “It forces us to harvest it prematurely in order to not let it rot,” said Gerald Epp, a partner with structural engineer Fast + Epp, which collaborated with Cannon Design on the project. Halting the timber’s decomposition prevents the release of embodied carbon, which would contribute to global warming.
Other new structures exhibit Vancouverism’s quest for affordability and quality. Much of the games will take place in the mountain ski community of Whistler, where the new Cypress Day Lodge will accommodate visitors. A collaboration between Vancouver’s KMBR Architects and Ontario-based Nomerica, the 49,000-square- foot lodge was built mostly using prefabricated parts due to time constraints, according to KMBR’s Cristina Marghetti. Local materials help make it welcoming, however: Nomerica was persuaded to build with locally harvested Douglas fir instead of pine, which the company usually favors. “Fir is stronger, and the look is more warm and cozy,” Marghetti said.
Modest, locally inflected structures have played a role in the city’s efforts to make native or aboriginal tribes part of the games. Four tribes—the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh—are recognized as official First Nations hosts for the Olympics. Part of that agreement calls for opportunities to showcase the tribes’ art, language, and traditions. Hence a 65-foot-high inflated sphere will rise on the plaza of the Queen Elizabeth theater in downtown Vancouver. Decorated with aboriginal motifs, the sphere tops an 8,000-square-foot Aboriginal Pavilion with art, business, culture, and sport from across Canada.
Ultimately, the architectural identity of the games lies not in any one culture or structure, but in Vancouver as a whole. With its urban-scale framework, reliant more on city fabric than icons, Vancouverism might prove a model for other cities seeking to host the games. Beijing will be remembered for dazzling designs of individual buildings, but the memory of Vancouver’s Olympic and Paralympic games will be the ongoing transformation of the city itself.