(All photos here are of New York. Photos of Vancouver to be appended later.)
The building at left is by Gehry. Shot is taken from the Highline promenade. I’m not normally a fan of Gehry but this grouping of buildings is quite attractive and when I saw its complementary surfaces I was struck by how seldom (never) Vancouver achieves this.
Thanks to property speculation in Vancouver, up to 60% of condos in the new downtown towers are unoccupied. This statistic is based on the assessment of realtors selling in the area. These condos are bought only for investment purposes, most often by foreign buyers but also by local real estate speculators. The condo towers in question are, as a result, increasingly built for pure, cynical get-rich-quick business motives rather than out of real housing needs and certainly not out of architectural ambition. Not surprisingly the towers reflect their crassly transactional origin in their design—as tall as possible, as many units as possible, and built to a spec design rather than designed by an architect. Hang the cost of a real architect; spend more on marketing than on architectural design: this is what is increasingly referred to in Vancouver as marketecture. These generic, personalityless, utterly interchangeable buildings are not built for living in as much as they are just tiny boxes for parking money in. And it shows.
In New York, on the other hand, you see evidence—in both older and newer buildings—of architectural and design quality. It’s as if people actually care about their city, and buildings seem constructed for a market that desires beauty and that plans to actually live in the building. But New York’s political economy is different than ours, of course. It has a long history of a diversified, locally-grounded economy. BC on the other hand has always been a pioneer, banana republic-style resource extraction economy. We build nothing from the raw resources, but rather just ship them out: logs, minerals, fish, lumber, pot. We never developed a tradition of making things. Instead we quickly built a flashy, architecturally-derivative paean to our quickly-begotten pirate loot. “By Sea, Land, and Air We Prosper”—that’s the motto of the City of Vancouver. A topic for another day is the connection between far-right economics and resource extraction.
Here is just a small sample of visually interesting buildings seen mostly in Lower Manhattan. Like them or not—and they’re not all perfect by any means—they evidence more care, design skill and creativity than the developer-designed mediocrity sprouting up all over Vancouver. Much of the current opposition to highrises has to do with the fact that these bland, cynical, tall-for-profit monstrosities are inimical to neighbourhoods. They bring a weird silent soullessness to every neighbourhood they’re plonked in. As architect Bing Thom pointed out recently, the housing stock downtown is utterly distorted by these economics—it’s designed for zero children and zero schools, it encourages only temporary inhabitation by people desperate to get into the real estate market, there’s no pleasurable pedestrian activity around them, and they’re simply unsustainable if what you want is a real city. And we’ll be stuck with this hulking mediocrity forever. Or until it’s underwater.
Certainly, comparing New York and Vancouver is comparing apples and oranges. New York sprang up before the invention of the car, it has an abundance of dense (and often not overly tall) housing, a history of rent control, excellent transit, and it enjoyed the kind of settlement pattern and diverse local industry that produces a workable layout and a natural form of density. That is New York’s pre-existing advantage. Vancouver was born of a succession of gold rushes (gold, fish, lumber, minerals… now real estate, drugs) and wears this political economy on its sleeve.
Many of these shots were taken from the Highline, the extremely successful and already beloved elevated park/promenade made from New York’s disused elevated train line. Which was reminiscent of the viaducts in Vancouver. On a warm September night the Highline was packed with people enjoying the view of the city amongst plantings of native grasses and plants.