October 22, 2006

Mid-century Modern

I live in a 1957 highrise in the West End – as mid-century modern as you can get.  And I confess to some ambivalence about the style.
I love the efficiency of the plan, the extensive use of glass, the clean lines.  But there’s also a certain dullness about it.  You get the idea in one glance, and there’s not much else to attract the eye.  And some aspects are awful: the paved parking lot in the back, the blank walls on the side, the way it completely blocks the views from behind.  If the City hadn’t stopped this form of site coverage, the West End would be completely walled in.
But mid-century modern is a major part of our heritage – and there’s much to recommend the best of the designs.  You can find out for yourself by linking to the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s site – here – and downloading their “Mid-century Downtown Vancouver” brochure, complete with walking tour. 
 Mid-Century Modern

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  1. There are a couple of interesting things about the building pictured.
    Firstly, it is 10 storeys high. Not really nearly a tower, and in larger cities like Toronto or San Fransisco, this appears to be the height required to “enclose” the street with a streetwall. No puny 3 storey streetwalls there. In any larger city, the scale of the 10 storey building is small, but in Vancouver, it is too tall (at least for a streetwall).
    Secondly, the largely blank end walls are logical, as it is expected that another building would be built to butt up to the end of it. Much in the manner that the Vancouver Block on Granville Steet was meant to be book-ended and the lowrise Vancouver Centre retail pavillion and the Future Shop building fail to do. This also prevents the adversarial stances taken by residents of more recent towers regarding views facing into a block – what did they expect? In other cities residents expect there to be neighbouring buildings. If you look at some of the condo towers in Toronto, they are very closely spaced. The design of the tower should account for this with elevator cores or smaller kitchen or bedroom windows facing the inside of the block – this can be seen on the alley sides of 889 Homer (behind which the City has stupidly decide to locate a public park – meaning that the blank facade intended to be bloked from view will be forever visible) and 888 Hamilton. You can easily foresee a dispute arising with the Altadena at 1238 Burrard – what’s with the curved glass curtain wall overlooking the Downtown Toyota site? Do they not think it can be redeveloped?
    I do think that many modern styles need to be preserved – in the same way that traditional buildings were stripped of adornment in the 50s and 60s, modern buildings are being kitsched up to look warm and homey or post modern.
    I think the bottom line is that renovations to a building should be sympathetic to the style of the original.
    Even the Eaton’s/Sears building at Pacific Centre has been big boxified by the addition of post-modern renovations. The renovations could have been done in a much more sympathetic style. For example, the dark glass above each entrance alcove are back lighted (I saw these lit up in the dying days of Eaton’s – they have the name EATONS repeating as a border along the panels. Those could have been replaced with colourful glass panels to add life to the facade. The rest of the glass could have been replaced with clear or silvery tinted glass. It hasn’t helpd that the horizontal display windows have been blacked out as part of the renovation – these could provide a glimpse into the store. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the fact that it is a big white box. It may be plain, but its much better than the newer biege facade of The Paramount. The form has followed the function – windows were no longer required as they were in the early days of the department store, and environmental concerns have now swung the pendulum back the other way. Another big relatively plain building downtown is the Main Post Office. These buildings add variety to the landscape – Vancouver has very few of them.

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