BIG’s Vancouver House: The last pied-à-terre you’ll ever need.

Vancouver’s real estate market is known nationwide and perhaps even more broadly as the bubbliest of the bubbly, with every armchair analysts who can’t afford a 1-bedroom in Burnaby going hoarse yelling “TOOOPP! THIS IS THE TOP! OH WAIT NO THIS IS IT NOW!! OK NOW AGAIN!!! OK THIS TIME FOR SURE 100% POSITIVE THIS IS THE TOP!!!1″, it’s really anything but.i

Credit is still cheap globally, sure, but much more importantly, Vancouverii is the cleanest, greenest,iii prettiest,iv quietest, most walkable, bikeable, temperate, and breathable metropolitan centre in the world.v Even beneath the darkest underpasses and in the dingiest back alleys it smells as sweet as candy and as fresh as a mountaintop, making it the diametric opposite of the unredeemable shithole that is Manhattan, to which Vancouver yields respect only in terms of art galleries, museums, and history. As such, and in concert with a peaceful and prosperous sociopolitical backdrop, the host of the 2010 Olympic Games is hands-down the most attractive city in the world in which to visit, spend time with friends and loved ones, and to be sure, have a pied-à-terre.vi

The only problem is that the architecture in Vancouver blows dead donkeys. Or at least it did. Now, with one swoop of the curtain, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG)vii and their design for Westbank’s Vancouver House has laid bare just how stolid and unimaginative condo buildings in the city otherwise are, and furthermore just how awe-inspiring they have the potential to be. Put simply, Ingels has done precisely what great art always does : make everything else in its category look just plain stupid. As such, the Vancouver House is the only place in the world worth having a second home in. Just a 90-minute flight from Edmonton and 4-hours door-to-door, it’s as close as Jasper and suddenly incredibly appealing to the independent gentleman.viii

Given that the whole building sold out in just a couple weeks and is now on the resale market at a 35% mark-up before the 59-storey building’s even half-up,ix I’m not the only one who sees that Vancouver House is real estate art like nothing else. As art is wont to do, BIG’s first design for the world’s most authentically green city seems awfully expensive at $2`000 / sq. ft.. And though it lacks the infinite upside of the best digital currency in the world, it’s the first residential building I’ve ever seen that could make me be fine with “only” doubling my investment every three-to-five years and swallowing the considerable opportunity cost.x It’s that exceptional and that much of an objet de desire – or Gesamtkunstwerk as developer Westbank describes it.xi That any unit in the building – even the little 400 sq ft nuggets – is worth less than $2 mn is underpriced by the market. Dollars just aren’t worth that much.

While I had some vague notion as to the project before last week, it was only upon visiting Vancouver House (and the rest of Vancouver) that the full magnitude of the undertaking hit me. Like so many cupid’s arrows I was struck by the sheer multi-dimensionality of the design in contrast with the sea of green-glassed sameness painting the False Creek shoreline.xii This sense of gravitas may not be conveyable in photographs, but it’s worth a shot.

Here are some mid-construction photos taken on a particularly picturesque Sunday in early November, which is still the Fall season in this part of the world unlike in so many other parts of Canada… You can see that the construction approach is a pretty conventional stacking of floors at the top while the glazing and interior finishings follow about 15 floors behind. What you can’t see are the horizontal and vertical post-tension steel cables embedded into the concrete slabs and elevator shafts that give the higher floors the strength to cantilever up and around the Granville Bridge,xiii maximising the square footage of the premium units with the best views and the most daylight. For that, you’ll need to scroll down.

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All of which will one day look like this :

Vancouver House - Bjarke Ingels Group - model

I’m smitten, simply enamoured with this stupid thing… Can you tell ?xiv BIG’s Vancouver House could very well be the last pied-à-terre you’ll I’ll ever need.

Well, at least for the next ten years.

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  1. Related groups of armchair analysts are fond of whining about “affordability” in Vancouver, even going so far as to call it a “crisis.” Such hogwash. Vancouver isn’t about living, working, and raising a family. It’s about living. Full stop. Go tend to the rest of your affairs somewhere else, wouldja ? Vancouver is just the best place to live on the continent and it doesn’t have an “affordability” “crisis” anymore than Monaco does. Give it a rest already. []
  2. We have to be a little careful with what we call “Vancouver” because the metro region is actually composed of 22 distinct municipalities, each with its own flavour, demographic make-up, and political entities. For our purposes today, “Vancouver” is the “City of Vancouver,” which isn’t to be confused with North Vancouver, West Vancouver, or any of the others, and especially not Richmond. []
  3. The City of Vancouver has just committed to the unbelievably stringent German-based Passive House energy standard for all new municipal buildings. This is walking the walk!   []
  4. By which I mean that the girls are the prettiest. Seriously, more young, active, healthy, and smiling beauties you won’t find anywhere in North America. A surprising number of them are also in the service industry where they make every shopping and dining experience an utter delight. And did I mention that a staggering proportion of them are single and looking ? []
  5. And I’ve been to a few of them. []
  6. Sure, you can also stay at the Fairmont Pacific Rim every time you visit Van, but there’s something about home ownership that nestles you into a city oh so cozily that it’s sometimes irresistible. The planned BMW car loan program and in-house Fairmont-trained concierges go someway to helping Vancouver House in this pursuit, particularly for those who might not even use their suites twenty days per year.

    Granting that you never really “own” anything but your own privkeys on your own offline machine, there’s a spectrum along which we all operate between secure privkeys and a wide-open butthole. As far as real estate is concerned, there’s hardly a more stable, sensible, and clean jurisdiction than Vancouver, which is why the smart money has been pouring in there for the last two decades at ever-increasing rates, and why it shows no signs of slowing down anymore than the sun shows signs of forgetting to rise in the east. []

  7. Bjarke Ingels really is excellence personified and an all but perfect matching of person with profession. A lazier blogger might call him “The Bitcoin of Architecture” or something along those lines, and trite as the “A of B” expression is thanks to the hurr durr “tech” frauds piously parading about Sillycon Vallee, saying that anything is the Bitcoin of its field is pretty well the highest praise there is, so you couldn’t really fault the guy. Ingels’ work is that once-in-a-century product, that idealised symbiosis of available materials into manifest sublimity. He has no style to call his own – no inhibiting trademark flourish – he’s just the blinding light of “Aha!” you weren’t the least bit ready for. The 20th century had FLW* on this score, the 21st has BIG.

    In between the two leviathans, most everyone else in the field of architecture willfully denied integrating their surrounding environment into their work – such was the triumph of man over nature as he reached first for the skies and then the stars in the early-to-mid 20th century. The mid-century modernists were horrible for this – if largely on account of cheap fossil fuel energy and newly developed air conditioning systems that permitted such similar types of construction regardless of geography – and we’re living with this impersonal legacy to this day. So big ups to BIG for showing the whole world a way towards architecture that shines both a mirror to and a magnifying glass on its surroundings once more.

    Combined with his trademark “plot twist,” which are as stunning as “talkies” once were for silent moviegoers and every bit the result of the same endlessly iterative process, it’s little wonder that Ingels’ shop is the fastest growing architecture firm on the planet. The world is starving for his flashes of integrative brilliance. Thank goodness the Schwarzenegger-sounding Dane is so seemingly indefatigable and still on the young side of a profession that doesn’t typically see greatness until greatly advanced age, such is the depth and complexity of the field that combines art, engineering, materials science, politics, finance, urban planning, and social responsibility.
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    *I’ll save you a google search yielding tournament fishing results, FLW = Frank Lloyd Wright. []

  8. Although Vancouver is awfully close to Edmonton, it had been 5-6 years since I’d been here. Back then, I’d never have dreamed that I’d spend an entire weekend playing architectural tourist in between bursts of shopping for fine furniture, art, and maaaaybe another timepiece, at least not anytime before my 50th birthday. A grateful young man is me to be in these shoes, in these times. []
  9. The $1`500 per square foot that the suites started selling at was apparently not enough because word on the street is that the developer is almost certainly underwater on the project so far. Were it anyone other than Ian Gillespie’s Westbank behind the project, I’d be seriously concerned about the cut corners that would inevitably result, but he gives off the definite sense that he cares more about art and beauty than making another ten million at this point in his career. His “Fight For Beauty” marketing campaign and associated pop-up gallery next to the Fairmont Pacific Rim certainly speaks to this, to say nothing of Mr. Gillespie’s co-authored book entitled Building Artistry (2012). []
  10. Because rest assured, Vancouver’s real estate market isn’t going down in flames anytime soon, certainly not the way that repugnant Toronto’s deservedly is. Both have been booming for twenty years but only one has any prospect of repeating the same financial feat in the next twenty. Toronto’s urban planning is nowhere near as judicious, mostly for lack of geographical restrictions and its political boundary lines that give undue weight to suburban drecks, and nor are its views and air quality anywhere close to Vancouver’s. []
  11. As a “total work of art,” BIG will also be designing the interiors of the suites from the kitchen islands to the murphy beds (in the studio layouts) to the tap sets in the bathrooms to the custom door hardware, not to mention that the floor plan is unique in every. last. suite. When did you last see that in a highrise residential building ?   []
  12. You can thank Cathay Pacific for the condo tower monotony in Vancouver, as in Toronto. But at least in Vancouver there’s something beautiful to look at through your emerald windows. []
  13. As Ingels describes in this video, there was a regulated 30m offset required between the building and the bridge traffic. In this other video, he describes the “walking column” cantilevered construction. Both are highly recommended. []
  14. The difference between this blog and other blogs you probably read is that I don’t close with “Does anyone know anyone who wants to buy my organs so that I can purchase this condo / car / thing, etc ?” Instead, I’m already reviewing floor plans, contacting realtors, talking to my lawyer, and planning more trips back to make sure I wasn’t completely tripping balls last week because holy cramoly was I taken aback. Quelle chien chanceux, non ? Hmm… Maybe that doesn’t quite translate.   []