Earlier this month, Switzerland’s star architect, Harry Gugger, was in Vancouver visiting the site of the new office tower he’s designing for Credit Suisse and SwissReal developers.
Mr. Gugger, a world-famous architect who designed the Tate Modern in London, told me he’s been here four times and he’s struck by the craftsmanship of many of our old buildings, including the one he’s modifying for Credit Suisse at 475 Howe Street. In 1929, it became Vancouver’s stock exchange for nearly 20 years, and so, it became known as the Old Stock Exchange.
By the time of its scheduled completion in spring 2017, the Old Stock Exchange will be restored, with Mr. Gugger’s 31-storey sustainable office tower looming over it. It is one of several new towers slated to change Vancouver’s downtown skyline in the next few years. It is also one of Vancouver’s first towers to be designed by the sort of internationally recognized architect who designs potential icons and boosts market value. Just don’t call Mr. Gugger that nineties term, “starchitect,” because that would imply an ego-driven disregard for the job at hand.
“Starchitects are considered those architects who travel the world and drop their thing in a careless manner, and I don’t want to be that,” says Mr. Gugger, seated inside the Old Stock Exchange building. “I think that’s passé.”
“The place can tell you a lot of things – It’s not for you to tell the place what it wants to be. You give the place your brains and let the place speak to you, and develop its own idea.
“I would not want to be that person to change Vancouver. I am not God. I am not up for that.”
They are, however, about to change Vancouver’s downtown skyline. The other European superstar, Denmark’s 37-year-old Bjarke Ingels, whose mixed-use project is slated for the awkward spot at the north end of Granville Street Bridge, was also in Vancouver the same week. Mr. Gugger said they had been texting, and had plans to meet up, but the bleak weather drove Mr. Ingels out of town before that could happen.
The Urban Design Panel recently approved Mr. Ingels’ flashy tower, which twists from a triangular base to a rectangular shape. Reaction all around has been overwhelmingly supportive. Mr. Gugger sounded impressed that Vancouver would be able to support a project as big as the Ingels tower.
“This is an expensive building he’s doing,” he said. “If there is a housing market in Vancouver for that, that’s quite exceptional. It’s a crazy building in terms of structure.”
Developer Ian Gillespie prefers to look at the Ingels tower another way.
“Yes, you do have a more expensive structure going up there, but the reality is, Vancouver has had a strong residential market for over 10 years now, and we are one of the few North American markets – San Francisco would be another, and New York, obviously – that could support this kind of a building.
“But it’s also partly that we are also developing a demographic that is searching for this type of project. And we feel very confident that it will be consumed very rapidly. People have been starved for it. I have absolutely zero doubt the market is going to embrace it like no one’s ever embraced anything like anything before.”
Buyers from around the world are interested in living in the 52-storey residential tower, says Mr. Gillespie, who has a waiting list to show for it. The 51-year-old has been a developer for roughly 26 years, and he sounds nothing short of stoked to be at a place in his career where he’s able to join forces with a renowned architect such as Mr. Ingels. They are also collaborating on a Calgary residential tower. And Mr. Gillespie said he’s got yet another Ingels project up his sleeve for Vancouver, but he refused to elaborate.
He says he is building upon previous successes such as the Woodward’s Building and the Shangri-La. As Vancouver grows in population, the city grows in stature. Mr. Gillespie feels that he, as a developer, has come of age along with the city. He’s at a point where he can “take the foot off the pedal from a budget perspective.” He also wanted to look at more interesting structural form than the towers that preside over the skyline so far.
Mr. Gugger, while a fan of “charming” Gastown, was not as impressed with the shiny new growth of residential towers.
“The recent ones seem to be a bit off the shelf, I would say,” noted Mr. Gugger. “They look to me more like investments, than what housing normally is, which is to create a home for someone.”
Mr. Gillespie wants to be at the forefront of that transition, and he already sees a shift in thinking.
“At what point did we stop looking to build a city full of background buildings?”
However, it’s also true that “you can’t have a city entirely made up of buildings like [the Ingels tower],” he adds. “It would be insane. But at the same time, you want to mix it up a little bit.
“And to be frank, I don’t know if there’s another developer in the city who could pull this off. You have to build a few exceptional buildings first in order to do something like this.
“I know, myself, I wouldn’t I would have been able to do this five years ago.”
There are two modes of thinking in this city, and neither has much regard for the other. One school of thought is that Vancouver has become too unaffordable to hold its appeal for the average taxpayer, and one day, perhaps when interest rates go up, a bubble will burst or the sky will fall. The other is that the city hasn’t come anywhere close to its potential in terms of growth, at both ends of the market. Yes, the market may have gone soft in the short-term, but for developers, the long-term fundamentals appear to be as strong as ever. Mr. Gillespie’s says his projects take eight or nine years to be realized, and like other busy developers I’ve spoken with, he’s confident the market will be there to embrace it.
He’s so confident that he has 30 projects on the go in Vancouver, including the major redevelopment of 28-acre Oakridge Centre site at Cambie and West 41st Avenue.
“It’s a competitive landscape. I think we will have helped the city a great deal from that perspective. If you look at my little practice, all our next buildings will be of this quality. We do some projects that are on the affordable end, and obviously, you can’t do that on this kind of project. But the question now is, how can you create both affordable and fantastic?
“The market doesn’t dictate. They just build crap. Anybody can do that. But can you build affordable and something exceptional?
“And if you look at the other end of our business, I don’t think you’ll see us do anything that isn’t of [Ingels tower] quality of creative design going forward again. I would really rather not do it. I just don’t want to do that any more.
“I have that luxury where I can afford to do really great work.
“And bringing someone like Bjarke into it, at his age, is a little adrenalin shot.”
A shot in the arm for Vancouver, too.