The Empire Landmark Hotel is the latest brutalist icon set to be demolished in a frenzy of property speculation
This article titled “‘We stand to wipe out a whole era’: how the 1970s could vanish from Vancouver” was written by Tyler Stiem in Vancouver, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th September 2017 06.26 UTC
For nearly 40 years from his vantage point at the top of the Empire Landmark Hotel, Yunus Khan has watched Vancouver grow up. “You would barely recognise it,” he says of the city as it looked when he took his first job at the hotel, doing maintenance. Beyond the 42nd-storey window, the jagged silhouette of the North Shore mountains, the lush surprise of Stanley Park, and the cobalt passage of Burrard Inlet are just about the only landmarks that remain unchanged.
“These are all new,” Khan says, indicating a cluster of condo towers and the ultra-modern Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre further south. Construction cranes rise around them. “Any older building you see now, it’s going. They break it down, make a high rise.”
What the view from the Empire Landmark offers is perspective: on the Canadian city’s past, present, and future. But not for much longer. The hotel, a downtown Brutalist icon from the 1970s, closes for good on 30 September. It will be demolished to make way for a proposed luxury condo development.
Khan plans to retire. He won’t miss the 60-mile round trip commute from the outer suburbs, or the frantic pace of life downtown. “Vancouver used to be a small town, easy,” he says. Now, you see all these tall buildings with the glass, it looks a bit more beautiful. But it is very difficult to live here.”
On some level the demise of the hotel feels inevitable, part of the onward rush to a smarter, more glamorous future: one that includes greater density, more mixed-use and LEED-certified buildings, and a lot of glass and steel. Yet the news came as a surprise to many.
“Suddenly, tearing down a 42-storey high rise is economically viable? Even with the [real estate] market the way it is, no one saw that coming,” heritage expert Donald Luxton says.
Over the last two decades, thoughtful planning and a historic influx of global capital have turned the city into a contradiction: it is both famously liveable and famously unaffordable. The past two years have been feverish even by Vancouver standards. Ballooning land prices – commercial real estate values surged by 47% in 2016 alone – have made some of the city’s biggest, most imposing structures surprisingly vulnerable to redevelopment.
Seventies-era buildings like the Empire Landmark are at particular risk, thanks to their seismic vulnerability and the public’s indifferent relationship to the aesthetics of the decade. “We stand to wipe out a whole important era of Vancouver’s history if we don’t think carefully about what can go and what should be kept,” he says.
Portrait of the city as a young boom town
The 1970s in Vancouver were a period of radical politics and rapid growth. The anti-freeway protests at the beginning of the decade helped to usher the first progressive city council into power, and with it a new focus on urban planning. The city’s thriving economy, buoyed by British Columbia’s then-vibrant fishing, mining and logging sectors, began to attract national and international corporations, kickstarting a skyscraper boom.
“There was a real variety of expression,” Luxton says. “You had Brutalism, Structuralism, New Formalism all happening. Buildings like MacMillan-Bloedel and 1090 West Pender, [and] further out, the Museum of Anthropology.”
Suddenly Vancouver looked and felt less like a working-class port town and more like a modern commercial centre. Indeed, the 70s came to define the cityscape for a generation.
Today that legacy is easily overlooked. People love to hate the drab, blocky edifices that have come to stand as a sort of cliched visual shorthand for the 70s. “On a visceral level the era doesn’t appeal to the average person, thanks in part to what came before it,” says Dr Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, an architectural historian. “By then the reforming spirit of modernism wasn’t pulsing so hard.”
Marco D’Agostini, the senior heritage planner with the City of Vancouver, is more optimistic: “It takes time to appreciate and understand different building typologies. It was only in the 1990s that we started to value the midcentury stuff everyone loves now. With the 1970s, we’re just getting to that stage, realising there’s value there.”
The City of Vancouver has been relatively progressive when it comes to preservation. It was one of the first cities in the North America to consider buildings as young as 20 years old for heritage designation; the standard is more like 40 years.
The approach recognises both the city’s youth (Vancouver is barely 130 years old) and the fact that people often don’t appreciate the aesthetics of an era until it feels “historic” – by which time, it is often too late. That was the case with the Georgia Medical-Dental Building, a fine example of Art Deco that was torn down in 1989, the year before the policy was introduced.
Another challenge is that obvious masterworks like the Arthur Erickson-designed Museum of Anthropology are few and far between in Vancouver. It’s much more difficult to make the case for structures that, individually, are less than iconic, but which collectively comprise the fabric of an era.
“Some of the 70s architecture speaks very eloquently to the period … But a lot of the buildings, the design is developer-driven, utilitarian, not very distinguished,” says Luxton. “They’re not necessarily a huge loss, case by case, but you’re in danger of sterilising your landscape when you lose a whole class of buildings.”
Lesson to the west
Hong Kong is a cautionary tale in this regard. In the early 1980s, as part of an ill-thought-out strategy to boost the economy, the government pumped up land prices without first taking proper stock of its historic urban architecture. The redevelopment binge that followed was devastating.
High rises went up; evidence of entire eras all but disappeared. Speaking to the South China Morning Post last year, Dr Lee Hoyin, a professor of architectural conservation at the University of Hong Kong, said the government’s short-term thinking had cost the city “almost all of the western and Chinese urban buildings developed during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.”
Even thoughtful planning collides with heritage preservation some of the time. With Vancouver’s push toward greener, denser, mixed-use developments, protections for 70s-era buildings, with their seismic deficiencies and often inefficient use of floor space, can be hugely expensive and therefore difficult to justify on historical value alone. The Empire Landmark is a prime example: the 380-room hotel, with its slim tower and small floor plate, will be replaced by a much larger development, comprising 300 flats and retail space spread over two high-rise towers.
“You want to have some examples of every era … [but] if you limit all development or don’t allow any, you don’t allow for future growth,” says D’Agostini. “It’s a balance.”
Ultimately, though, it’s money – not aesthetics or urban planning – that determines which buildings survive and which don’t. Cities simply don’t have the capital to protect their architectural heritage the way they might want to. Short of instituting legal protections, which opens them up to claims for compensation, they must encourage preservation through favourable density zoning and other incentives for developers. At best this results in projects like the Evergreen Building; at worst token façadism.
This is nothing new, says Windsor-Liscombe: “You look at 19th century London or Paris – capital, the flow of it, has always been a tremendous force for city councils to contend with.”
Even so, both Windsor-Liscombe and Luxton agree that global cities are entering a new era. The money involved in property speculation and development has become so staggering that preservation is less and less tenable in places like Vancouver, Hong Kong, London, Sydney, and Singapore. “Incentives aren’t enough anymore – not even close, in a lot cases,” Luxton says.
“The honest truth is that if you want to get rid of a building, you can,” says Windsor-Liscombe. “It’s only really the cities off the main highway of globalisation that now have the leverage to preserve at will.”
In a way, heritage preservation is the least of Vancouver’s worries. Without more funding and stronger policy protections from the push-pull of global capital, Vancouver and cities like it will struggle to sustain urban life in all its social and economic diversity – the thing that makes them vibrant – let alone guarantee their architectural heritage.
For now, the first sign of it in Vancouver is the loss of 1970s buildings from the skyline – the end of an era.
“There isn’t a building we can think of that is completely safe,” says Luxton, the heritage expert. “If you’re big enough, you stay. That’s what we thought. But it’s not really true anymore.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Lead Image: Vancouver is both famously liveable and famously unaffordable. Commercial real estate values surged by 47% in 2016 alone. Photograph: Andy Clark/Reuters
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