Gesamtkunstwerk and Vancouver House: "Vancouverism 2.0"

Bjarke Ingels, Ian Gillespie, and Jim Chung unveil Gesamtkunstwerk: "Vancouverism 2.0" means rethinking the podium tower. Can Vancouver have a High Line of its very own?

Ian Gillespie, Jim Cheng, Bjarke Ingels
Ian Gillespie, Jim Cheng and Bjarke Ingles unveil Gesamtkunstwerk, an exhibition of the design process behind Vancouver House.

Gwerk, Gesamtkunstwerk, and Vancouver House

Ian Gillespie, president of real-estate development company Westbank Projects, unveiled the Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition to reporters last week. You've probably seen advanced press for Vancouver House around the #Gwerk hashtag; "Gwerk" being short for "Gesamtkunstwerk".

Gesamtkunstwerk (pronounced /get-zahmt-KOONST-VEHRK/) means "total work of art".

Joined by architects James Cheng and Bjarke Ingels, Gillespie unveiled the design process behind Vancouver House, a 52-story condo/rental/retail complex planned for  the corner Beach and Howe, near the triforking estuary of the Granville Bridge. The exhibition, curated by architecture critic Trevor Boddy, throws open the often-messy design process behind the building of a building.

Gillespie said, "It started seven years ago when we bought this property... we started imagining what we would do with it. It isn't just a building. it's much more involved than that." 

Gillespie spoke highly of Vancouver's architectural average, but lamented the lack of "really special moments."

Ian Gillespie, Vancouver real estate developer
Ian Gillespie

This isn't a sales center, though, said Gillespie: "You can't buy a condo here." No floor plans, no sales staff. Vancouver House breaks ground in October and a presentation center will get built later.

Jim Cheng, who has worked with Gillespie on projects such as Shaw Tower, the Fairmont Pacific Rim, and the Shangri-La, said that topping all those livability lists has made Vancouver soft in terms of urban planning: "We are a little complacent... we do not have those moments, those punctuations, that can point us to the next 20 years."

James Cheng, architect
James Cheng

"We decided to create a threesome," said Gillespie of the decision to include Danish architect Bjarke Ingles.

Ingles fell in love with Vancouver not through its buildings but through its words: "My two favorite writers, Douglas Coupland and William Gibson, are from here." With a glint in his eye he added, "Vancouver reminds me of the beautiful grey skies of Scandinavia."

That greyness extends to the cityscape itself, though, said Ingels. Referring to the colour-coding of Google Maps, he said that the area around the Granville Street Bridge was not commercial or public or residential space. "It's hard to figure out what to do with the [Granville] Bridge."

Bjarke Ingels, architectBjarke Ingels


Vancouver House and a reactivated Granville Bridge: Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition
Vancouver House and the Granville Bridge: Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition

Echo of New York

The High Line was mentioned several times during the course of the Gesamtkunstwerk presentation: the bold reclamation of a dilapidated stretch of elevated train line along Manhattan's West Side has fired up the imaginations of architects and urban planners the world over.

So, if you're wondering what an "architectural moment" is, look at the High Line.

Gillespie asked, "Can we produce that in Vancouver?"

Requiem for a podium tower

Big physical changes to a city are carried out by those clutching development permits, and we just don't see much beyond minimum viable product: they're selling the condo, not its wrapping. As a result, the eco-density promise of the high-rise never quite gets fulfilled. The Vancouver House project is touted to buck that trend, becoming the world's first LEED Platinum-certified high rise while actually injecting life into a stretch of street.

Just as Jay-Z declared the death of Auto-Tune, Gesamtkunstwerk curator Trevor Boddy told a gathered group of journalists that the podium tower as we know it is over, and that Vancouver House will hopefully serve as an early harbinger of "Vancouverism 2.0".

Ingels pointed out a common criticism of Vancouver's architecture, that ours can be described as "a city of glass towers in different shades of grey." The public-space aspect of Vancouver House could set it apart from other high-rises: Ingels envisioned a "Sistine Chapel of street art" beneath the Granville Street Bridge.

As Vancouverites, we spend an undue amount of time seeking shelter from the rain, yet the undersides of our bridges have gotten very little attention. The time has come to connect those dots.

So that's the connection between Vancouver House and the chandelier hung beneath the bridge.

That's the challenge: can a real estate developer make a block better for people who don't live in the building? 

"At the end of the day, that's what we are. We're city builders," Gillespie said.

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