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CITY SPACE / ARCHITECTURE / THE VANCOUVER OLYMPIC GAMES

It took a village, but they got it right

Headshot of Lisa Rochon

VANCOUVER -- lrochon@globeandmail.com

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To openly admire the Olympic Village is a risky business. Heaping praise on a large-scale waterfront development lacks the appropriate Canadian reticence. You can already hear the chorus: From behind their masks, they hail as disingenuous any applause for a project built during the economic collapse and requiring a $700-million bailout by a city. More than that, we don't do new urban neighbourhoods well in this country, so surely this one, the last developable site on the shores of Southeast False Creek in Vancouver, warrants the typical lashing. But when I saw it from across the creek, and then up close, what became clear to me was this: The Olympic Village is a serious urban accomplishment.

Optimists, be warned. Southeast False Creek, currently a heavily guarded Pleasantville for some 3,000 athletes, will not cure the woes of the Downtown Eastside; neither will SFU Woodward's, an inspired collision of mixed-use buildings, a public atrium and progressive social programs next to the troubled area. Southeast False Creek - simply known these days as the Olympic and Paralympic Village - cannot take responsibility for an entire city. But, as a city master-planned, 50-acre (20-hectare) neighbourhood, it represents a new set of aspirations and an inspired template. It will do for Vancouver what the St. Lawrence neighbourhood did for Toronto in the 1970s - catapult the city as a test zone of urban daring.

In draft form - originally imagined by former Vancouver planner Larry Beasley - the new, high-density development of 1,100 residential units seemed merely a dreamscape. Planners and architects in Vancouver had become consumed by the holy trinity: glassy point towers blessed with a street-level base building and a sacred view cone to the mountains. But with the athlete's village - an eight-city-block waterfront site cursed, apparently, by a lousy location and mediocre views to the mountains - Vancouver has scored big-time. The neighbourhood accommodates a dramatic mix of incomes. There's a building specifically designated for the elderly, and several for startup families. What's been built includes deep sustainability: urban agriculture on 50 per cent of the rooftops, and heating from a highly sophisticated district energy centre.

Mid-rise buildings - between four and 12 storeys - are commonplace in cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Berlin. Now, Vancouver has built a credible crop of them. There's a shift away from exultant views of the mountains to something more intimate and, ultimately, more urban. That's a radical concession for Vancouverites.

Green roofs have established an exhilarating new visual rhythm. The buildings turn the corner in elegant ways, the landscaping is generous, and there are open corridors in the non-market (affordable) housing for natural cross-ventilation.

There's intelligence, too. That seniors' building is designed to be "net-zero," with much of its heat harvested from solar thermal hot-water panels and from the excess energy of the Urban Fare grocery store located at its base. And there's aesthetic intrigue. The use of coloured cladding is a welcome gesture, and reminiscent of what the Nordic architects do so well. Remarkably, for an affordable-housing complex, is the use of fritted glass. The lime-green material, with its finely embedded patterning, is exceptionally long-lasting, notes project architect Stuart Lyon of GBL Architects, a Vancouver firm that specializes in social housing. Lower maintenance costs will pay off over time.

Implicit within the redevelopment of Southeast False Creek is the reclamation of a forgotten part of the city. Over the last decade, the city of Vancouver has ensured the remediation of the shoreline, the establishment of wetlands, and the creation of walking and cycle paths and public plazas along the seaside. All parking is buried underground. Where once the Squamish used to winter, there are now benches of stackable timbers and large granite chunks of rock leading down to the water's edge.

Some of the interventions - vestiges of rail lines; a bridge made of rusted, oversized pipe; and water troughs - smack of theme-park overzealousness meant to pretty up a historic site. That said, there are also interesting moves to maintain the visual dynamic on the site. The 1930 Salt Building, painted a bold red, once refined raw salt before being converted in the 1980s into a paper-recycling plant. Now, its massive wooden timbers have been gracefully restored by Acton Ostry Architects and it's been set up as a recreation hall for the athletes. A waterfront plaza, by Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, features highly stylized red lamps.

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