Because of its stunning natural setting, economic and cultural vitality, and high level public amenities, Vancouver is consistently ranked at or near the top of every list of the world’s most desirable cities.
Despite its rankings, Vancouver has found it difficult to shake one common critique: that its buildings are boring. “Vancouverism” — a design trend explored in Douglas Coupland’s book City of Glass — has among its key principles similar-looking glass condo buildings that are in the form of thin towers with a continuous townhouse base at street level.
Yes, Vancouver has high-rise buildings in spades, and some of them are not half-bad. But too often the architecture conversation is focused on the appearance of buildings instead of the fundamental relationships between people and their environment, including their interaction with other people. It’s about style over substance.
Recent architecture in the city shifts, twists, folds, and cantilevers, as if eager to break away from the past. But very few of these new buildings appear to pay attention to the question of the city itself. They are not building blocks of a city – but a few iconic ambitions scattered across a landscape.
In stark contrast, design in Japan is deeply rooted in tradition. The Japanese notion of space is not defined by a static, palpable object, but is rather a soft, temporal set of contingencies that change with time. Space is in flux because its primary content is the interaction of people, and not the buildings themselves. In this sense architecture forms the background, or environment, and subjectivity – the human experience – defines the foreground.
For a number of reasons, 1550 Alberni Street was the perfect opportunity for Westbank to pivot—and explore new approaches to architecture by bringing new perspectives to Vancouver.
When he was invited to visit the site at 1550 Alberni Street, Kengo Kuma was immediately struck by Vancouver’s geography. High-rises huddled on what is basically an island – like Manhattan – but surrounded by sweeping mountains and a placid bay. When seen at a height or a distance, from across Burrard Inlet or from the apex of the Granville Street Bridge, Vancouver meets the definitions of the sublime.
The unique context of a metropolis surrounded by water and mountains was the source of inspiration for Kengo Kuma and his immensely talented team. On the one hand Alberni by Kuma instantly resonates as a sculptural moment that arrests you, and on the other hand brings layer upon layer of texture that you can only discover as you journey through the building; each visit revealing a sumptuous detail or moment that deepens your experience.
In many of Kengo Kuma’s projects, attention is focused on the connection spaces; on the segments between inside and outside, and one room to the next. The choice of materials stems not so much from an intention to guide the design of the forms, but to conform to the existing surroundings.
“You could say that my aim is ‘to recover the place’. The place is a result of nature and time; this is the most important aspect. I think my architecture is some kind of frame of nature. With it, we can experience nature more deeply and more intimately. Transparency is a characteristic of Japanese architecture; I try to use light and natural materials to get a new kind of transparency.” –Kengo Kuma
Interwoven layers of overlapping textures define the experience of Alberni. From the scale of the city to that of the detail, the architecture reveals a series of stories centered on craftsmanship and materiality. As one moves through the building, new sceneries unfold with increasing definition. Themes of nature, lightness, and transparency carry through with distinct spatial characteristics, always yielding new details upon closer inspection.
Taken together, these different facets of Japanese design evoke an ever-changing constellation of sensations that make the experience of architecture almost scenographic, unfolding with distinct expressions over time.
It is difficult to believe that any single work of architecture can truly possess as much layered depth and meaning. But what if the ideas were applied more broadly? Imagine an urban environment in which we all have an interest in wholes, instead of landmarks. Truly one must take the time and give this way of thinking it’s space.
Meanwhile, Kuma-san has made his humble contribution to contemporary high rise living — a building that in time, the world may judge as being amongst the most artistic and resolved residential buildings ever designed.