Following the 1886 Great Fire that destroyed nearly all of Vancouver’s timber-framed buildings, the city took far more care over its architecture. From this point on, important structures were brick and stone built. But alongside the utility of better construction, Vancouver also began to follow colonial building fashions and, with time, to pioneer its own architectural movements.
In the early years of the twentieth century, a young architect from England called Francis Rattenbury designed many of B.C.s key buildings. In Victoria, these included the grand Empress Hotel and Parliament Buildings while in Vancouver, he was responsible for the Vancouver Art Gallery building (originally a courthouse), the first Hotel Vancouver and Roedde House (now a museum in the West End).
Alongside Rattenbury, Samuel Maclure was even more prolific here, designing many of the English-inspired mansions that well-to-do Vancouverites of the time called home. The Shaughnessy Heights area of the city features many of these attractive houses and the neighbourhood is an ideal spot for a self-directed architectural walking tour.
While smaller Maclure houses in the arts and crafts-inspired Craftsman approach (many of them still preserved in Kitsilano) were also popular, by the 1950s the modernist movement had taken hold. West Vancouver is home to many of these large, dramatic residences, fusing B.C. cedar and local rock with the clean lines of the leading design movement of the time. By the 1960s, this had given way to a less-appreciated local school: the Vancouver Special is a low-gabled, box-like home that became a housing staple for three decades. Originally dismissed, it is slowing being recognised and appreciated.
Vancouver’s most famous architectural son was Arthur Erickson, who combined the utility and functionalism of concrete and glass with local materials and natural forms, specializing in a type of post and beam design that can be seen on prominent display at his UBC Museum of Anthropology building. Keep your eyes peeled for other Erickson buildings around the city, including the Law Courts building and the starkly functional MacMillan Bloedel Building at Georgia and Thurlow Streets.
The Guinness family built the Lions Gate Bridge in 1938. The B.C. government later purchased the majestic, green-painted span but, in 1986, the Guinness family donated money to decoratively light the bridge in the evenings. It’s now one of the region’s most iconic, picture postcard landmarks.
In recent years, Vancouver has pioneered a type of building design that not only incorporates the look of nature but also harmonizes with it in a sustainable way. The region is a hotbed of green building design and few structures are built that don’t meet and exceed ambitious sustainability goals. Check out the new Convention Centre expansion and its grass roof, for example.
Vancouver has also led the way with a form of urban planning that places livability at the centre. Distinct from almost all major cities in North America, the city’s urban plan involves mixed use buildings – typically tall, densely-populated urban towers with shops at their base – that preserve access for the locals to the waterfront and to the spectacular natural views that define the city’s setting. In recent years, this approach to planning has been termed “Vancouverism.”
As you wander the city, look out for these iconic Vancouver buildings:
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Take a building-focused tour of one of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods with the Architectural Institute of B.C. (www.aibc.ca). See their website for a full list of available tours, which typically run during the summer months.