ANY DECENT STUDENT OF history knows that all across North America, cities and towns sit atop land effectively plundered from its original inhabitants. Many of our continent’s best-loved cities, perched on its prolific rivers and sheltered harbors, were once thriving tribal towns and settlements until they were wrested away by coercion and force.
As we continue to reckon with our country’s own complicated history, a landmark real estate deal in Canada may paint a picture of possible progress, as one First Nations tribe embarks on a project of massive scope in one of the world’s most expensive cities. It’s a story that illuminates a number of forces that shape urban life in 2020, as the project is informed by both the weight of colonial history and the pressures of a rapidly globalizing present.
After many years of negotiations, the Squamish Tribe of British Columbia has recently approved a plan to establish Sen̓ áḵw, an 11-tower, 6000-unit residential project in Kitsilano, one of Vancouver’s trendiest downtown neighborhoods. Slated to break ground next year, the unprecedented development will also be exempt from provincial rent controls, building codes, height restrictions, and certain taxes, creating a uniquely blank slate for rethinking a prized swath of the city. Administered entirely by the Squamish Nation, the project promises to both dramatically transform Vancouver’s skyline and improve the fortunes of a long-oppressed group —ultimately bringing in billions of dollars of revenue for the tribe over the next century. It’s a decidedly modern turn of events in a long-simmering conflict between Canada’s governments and its original inhabitants.
Located at the foot of the Burrard Bridge, the undeveloped parcel of land that will comprise the Sen̓ áḵw project has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between the native Squamish tribe and British Columbia’s provincial government. Originally a Squa-mish fishing village, the land was officially designated a tribal reservation in 1868 and expanded in 1877. However, in 1913 the province reneged on its deal to clear the way for industry and infrastructure in a rapidly expanding city. British Columbia annexed the Squamish territory and displaced the Squamish residents, shipping them away on a barge. In 1977, the Squamish embarked on a decades-long court action to reclaim ownership over the lands, culminating in a 2001 settlement that awarded the tribe nearly twelve acres of Kitsilano, a sliver of undeveloped land that then stood in the center of one of the world’s most in-demand cities.
Conceived in partnership with the developer Westbank, the ambitious project is designed for maximum density, sustainability, and to encourage the use of public transit by minimizing resident parking allocations. All told, Sen̓ áḵw will create 3.4 million square feet of housing, with the majority (between 70% and 90%) of the units designated as rentals. The 11 irregularly shaped towers—ranging in height but reaching up to 56 stories—will share dramatic angles, jutting balconies, and plenty of lush green life on their balconies and roofs. The proposed development of the Kitsilano area may prove influential, as it has already sparked speculation about a domino effect, inspiring further high-density development.
A flood of new housing could not be time-lier for Vancouver, a city that has been besieged by a housing crisis for more than a decade. A magnet for both Canadian migration and international interest (including a huge percentage of Chinese investment), the well-situated city simply hasn’t been able to keep up with demand. Last year’s announcement that Amazon would establish its HQ2 in the city certainly didn’t help matters much, ushering in a new class of well-paid workers into an already competitive market.
As communities around the world consider options for reconciling and restoring their relationships with their territories’ original inhabitants, Sen̓ áḵw is sure to drive a worthwhile conversation. While the windfall the modern Squamish will eventually see from the project doesn’t reconcile a century-old displacement, the project, with its responsible environmental stewardship and contribution to more equitable housing conditions, may well serve as a best-case scenario for a meaningful attempt at making things right. Not only does it allow hundreds of the Squamish Nation to return to the land their ancestors once knew. It also helps create homes for thousands of others in a city where housing is hard to find.
When future Architecture Textbooks are written, it seems as safe a bet as any that New York’s High Line project will mark an important turning point not just in the history of adaptive reuse but also in our popular engagement with urban design. It’s fair to call the elevated, 1.5-mile park a genuine phenomenon. It has driven Chelsea’s property values skyward, spurred a glut of real estate development, and inspired similar efforts in at least 19 other American cities.
The High Line also managed something exceedingly rare: it became an instant landmark, joining the pantheon of Gotham’s greats, alongside the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the New York Public Library. Like the slightly-more stately Brooklyn Bridge, it turns infrastructure into a tourist attraction. If you’ve spoken to any visitor to the city over the past few years, you’ve heard about their memorable jaunt to the west side of Manhattan to walk the High Line.
But can a landmark be planned ahead of time? Or does that kind of status require a kind of natural charisma or even luck? Is building a landmark like capturing lightning in a bottle? What elevates Chicago’s beloved Cloud Gate (or, if you prefer, The Bean) above every other art project languishing away in a public park? While it’d obviously be impossible to know for sure, we collected a valuable data point in our hypothetical study in March 2019 when New York’s Hudson Yards Redevelopment Authority opened a 16-story, a honeycomb-shaped monument called The Vessel.
Designed by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, The Vessel is part sculpture, part viewing platform, and part poster from the M.C. Escher gift shop. It rises above Hudson Yards’ plaza, widening like a cone, clad in resplendent copper and glass marvel of symmetry and geometry. Assem-bled from 75 giant modular pieces manufactured in Monfalcone, Italy, the Vessel feels expensive. And it was. The monument cost a reported $200 million. But in simplest terms, The Vessel is an intricately conceived, very shiny staircase to nowhere in particular. And while one can catch a view of the Hudson River from many of its 80 landings, The Vessel is its own self-justifying destination. One goes to the Vessel to marvel at its construction and snap Instagram photos of its 154 interlocking flights of stairs.
Funded by developer Related Companies, the Vessel sits at the High Line’s northern-most point, and it’s clear that the structure was meant to capitalize on both its neighbor’s traffic and its cultural ubiquity: “We said we want to design a 365-days-a-year Christmas tree,” Related CEO Jeff Blau said upon the Vessel’s opening, “so that every single person who comes here has to come to Hudson Yards.”
With a large Related shopping center sitting in the Vessel’s shadow, one can imagine precisely why one would want a landmark there. But the Vessel is more than just a mall advertisement. Taken together, Hudson Yards represents the most expensive private development in the history of American real estate with an overall price tag of $25 billion, with planned luxury residences, retail, and a state-of-the-art performing arts center. Accordingly, Related has touted the Vessel as “America’s Eiffel Tower,” and implied that the monument should last for “hundreds of years.”
The idea of creating an intentional land-mark is a flexible one, spanning from hypercapitalist developments in New York to large-scale civic projects in communist China. A few years ago, a project in Changsa, China embodied many of the same goals (and a similar affinity for stairs) as the Vessel.
Designed by Amsterdam’s NEXT Architects, the striking Lucky Knot bridge offers pedestrians multiple undulating paths across the Dragon King Harbor River. Playful in its sensibility, the Lucky Knot invites pedestrians to choose their own path across the arcing, bright-red strands of the bridge that resemble a Möbius ring. The bridge has become a popular backdrop for wedding photos and a tourist magnet—while also managing to serve a functional need. Like the Vessel, the Lucky Knot is an argument for a certain vision of the future.
It’s far too early to know whether the Vessel’s bid for landmark status has been successful. Reviews have been somewhere south of mixed, with many criticizing the clear commercial intentions of the project. However, one may note that early reviews for the Eiffel Tower weren’t kind either. It’s entirely possible that the next time you talk to a recent visitor to New York, they’ll tell you about their memorable climb to the top of the Vessel.
Traditionally, a building’s design is dictated by its purpose. Its footprint, facade, and layout are planned to house a certain kind of resident, accommodate a type of commerce, or even signify the values of the building’s owner. In best-case scenarios, considerations around a building’s immediate surroundings, the cultural context of its neighborhood, and its impact on the environment will also enter the equation. To most, these concerns and inquiries from the first principles of architecture.
However, Jeanne Gang—one of the world’s most prominent female architects and winner of the MacArthur “genius” fellow—is designing structures that address an even more fundamental concern: the influence of the sun. While simple orientation is nothing new—every real estate agent in the world knows about good light and ideal facing directions —Gang’s firm, Studio Gang, has developed a more in-depth approach to our interaction with natural light.
Gang’s philosophy, artistically termed “solar carving,” challenges designers to create wildly-angled structures that are exact about redirecting sunlight, optimizing for climate, and even minimizing unwanted shadows cast by the structure. The resulting projects are beautiful buildings that boast deferent, oddly-shaped silhouettes that resemble intricately-cut diamonds from up close and weathered stones from afar. Imagine if the sun had the same gradual eroding power as water and you start to get the idea.
At the heart of solar carving is a simple idea. A flat, vertical pane of glass isn’t optimized for either a building’s residents or its neighbors because at some point in the day it might generate an excess of glare and heat. Traditionally, we solve this problem through types of glass and interior window treatments. Solar carving, however, attempts to solve the problem with an obsessive eye for detail, some software, and a bit of clever astronomy. By carefully considering the sun’s path throughout the day, designers can “sculpt” an intricately considered, responsive facade that takes into account the building’s specific latitude and optimizes its surface. The effects vary from building to building but can range as far as helping to minimize adverse effects of seasonal differences.
In Chicago, for instance, where the weather can dictate much of resident’s day-to-day reality, Studio Gang’s Solstice on the Park project incorporates solar carving to maximize light in the winter and minimize heat gain in the summer. The twenty-six-story residential building is clad with windows angled inward at 72 degrees, creating a striking impression and essentially acting as “smart windows” by predicting seasonal light extremes.
However, it’s almost certainly Studio Gang’s newest solar carving project that will grab all of the attention. 40 Tenth Avenue is an office building on Manhattan’s west side with some high-profile considerations: the West Side Highway nearby and the buzzy High Line Park—the city’s hugely influential elevated adaptive reuse park—at its feet. For the High Line, a new tall building could spell disaster and darkness.
However, instead of being imposing, Tenth Avenue is different. The ten-story building appears tapered, using solar carving to reduce glare (sparing drivers on the highway), minimize birdstrike (the building is not far from the Hudson River, where migratory birds pass through), and optimize its relationship with the High Line. Making use of twelve types of glass, the varying windows are both handsome to look at and, one would imagine, incredible to look out of, offering an observation deck-style view of the city below.
40 Tenth’s diamond-shaped windows benefit both building tenants and park passersby, generously bathing the High Line in sunlight instead of dominating it in shadow. Over the course of a year, the design nearly triples the amount of sunlight the park would receive in comparison with a more conventional building.
In an era of increased density, when builders are crowding cities with ever-taller structures casting ever-longer shadows, solar carving may be a worthy addition to our design quiver. If current trends hold, the sun isn’t going away any time soon. We may as well plan around its predictable paths with the best tools we have.
Every two years, the world gives itself over to a strange, temporary fervor. United by the thrill of competition and the spectacle of international pageantry, we suddenly become experts in obscure sports, aficionados on the finer points of uniforms, and devoted followers of human-interest stories about instantly minted heroes. For a few eventful weeks, the Olympics gives the world a single, glorious focal point. Behind all of this ceremony is a single organization: the International Olympics Committee.
Headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, the roe is comprised of more than 500 professionals and an executive board that hails from more than a dozen countries. Previously scattered throughout multiple buildings-including an 18th-century chateau that still stands-the organization has now brought all of its operations under one roof, coinciding with its 125th anniversary. Located in Louis-Burget Park and perched near the shore of Lake Geneva, the recently-completed Olympic House is a $144 million, 237,000 square foot monument to the Olympic Games and its lofty goals.
With an organization as storied and symbol-oriented as the roe, every design decision on Olympic House would have to reflect its tenant’s mission. Brought to life by Copenhagen-based architecture firm 3XN, Olympic House is a sterling example of designing around an organization’s values instead of merely providing for its day-to-day needs. Core to the building’s form, layout, and construction are the roe’s values of flexibility, sustainability, and movement. Taken together, it’s a triumph of symbolic design.
The undulating glass form of the building appears differently from each angle, evoking an athlete in motion. The building’s footprint fills up its constrained park site without dominating it and cozies up to its chateau predecessor without dwarfing it. It’s an impressive trick for such a contemporary structure, which could otherwise appear alien or garish in its context.
The five-story building seems committed to easing its transition with its natural surroundings through sloping green terraces that climb to the second story and lawns that encircle the site. Its form manages to be simultaneously grand and deferent. From above, the building appears pinched in the middle, softening what could be an otherwise-imposing structure and creating inviting angles and creating as much natural light as possible for its inhabitants.
Inside, the office space is almost entirely open-plan, delivering on the Olympic value of flexibility and creating opportunities for interaction and collaboration. The entire structure contains only 14 columns, allowing for endless reconfiguration with the aid of movable partitions throughout the space and future-proofing the space by allowing for continual adaptation around working styles.
As one might expect from the IOC, Olympic House is an impressively sustainable building. It’s estimated to be Switzerland’s most sustainable mod rn Ii · ding, and with its LEED v4 Platinum certification, it’s also one of the world’s most rigorously-certified structures. On the roof stands an array of solar panels that recall .q the shape of a dove, delivering ten percent of the building’s required energy. Pipes carry water from the neighboring lake to heat and cool the building. And controls throughout the building allow workers to customize the temperature and lighting for their immediate surroundings.
The Olympic House is a potent reminder that buildings are not simply containers for organizations. At their best, they act as symbols, carrying out mission statements with their choices and subsequently encouraging their inhabitants to live out certain values as they go about their work. As the world looks to the Olympic Games for examples of the best humanity can achieve, it’s only fitting that its building should do the same for design.
The IOC’s previous headquarters-a grand mansion in use since 1968-signaled a certain historic prestige but also a kind of austerity and exclusivity. Olympic House boldly declares a posture of openness, progressive intent, and adaptability.
For centuries, the bark of the cork oak was so synonymous with a single application that it lent its name to the product: the wine cork. Today, about sixty percent of all harvested cork is used to stop bottles, although its share in that market has been challenged by a burgeoning trend toward screw caps. The remaining forty percent of the cork industry is geared toward a wide range of other applications, from shoes to the cores of baseballs to insulation in NASA’s rockets. But for most of us, non-wine cork is still relegated to bulletin boards and the occasional floor tile.
Considering the myriad properties of the material, it’s a wonder that it hasn’t been adopted for yet more uses. Naturally, hydrophobic, lightweight, durable, and easily malleable, cork is an excellent insulator for both heat and acoustics, a capable fire retardant, and is resistant to mold. In recent years, designers and builders have begun to take note of cork’s possibilities, producing everything from impressive lighting fixtures to breathtaking modernist seating.
However, cork’s most impressive unconventional use may be in its use cladding entire buildings, where the material feels right at home. Cork facades have an organic and warm quality, finding harmony with both urban and natural surroundings. Interacting with the weather, cork also changes color over time, taking on a patina that can vary from plank to plank. Plus, its insulating properties help reduce climate control costs dramatically.
In Berlin, Rundzwei Architekten’s aptly-named Corkscrew House stands apart from its neighbors, a monolith of cork. Stark and geometric. its organic exterior is at once precise and soft-leaning far from the brutalist trappings of concrete. And, as one might hope, a grand spiral staircase in the center of the 3,200 square-foot house completes the allusion to its namesake.
The panels that clad Corkscrew House’s walls and roof were produced by heating and pressurizing waste cork granules from the wine industry-a process that requires no additional materials thanks to a naturally-present resin in the cork. The resulting slabs are durable, flexible, and easy to work with, allowing workers to use traditional woodworking tools.
Perhaps cork’s most attractive quality, though, is its unmatched sustainability. As the bark of Quercus suber trees, cork is harvested rather than felled, leaving live trees that will produce more cork every nine years for up to three hundred years. About half of the world’s cork is produced in Portugal, where its harvest has been well-regulated and revered for centuries. Cork is cut by hand from mature trees by skilled workers who are paid a living wage. Thanks to the cork forests’ highly-effective absorption of carbon dioxide, the cork industry is actually net-carbon-negative. One might make the argument that cork is the world’s most sustainable building material. Its only limiting factors are the time it takes to grow it and the climate required to cultivate its trees-limited to Southern Europe and Northern Africa.
In London, the aptly-named Studio Bark has taken cork construction to a new extreme with Cork Studio, a garden shed built entirely out of the material. Here the cork makes up not just the cladding but solid blocks used to form the structure. Describing the process, Studio Bark’s architect notes that cork’s qualities “eliminate the need for frames, linings, glues, tapes, breather membranes, and wet trades,” making the project particularly cost-effective, sustainable, and even biodegradable. Unlike many buildings, Cork Studio has an end-of-life plan, able to be tossed onto the compost heap once its usefulness has run its course.
Today, cork remains a relatively niche building material, limited mainly by its cost of transportation and perhaps a lack of imagination. However, if screw caps continue to make in-roads into the wine industry, we may be lucky enough to see more corkclad buildings sprouting up around us. At once incredibly traditional and refreshingly innovative, it’s an age-old material with tons of life left in it.
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