A few weeks ago, an email discussion among some high-profile urbanists appeared in the PT inbox about this:
It’s a new house, just being completed, designed by Tony Robins (details here), located at a high-profile intersection at Point Grey Road and Alma.
The discussion began with this observation:
Sitting on the northeast corner of Point Grey Road and Alma, directly across from Hastings Mill Park rises my nomination for Vancouver’s Most Hideous Urban Design for 2016. Actually, maybe for this century.
Thoughts on how this fits into the neighbourhood and enhances this special setting across from Hastings Mill, adjacent to the bikeway and at the entrance to Jericho Beach?
Others weighed in:
My respectful Canadian half says to stay out of this, and just enjoy your wonderful comments on taste, style and context. But my American half wins out this morning, and I have to respond to neighbourhood context.
Actually, I think it will respond well to a neighbourhood that most values privacy, while providing, to passing cyclists and runners, peaks of great wealth (three-and four-car garage doors, occasional glimpses of a Bentley Mulsanne or Mercedes AMG).
Like most of its neighbours, it will be surrounded by a high wall, or more likely by a dense 3 or 4 metre tall cedar hedge. Eyes on the street will never see the burglars hiding in the foliage. “Closes itself off to… the neighbourhood?” That’s the point of Point Grey Road.
Thursday – 9 am
I could never understand why people want to live in lonely single-family houses with all that wasted space around them. Clearly the owner of this house feels the same, but was unable to find a big enough condo and had to recreate one overlooking some vacant scrub land that doesn’t even function as productive agriculture, but at least is only four blocks from transit.
Ok,ok – I saw this when it was being framed and wondered when they were going to cut the holes in the sheathing. Now I will have to go on another bike ride, but only as long as you don’t expect me to wear a helmet.
Thursday – 12:03 pm
Nothing like a field review to see things more clearly.
It certainly fits the context along the north side of Point Grey Road of blank walled mansions, with all kind of surface decorations like closed blinds that never welcome eyes from the street, and blank arrays of garage doors for the display of luxurious automobiles. The urban gesture is a raised middle finger of exclusive solidarity and solid exclusiveness.
At least this home (with its future hedge or fence), will feel welcoming the moment you wheel your bike in through the front gate. The whole ground floor is glazed, with the stairwell providing a screen by the front door, and there will be more livable indoor/outdoor space to the south and west of this lot than on the rest of the block added together.
Passersby flooding to their tennis or yachts won’t be creamed by cars and bikes busily disobeying road signs, and the house next door to the east will retain its wide open views westwards over the car pit behind this house.
With the roof top screens and trellises, it is the perfect urban penthouse, with ground oriented livable open space, which is what I thought single family homes are all about.
The issue for us is that it is an accurately stark representation of what an executive home is all about. We all have memories and different aspirations. These create expectations and we fossilise them in rules. It would be dangerous for babies to play hockey on this street, so this house does not encumber the issue with crash helmets and their blind spots.
I won’t say that I like it, but I do prefer peekaboo as being more appropriate for urban living than wall to wall glazing with permanently closed blinds, and I can visualize enjoying this environment – which is more than I can say for the mansions along this street.
Now the south side of the street tells a different story, and it is those raised porches that make us think of community.
But then, I spent my whole career trying to make sure I did not have to work on single-family houses!
This is maybe the ultimate expression of the courtyard culture we’ve become, compared with the front porch culture which built neighbouring houses in generations past.
On the Heritage Commission, we are trying to encourage architects to design infill buildings which are identifiably modern but reflect some of the rhythms and proportions of the historic piece. The best one recently (although the neighbourhood probably still hates it) has been the infill design in the Mole Hill block, behind a privately owned historic cottage, by Tim Ankemann.
Guidelines were adopted when Vancouver decided that rigid bylaws were inhibiting design. They are meant to allow for variation. If we are to avoid the city becoming pickled in place, to become a more interesting, yet neighbourly place, design guidelines should not be a rigid template or prescription.
“Intent” should be clear and policy derived. While it is easier for designers and staff to follow diagrams and ‘guide line’ statements, these should be seen as one way to achieve the “intent”. We should encourage designers to find other and better ways and not obstruct innovation, provided it avoids intrusive impacts and achieves policy intent.
This would favour more capable designers. It challenges fixed … usually unquestioned mental images. It may not favour ‘iconic’ but can allow for evolution in design and need not be unneighbourly.
Council will need patience for the process. Neighbours will not make it easy. They too are more familiar with having a rule book, though rules are always for the other guy. No and yes are both faster than “maybe, let’s work through it”. It should not be a zero-sum process.