“I started the business a few days before I turned 30, and I thought I knew everything,” reflects developer Ian Gillespie. “That’s how I could start my own business! And then I got to 40 and thought ‘now I know everything.’ But as long as now, at the ripe old age of 50-something, I’ve realized that it never stops — or at least you hope it never does — the quality of the work will keep getting better and better.”
Gillespie founded development practice Westbank in 1992 and has since written himself and his work into the built narrative of Vancouver in a big way. From an architectural perspective, Westbank has cultivated relationships with some of the most in-demand architects today. Architizer talked to Gillespie about the relationship between art and architecture, social responsibility and the collaborations that make each project come together.
Emma Macdonald: When you first started, did you have the same commitment to describing Westbank as a ‘practice’? I would say that is something that sets you apart from other developers in the city.
“When you’re not doing it for the money, you become able to risk it all.”
Ian Gillespie: That was definitely an evolution. That word was an evolution. One of the things you have to keep reminding yourself is that Westbank is a work in progress. I will say, though, that I never really thought of what I was doing as an avenue to making money. That wasn’t the thing that interested me. That is a good way to build a business: When you’re not doing it for the money, you become able to risk it all. I think any entrepreneur who built a business from scratch would probably tell you the same thing.
Stan Douglas’ ‘Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971,’ Woodward's redevelopment, Vancouver
What about your consideration of public art in your projects; do you see visual art as having the same power as architecture to influence the way people use a space?
I’m not sure I distinguish between the two. To be honest, there are some projects I put more into than others. In those projects, I think of what we do as being an artistic endeavor. I think of the artist as being no different than bringing in another architect to work on a project with me, or adding any other key element of the project. The whole really becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Right, exactly. I think of that piece as being as important as anything else. I suppose only time will tell us whether it is more or equally important as the building. But there is a language between the two, and I actually think that, in this case, it could not have been any other piece.
Rodney Graham’s ‘Spinning Chandelier’ under Vancouver’s Granville Bridge
How did your relationship with Bjarke begin? He and Westbank’s growth has happened in tandem in the past few years, to a certain extent.
"I said to Bjarke, 'I’m going to have something for you in the next month.' I was just so inspired."
There are about 20 people out there with a claim to fame for having hooked us up, but there’s one true story. The city has a history of bringing architects from elsewhere to come and lecture, and one of the things that they do as part of incentivizing the visit is say, “We’ll put you in touch with a developer that might be interested in using you.” And depending on who the architect is, I’m someone they would come to.
But when this happens I want to have a meaningful conversation, so I went to Brent’s [Toderian, the then-director of planning of the City of Vancouver] office at city hall when Bjarke came to the city, and he showed me some of his work. 30 minutes later I said, “OK I’m going to have something for you in the next month.” I was just so inspired.
I had been thinking about a project in Toronto, but Jim Cheng [architect James KM Cheng] suggested the Granville Loops project. Jim had been working on it with me for about a year and a half at this point. We had already come up with numerous designs and one that we were starting to gravitate to. We were in an ongoing conversation with the city about proximity to the bridge, height, etc. It was very much in the works. But Jim said, “Let’s bring him in and see if he comes up with a better idea.”
So we reached out to him, we took him on a tour of the site, spent a day talking about it, and two weeks later we’re looking at the project you see today.
Another firm you’ve worked with consistently is Henriquez Partners Architects. Can you speak a bit about the Honest Ed’s project?
What I find interesting about Mirvish Village is the idea of making it not look like a project, of making it look like it happened organically and didn’t just get plunked down from outer space. So that was the starting point, and I also had a bunch of different notions I wanted to bring together: the fine-grain that you see in Tokyo, with the feeling of a meatpacking district, and the quintessentially Toronto that the Mirvish family have brought to the site.
Public market space in Henriquez Partners Architects proposal for Toronto’s Mirvish Village
What has come out of the process so far is that Markham Street is really the heart of the project. It’s not Bloor, and it’s not Bathurst, when you really talk to Torontonians; it’s Markham. You can see that we’re breaking down these buildings into a more fine-grain interaction between the old and the new [looking at Mirvish Village renderings]. Where does it stop and start? You can’t really tell.
Was it partly your decision to preserve these heritage buildings, within the project?
“We don’t pretend to have all the solutions. It really is a conversation.”
Some of them were really obvious, and some were not so obvious to us; in those cases, it was the city of Toronto that pushed us to keep them. But what’s interesting — and I think what makes our practice different from others — is that we don’t pretend to have all the solutions. It really is a conversation, and I would say it is producing a better outcome than we would have come up with on our own.
Will there be more obvious remnants of the old Honest Ed’s, as well?
The signage that runs along the two blocks, some of it is fantastic, and I think we can have a really playful conversation with that in the new project.
“How cheap can a guy get!”
Exactly! It can really be its own thing. The heart of the thing, though, will be the public market. That’s going to be the engine of the project that really makes it sing. And I think the market — more than any signage or anything else — is what respects the Mirvish legacy, which is that the store became a gathering place for the community, in the way that a store wouldn’t today. So what would today? I think that’s the public market.
The proposed redevelopment from above
The other thing we can do with the market is we can layer in a music element, as well. Is this a public market or a music venue or is it both? This is probably one of the coolest projects we will ever work on.
In terms of the residential part of the project, will there be some non-market housing? Obviously that brings up a different conversation in Vancouver and in Toronto, but I’m curious to know how big a role you play in that side of things.
That’s all us. This project is going to be 100-percent rental. There is also going to be a sizable below-market housing component. We’re actually in the process of figuring that out right now. When you talk about non-market housing, it’s a question of what partners you can bring to the table. For example: nonprofit groups such as the YWCA, the City of Toronto, CMHC and the provincial government. So you bring all that into one, and you mix it up and see how deep you can go.
The proposal from Lennox Street, Toronto
From our perspective, we’ll have roughly 1,000 units of housing here. We would like it to be a microcosm of the greater population, so that tells you you’ve got to do better than five percent [of below-market] to make that happen.
Further on the social responsibility side of things, you recently made property available for temporary refugee housing. I wonder if this is something you see becoming as a more permanent part of Westbank’s mandate.
We’ve been extraordinarily lucky, and its much more meaningful to do something that we can do differently or do better than just simply writing a cheque. It’s also inspiring for the young people in the firm. Our return was greater than anything we put into that because of what it meant to our team.
Henriquez Partners Architects Woodward’s building, Vancouver
“It’s about building a community, a neighborhood, a city that you want your children to grow up in.”
We’re so quick in cities like Vancouver or Toronto to jump to conclusions, and we don’t realize that cities are built over hundreds and hundreds of years, not over five minutes. So when you think about things like the cultural work that we’re doing or the housing that we’re doing, or the groups that we support every year, it becomes clear it’s about building a community, a neighborhood, a city that you want your children to grow up in. So I don’t really distinguish between any of it. It all seems to be one stew. Somebody has to do it, and it’s a luxury that we can.
Will you take that same approach in the cities Westbank is now expanding into?
One of the great things about Vancouver is that it’s a little village, and you can have a large impact because of that. It’s harder in Toronto to have as big an impact. But, if all we do over the next five years is build a dozen of the best projects Toronto has ever seen, then we will have forever changed the city. Not for those dozen, but because everything subsequent will change as a result of them. We will do that in Toronto, and we will do that in Seattle.
All images courtesy of Westbank. Interview edited for length and clarity.