The Big Scoop: Kengo Kuma’s Sculpted Tower Is Set to Rise in Vancouver

Emma Macdonald Emma Macdonald

Ian Gillespie of Vancouver developer Westbank recently announced architect Kengo Kuma as the latest to partner with the company in its ongoing expansion of the city’s skyline. Kuma will add to a list of high-rise projects underway and completed by BIG, Henriquez Partners Architects and James KM Cheng Architects, among others. BIG’s Vancouver House and the Henriquez’s TELUS Garden Office Towerhave just won categories in this year’s Architizer A+ Awards, illustrating the relevance of Westbank’s projects to the urban landscape of Canada and to contemporary architecture more broadly.

While Kuma’s body of work does not yet include the skyscrapers that populate the downtown core, his projects are known for paying attention to their surrounding environments. For the most part, they are expressed with a subtlety that should fit Vancouver’s landscape. Kuma has described a commitment to using “light and natural materials to get a new kind of transparency,” which — given downtown Vancouver’s backdrop of mountains and ocean — is a common goal of local architects, as well.

Kengo Kuma’s proposed Vancouver skyscraper

This project proposes a 43-story tower with 188 residential units on Alberni Street in the West End. To achieve Kuma’s desired transparency, the exterior will be made up of glass and aluminum and will reflect both neighboring buildings at street level and the sky higher up. The front of the building will feature wooden balconies, and this warm materiality will flow through to the tower’s interior with bamboo. The proposal is for a mixed-use design and includes retail and restaurant space at street level as well as a Japanese moss garden.

The most notable design element of the project, however, is its two “scoops” taken out of its sides. The motivation for these recesses appears unclear from a perspective of human use. For comparison, the nearby BIG tower (which is now under construction) shares a negative space feature in its form, but the recess occurs at its base; clearly there to make room for the Granville Street Bridge that runs under it and to allow for public use of the space it creates underneath the building.

Top: bamboo interiors; bottom: Japanese moss garden

A likely factor in the generation of this form is the City of Vancouver’s “view corridor” zoning, put in place to protect the city’s prized mountain and ocean views while it expands and grows denser. The aim of these corridors is in line with Kuma’s desire to interact with the natural environment of the site, and it is likely that the form of the proposed building was derived in part to respect this zoning. Importantly, however, it seems the main reason for the maintenance of access to these views is in order for Vancouver’s residents to continue to be able to enjoy them. And while the project’s public moss garden will be a great addition to the area, it will not benefit from the protected view corridor that will exist above it.

These observations bring up larger questions for Downtown Vancouver’s expansion, and as a recent arrival to Vancouver (this will be Kuma’s first of at least three projects in the city), Kuma has the opportunity to bring a new perspective to its increasing density and add to the typology that most high-rises have followed until now.

Kuma’s tower at street level

As architect Bing Thom remarked in a public lecture given on the project, Kuma’s initial renderings of the Alberni tower all feature gray skies. To anyone reading this outside of Vancouver, this may seem unremarkable; the city’s overcast weather is well-known. However, Thom was commenting on Kuma’s refreshingly realistic perspective when he noticed this. Most architects who have spent time in Vancouver make suretheir rendered skies are blue from the outset.

© Ed White Photographics

© Ed White Photographics

This collaboration between an architect with fresh eyes and Gillespie — a developer who knows the city like the back of his hand — could lead to exciting results. The challenge will be to keep its residents in mind, just as much as how its silhouette will look in the city’s expanding skyline.

All images courtesy of Westbank Corp. and Kengo Kuma and Associates

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