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James Cheng: Vancouver's Point Man

Over the past 30 years, Vancouver has transformed itself from provincial outpost to globally-renowned metropolis – a crucial link in the Pacific Rim necklace of capital, culture and migration. The change has been physical. Since 1990, more than 150 skyscrapers have been built on the Canadian city’s downtown peninsula, creating a densely-built environment that has more in common with Singapore or Shanghai than with most North American cities.

Nearly 40 of those towers were designed by James Cheng, one of Canada’s most quietly influential architects. Born in Hong Kong, educated in the United States and based in Vancouver since 1972, Cheng pioneered a form of slender “point tower” set atop a low-rise podium that became the emblem of “Vancouverism,” an urban design movement that advocates high-density residential construction with an emphasis on public amenities, natural light, open views, urban greenery and lively, pedestrian-oriented streets.

Yet Cheng remains an architectural outsider, even as his ideas have reshaped Vancouver’s urban identity. “As city-builder and innovator in high-density housing, he is without rival in this country, fighting for public amenities and public open space in his city-transforming projects at a time when autonomous architectural sculptures get the praise,” writes Vancouver-based architecture critic Trevor Boddy. Cheng describes himself in slightly less grandiose terms: “I don’t want to be a global player. I have no dream to be a superstar. I just want to do good-quality buildings.”

Cheng was born in Hong Kong in 1947, just as a massive influx of refugees from mainland China were about to descend on the city, making it one of the most crowded in the world. He shared a small apartment with his younger brother, parents, grandparents and two uncles, retreating to the roof in his spare time to fly kites with other children from the neighbourhood.

In the mid-1960s, his parents sent him to Seattle, where he studied architecture at the University of Washington – a compromise between his love for art and his parents’ insistence on a practical career like engineering. His first days at university were nerve-wracking. “When I set foot in my first architectural history class, I was in awe at how well all the other students could speak,” he recalls. “They would stand up in a class of 300 students and have the nerve to talk. I’ve always been nervous about that. I’d rather not go out and talk about my projects. I’d rather let people see and experience them.”

Cheng then took on a job with Arthur Erickson, the godfather of Vancouver architecture, before continuing his studies under acclaimed American architect Richard Meier at Harvard University. The influence of both architects can be seen in his work: Meier’s clean, ethereal lines, neutral surfaces and love of glass; and Erickson’s West Coast sensibility, which melded nature with béton brut.

Cheng returned to Vancouver and established his own practice in 1978, working first on projects like the Vancouver Chinese Cultural Centre before catching the eye of property developer Victor Li, the son of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-ching. Their first project together was fateful. Cheng’s brief was to design a high-rise residential complex in a historic neighbourhood of single-family houses and small apartment buildings; when he thought of how to bridge the gap in scale, he recalled his time at Harvard. “The Back Bay area of Boston has these very elegant three-storey rowhouses that line the street and it makes a beautiful fabric,” he says. “And of course being from Hong Kong, I was very familiar with tall buildings.”

He decided to combine the two. The result was Cambridge Gardens, a highrise tower that sits atop a podium of townhouses that open to the street with New York-style stoops; water features and lush landscaping reflect Vancouver’s natural lushness. It was a hard sell to real estate agents—“In those days in Vancouver you either had a tower or houses, and nobody had ever combined the two,” says Cheng—but the project was an immediate hit with buyers, many of whom were recent arrivals from Hong Kong. “We caught the immigration wave, says Cheng. “It sold out in two hours, which was unheard of in Vancouver at the time.”

Cheng refined the podium-tower typology with other projects in the 1990s. “The podium defines the street and adds vibrancy,” he says, because there is a multiplicity of entrances, stoops and street-facing shops. At the same time, spacing towers further apart allowed more natural light to reach the street — a feature whose importance becomes apparent during Vancouver’s dark, rainy winters — and more apartments to have views of the sea and mountains that surround the city.

Vancouver’s urban planners took notice, enshrining the podium-tower typology in the city’s building codes. Developers adopted it enthusiastically, replicating the concept using cheaper materials and lesser designs. “As usual in these things, you have an innovator who develops it, and less talented architects adopted it,” says Boddy. “Cheaper materials, lesser detailing – it became a cartoon version of itself. [Cheng] became a pop artist haunted by his first hit.”

Part of the problem was a strict urban planning regime overseen by strong-willed planning chief Larry Beasley, who enforced strict aesthetic regulations—lots of glass and greenery—and height limits meant to preserve views of mountains and the sea. The form and aesthetic of Cheng’s architecture was reduced to a formula. “Vancouver has developed a culture of urban rules rather than great design,” wrote critic Lisa Rochon.

Cheng pushed for change. In the early 2000s, he laid the groundwork for several ambitious new projects, including two hotel-condominium towers, Living Shangri-La and the Fairmont Pacific Rim. Standing at 205 metres, Living Shangri-La is Vancouver’s tallest building, but it almost disappears into the surrounding city, with a thin point tower that sits atop ground-floor retail space, centred around a public art space and a curving stairway that ascends to a first-floor bamboo garden. The Fairmont is more assertive, with a tiered façade that breaks up the building’s considerable mass – with 47,000 square metres of floor space, it’s Vancouver’s largest building. “In order to mask the bulk, we had to articulate the building,” says Cheng. “It had to look different from every angle.”

Fairmont Pacific Rim

Cheng sees himself as much of an urban designer as an architect. After a close investigation into the site’s context and history, each new building starts from the ground up. “I’m very interested in is the spaces between buildings,” he says. “When I start a project I always start with the ground before I work on the building. My landscape architect friends call me a closet landscape architect. I want to understand how a building fits in spatially. We feel we have a social responsibility. We aren’t just creating one object, we are creating a wholesale environment.”

For someone who has played such a large role in defining Vancouver’s architectural vocabulary, Cheng his surprisingly humble about his work. When he was asked by a local magazine how to revitalise Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, he suggested tearing down the Chinese Cultural Centre – one of his first projects. “It never really worked,” he said. Similarly, when he was tasked with designing a landmark high-rise next to the Granville Street Bridge, he recommended the developer turn instead to Bjarke Ingels, who has come up with an edgy, eye-catching and decidedly un-Vancouver design.

“Vancouver is a nice place but culturally we’re off the radar,” says Cheng. “We don’t have the benefit of a lot of top-notch international architects setting the bar here. We could use something different, something to shake up conventional thinking.”

Don’t mistake that as a sign of envy for starchitects or boutique practitioners. Vancouver’s property prices have soared since the 1980s, and Cheng has been criticised for working so enthusiastically within a system that has made Vancouver one of the most unaffordable cities in the world. But he says commercial work is essential if architects want to shape the city instead of merely decorating it.

“If good architects only do institutional buildings — and let’s face it, they’re much easier to do because you only have one client to deal with and you don’t have many unknowns — that’s why we have ugly cities,” says Cheng. “That’s why we have the environment we’re in. Good architects washed their hands and wouldn’t confront them. 90 percent of our world is the commercial world. I thought, ‘I’ll do my part one building at a time.’”

From Urban Photo. Follow DeWolf on Twitter.

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