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Minimalist architecture goes for drama with Eaton’s in Vancouver

Architect James Cheng is pictured at the newly redeveloped Pacific Centre office and retail complex in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia on July 15, 2015.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Through the summer, The Globe's B.C. bureau is taking an in-depth look at housing in the Vancouver region, where skyrocketing prices are limiting who can afford to buy a home in Canada's third-largest city and what those homes look like. We're examining trends in the Lower Mainland's housing market, as well as following buyers who are trying to navigate it.

All around the block of a building under construction at Georgia and Granville is the busy jumble of a city: neon signs, old terracotta buildings, black towers of the 1970s, lights, people, food trucks, noise.

But the almost-completed building itself is cool, serene. The glass walls of the top three stories reflect blue sky and clouds.

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The rows of metal fins between the silvery windows are a study in linear geometry. Bands of large limestone tiles line the lower floors.

One entrance, angled onto the plaza, is a large, clear box that glows with white light at night.

The absence of colour and texture is exactly what architect James Cheng aimed for when he re-designed the former Eaton's department store at the city's main downtown intersection, a building that frequently made the most-reviled list.

"I wanted something that reflected the colours, but wasn't coloured itself," says Mr. Cheng, as he walks around the block-long structure that got stripped down to its frame and rebuilt. (That transformation is not quite done. Workers are scrambling all over the site to get the bottom part ready for the scheduled opening of U.S. department store Nordstrom in seven weeks.)

Vancouver's most famous architect, Arthur Erickson, "preferred grey because we're a grey city," says Mr. Cheng, who worked with Mr. Erickson decades ago. "So it's better to have colours that change with the season. That way, the building participates in a changing design."

The public conversation over the years will decide what Vancouverites think of this minimalist new addition to the city's architecture scene.

But Mr. Cheng's building is certainly a departure from the 1973 Cesar Pelli structure that sat on the corner for four decades. And yet, not completely.

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The old building was entirely covered in large blocks of white tile, creating a solid wall of blankness that encased the store. It was called everything from the great white whale to the city's biggest urinal.

The revamped block, which will also house Sony Imageworks, the law firm Miller Thomson, and Microsoft when it is fully open, has replaced at least half of that tile with windows – but kept the same grid of five-foot-wide squares.

That echoes the design of the black TD tower next door, designed at the same time and meant to be the yin to the white-tiled building's yang.

The limestone tiles are a faint echo of the ubiquitous white tiles of the Pelli building.

Inside the block, a place where Vancouverites bought their sheets, their sofas, their shoes for years, the changes are more dramatic.

Mr. Cheng, to make the upper four floors usable for office space, created two large light wells with interior courtyards and trees at the bottom. (That dramatic idea immediately got potential tenants calling up Cadillac Fairview, the building's owner, to talk about moving in.)

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He transformed the north entrance of the building into a luminously white office lobby.

And he created terraces on three floors of the Howe and Robson corner that is kitty corner from Mr. Erickson's famous courthouse complex.

For the first time, people from the regular public, and not just those in office buildings around the complex, will be able to see the structure's lush rooftop garden from above. (Pedestrians going by on the street just don't see the same thing.)

The new building's look is having an impact.

"I think it's going to bring back that corner at Robson and Howe to an iconic perspective," says Charles Gauthier, an urban planner who is the executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.

And, he says, it's prompted discussions among store owners all along Granville south of the store about how to respond to what the new building will bring.

The building's new look, and more importantly, the 900 new tech workers it will bring into the area have people talking about what new kinds of businesses might be feasible for this crowd.

Owners are also realizing that some of their above-street-level space could also become high-tech office space.

"We see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revitalize south Granville all the way to the bridge," says Mr. Gauthier.

That's a plus. But for Mr. Cheng, whose work is sprinkled all over Vancouver, from the Shangri-La hotel further north on Georgia to many condos to the south lining False Creek, the opportunity to transform a key building in the city was a gift in itself.

"It's like it was in a cocoon and now a butterfly has come out."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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