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Accueil » Institut Pierre Renouvin » Les revues » Le bulletin de l'Institut Pierre Renouvin » Tous les bulletins » Bulletin n° 10, Canada » An Te Liu, Translations and transformations in the built environment of asian Vancouver

An Te Liu, Translations and transformations in the built environment of asian Vancouver

Translations and transformations in the built environment of asian Vancouver



Bulletin n° 10, automne 2000




An Te Liu


Learning from Richmond: the urbanization of the suburban mall.


This talk begins in Richmond (British Columbia), a major city-suburb directly to the south of Vancouver and its international airport. Richmond is situated in the delta of the Fraser River, which by some accounts gives it good feng shui, as it can be seen to represent either the head, or the tail, of a dragon. Accordingly, Richmond's population is currently 40% ethnic Chinese, and this proportion is rising.

As a seemingly anti-urban counterpart to the traditional Chinatown of downtown Vancouver, Richmond forms a part of the increasingly common phenomena of the suburban satellite Chinatown, or «China-burb». Richmond is characterized primarily by single-family housing within a grid of large thoroughfares dotted with commercial services. As the critic Robert Venturi would claim: «this is the kind of flat-land, car-dominated commercial milieu where the graphic sign is more important than the architecture». It is where the building form is neutral and reductive because it can hardly be seen, and where «graphics and packaging have replaced the oral persuasion of the merchant».

 This is a built environment characterized by low-rise strip or «mini-malls», single «big-box» retail outlets and larger regional scale malls, all served and surrounded by expanses of asphalt parking lots. The strip mall is usually configured as a simple one-sided «bar» or «L» shaped building with shop entrances directly off the parking lot which it faces. The large regional mall, which was first introduced in Vancouver suburbs as early as the 1950's, is usually comprised of a wide corridor, serving shops on two stories and terminating at either end with large anchor stores, creating a simple «dumbbell» plan. The suburban mall is defined by clear organizational logic and strict regulation of zones of operation. These malls are meant to be safe, decent, and conformist and are spatially and programmatically predictable. In short, they have come to represent much of what the city is not.

 However in this typically North American (and perhaps typically banal) suburban landscape, evidence would suggest that ethnic Chinese activity has begun to transform the pre-existing commercial vernacular, arriving at what may be termed an Asian «maxi-mall»: an emergent building type leading to an urbanization of the suburban mall. On a socio-economic level, the maxi-mall has been fueled by a convergence of factors. Land in Richmond is relatively inexpensive and until recently had not been fully exploited in terms of density or use. In turn, land-use economics complement the terms of immigration for some 3 000 Asians located in Vancouver in the last decade under Canada's Immigrant Investor Program, which stipulates the investment of at least $350,000 through the purchase or operation of a business. In combination with the needs of a burgeoning ethnic Chinese population, commercial development in Richmond tells a complex and somewhat circular story of supply and demand, both in terms of consumer need and immigration law.

 The characteristics of the Asian maxi-mall can be summarized as follows: typological hybridity; return to the bazaar, and stemming from it; programmatic instability. They begin to describe a divergent commercial vernacular that is not only more Asian, but also more urban.

 The typological hybridity: through the combination of various suburban building types, one sees a decisive change in the architectural landscape of Richmond, one that challenges the reductive formal and graphic logic of the typical suburban drag. The Asian maxi-mall finds its genealogy in the strip-mall, as seen at Parker Place, Aberdeen Center, and Central Square. All these complexes can be read as expanded strip-malls, with shops at ground level facing parking lots that are now filled with the customized sports cars favored by the Asian youth of Richmond. Moving from parking lot as a spectacle on the exterior, the Asian mall now has an interior, featuring multi-level, maze-like shopping arcades. These spaces are based on the regional mall type, but are more dense, intense and unpredictable.

 Currently under construction nearby, the Empire center is another hybrid strip mall, with buildings and parking organized around an inter-block «street» connecting the busy thoroughfares of No. 3 Road and Hazelbridge Way. Again, the complex may be read as combining the types of strip-mall and regional mall but now establishing an urban commercial edge addressing both streets, and a «village» of one, two and three-story buildings served by surface and rooftop parking.

 Adjacent to Yaohan Plaza is perhaps the most curious and complex hybrid building, the President Plaza. As the «Cadillac» of architectural cross-breeding in Richmond, the exterior form of President Plaza begins as the Radisson business hotel, which feeds into a high-rise office building and a six-story high atrium space with an adjacent multi-level parking structure, which finally completes the building.

 While President Plaza strongly establishes an exterior presence that is now more architectural than graphic, its interiors begin to describe a spatial and experiential richness, with complex sequences of spaces both large and small, formal and intimate. President Plaza cannot decide if it is one building, or at least five or six, if it is beautiful or ugly: it is an architectural potpourri, still «un peu moche», but robust and intriguing. It is like a city dropped into the suburbs.

 The return to the bazaar: in describing the urbanization of the Asian maxi-mall, we now move beyond the primary architectural properties to vital considerations of their use and occupation. Cities are characterized by variety, density, mutability and unpredictability, and their buildings facilitate genuine social activity in the «production of space». If the environments of transaction in the North American suburbs have failed in offering this, the Asian maxi-mall seems to revive it, through what might be termed «a return to the bazaar». In the bazaar, the persuasion of the merchant is revived as he hawks his wares in a space of exchange that is aggressive, messy and vital, one which also reveals aspects of both consumption and production.

 In the bazaar, the goods spill out of the shops and share the space of the lane, blurring the boundary between the two. Merchants come and go, setting up informal and temporary stalls, occupying all available spaces of transaction.

 In the bazaar, zones and activities merge and are overlaid; boundaries are implied but shifting: in Yaohan Center, one of several temporary vendors in the foreground, a little further the checkout stalls of the supermarket also blend into the space of the mall, and beyond that, the insertion of two independent stores within the space of the Yaohan supermarket itself, with stalls within malls, like little stores inside bigger ones.

 In the bazaar, zoning issues are dealt with in an improvisational manner: here we see that one shop owner has sub-divided an already tight lot into two smaller units, one in front with half its products out in the hall, and the other wrapping behind. This leads to the final aspect of the Asian maxi-mall, programmatic instability. Programmatic instability is aided and abetted by two factors: strata-lot ownership and laissez-faire zoning. Strata-lot designation allows for the outright purchase of a retail space within the mall, creating a village of independent store owners who are free to operate, lease or sub-lease their spaces. Because the lots are privately owned and operated, a wide variety of unique goods and services present themselves in an equally unusual range of spatial configurations. This is in contrast to the predictable «science of shopping» practiced in the traditional North American mall, where spaces are leased, usually to respectable nation-wide retail chains in order to garner «prestige» and assure a reliable source of rent.

 In the bazaar it seems that the entire world has been condensed and flexibly re-deployed. The other factor contributing to programmatic instability laissez-faire zoning encourages the integration of diverse uses within the same building and allows for the sometimes incongruous juxtaposition of services side by side. Laissez-faire zoning in the Asian maxi-mall has pushed the idea of mixed-use and cross programming to an extreme, contesting North American planning practices which lean towards the separation of uses as opposed to the conflation of uses. As unassumingly indicated on the directory, the building is host to a hotel, a large array of restaurants, a mall and supermarket, a spa and aesthetic services, offices, and so on.

 Rising further through the complex, we arrive at a skylit courtyard where professional services such as chiropractors, dentists, and educational foundations are interspersed with antique shops, cell phone firms, and import-export companies. Following the light at the top level of the building, one finally arrives at the last tenant, which is amazingly, home to the Buddha's Light International Association, complete with a 1 000m2 temple and a monastery where monks actually live and study. So now we have monks living in a mall, which is quite unusual for the suburbs.

 Learning from Richmond deals with Asian immigrants, their development and use of real estate and the translation and transformation of building types such as the mall and strip-mall. These buildings are not categorically Asian, but they have been significantly inflected to reflect Asian business and shopping interests. The phrase «best function and sensation», seems logical enough, but in Richmond, the process of translation has offered new possibilities for density and diversity, even while restating obvious goals of good buildings and social spaces. In many ways, the Asian maxi-malls of Richmond revive the rituals of human transaction in increasingly urbanized environments which contest the homogeneity and planned conformity of the suburbs. They somehow do allow for «the best function and sensation», for only in a place like the Asian mall, or perhaps in a good city, could you get a bowl of noodles, ride an elevator with a monk on the way to getting your teeth cleaned, and then sing karaoke until four in the morning. 


Fear and loathing in Kerrisdale: polemics of the «monster home».


Moving from retail to residential architecture, we proceed north to Kerrisdale and Shaugnessy, two traditionally affluent, english enclaves situated in the heart of Vancouver. At the turn of the century, Shaugnessy was home to the baronial mansions of industrial magnates, forming the largest concentration of millionaires in Canada. The majority of the homes built in the fifty years that followed were smaller knock-off versions of their grander neighbors, most of them in the English Tudor and Georgian styles, and featuring landscaping in the picturesque tradition. With their direct lineage, the older houses of Kerrisdale and Shaugnessy have remained the most revered and representative examples of domestic architecture to be found in the city.

 Not as well known, or discussed, is the history of ethnic bias in such neighborhoods. For a long time, not only was it customary for residents of Kerrisdale and Shaugnessy to keep servants referred to as «the Chinamen», as shown in these early house plans, but there was also a covenant forbidding the Chinese and Jews from settling in these areas. Although seldom enforced, the covenant remained tacitly understood through the first half of the century, and it was not until the 1960's that it was officially lifted.

 In contrast to earlier generations of working class Asian immigrants, the recent wave of Asian immigration to Vancouver has brought a new echelon of entrepreneurial class immigrants and their dependents, the so-called «yacht people». Asian immigration has brought demands to all levels of Vancouver's housing market, but nowhere more emphatically than with the so-called «monster home». Chiefly associated with Asians, these new and often conspicuous homes have infiltrated Kerrisdale, Shaugnessy, and other established neighborhoods over the last fifteen years. The demographic shift in these areas marks a curious transition from a post-colonial era to a new and active period of cross or reverse-colonization, forming an episode in the city's history that is not without irony.

 Architecturally, this phenomenon has transformed large portions of exclusive communities. The characteristics of the «monster home» begin with its size, for it can indeed be «monstrous», starting from 300m2 and sprawling up to 1 000m2. In most cases, the «monster home» occupies the site to a maximum, pushing very close to the property lines to fully realize development potential. Land-use economics merge with desires for increased interior amenities such as scores of bedrooms and bathrooms for guests and extended families, numerous garage spaces, and even multiple kitchens: a hidden one for heavier use and a «showcase kitchen» for ceremonial use. The exterior architecture of the «monster house» ranges from the non-descript, with low pitched roof lines, bay windows, and surfaces of plain stucco, to the ostentatious, often with loud stone or brick veneer, two-story columns, ornate gating, and a prominent entrance affording a view of the chandelier from the street.

 Many «monster homes» have replaced smaller houses on the site, and in the process of demolishment, many trees have also been cut down to make way for the new homes and extensively paved front lawns that some residents prefer, thus exacerbating the effects of size through increased visibility. For the most part, «monster homes» do not reflect a nostalgia for Anglo-historicist styles nor an interest in a more contemporary mode of expression, but they reside in strange architectural limbo. Aided by a factory of residential architects, plan-designers and developers, many of them also Asian, the «monster homes» are the result of an honest, if somewhat misguided, attempt to develop land logically, while gaining and displaying new status.

 Over recent years, the saga of the «monster home» has been painful and contentious. In Kerrisdale, local indignation has precipitated intense debate involving issues of taste, and not without some racial overtones. As a reaction to the unseemly «monster homes» and the cutting down of trees associated with their construction, the city has introduced a new RS-6 zoning code in Kerrisdale, which would curb the «most detrimental features» of the «monster home», such as «excessive yard paving, flat roofs, bare windows and doors with no trim, cheap looking wall coverings, grandiose looking entrances, and box shaped houses». Evidently, the stipulations of the RS-6 code will work not only to deter the «monster home», but also any modernist or contemporary solution, no matter how accomplished or sensitive, even if Frank Lloyd Wright were alive to carry it out. RS-6 is an attempt to recuperate the authentic Kerrisdale.

 The phenomenon of the «monster home» and its links to Asian ethnicity represents an instance of both civic and architectural non-compliance: indeed, an important form of «etiquette» has been violated. The current counter-attack is the predictable reaction of a community whose prestige and architectural charm depends on the living out of an architectural past, and with RS-6 it seems that only a historicist solution made painstakingly compliant will be the only option for construction in the future. But, as with the use of English on the packaging for the Japanese gum, Kissmint, something is bound to go a little «funny» in the process of emulation, even while attempting to make a serious translation.

 Moving forward into the past, we now witness the impossibility of repeating architectural history, and the untraversable distances between the building traditions, aesthetic sensibilities and cultural realities of different epochs. Although a recent breed of new monster homes has attempted to behave 'properly' in the contexts of Shaugnessy and Kerrisdale, it is as if the new homes were holding a defective mirror up to their older architectural neighbors and saying, «here, this is how we think you look like». But these homes, like those which caused the initial outrage, still seem out of place. They are like bad translations or low-fidelity bootlegs of the past, and beyond that, inevitably lack the patina of age, which is also the patina of a pre-existing ethnicity and an established cultural class.

 This leads one to imagine a scenario where traditional neighborhoods such as these might just as well become museums, crystallizing a specific period in built form, rendering themselves impervious to the sullying effects of change. The current endgame of the «monster home» saga has fuelled intense debate surrounding the assimilation of new immigrants and their buildings in a sensitive physical and social fabric. It has also raised again the question «in what style shall we build?», soliciting a response that will severely curb the course of contemporary residential architecture in Vancouver.


Man or Astroman? The Globalization of downtown Vancouver.


Moving to Vancouver's downtown core, one again witnesses the role of Asians and Asian capital in the recent transformation of the metropolis. As a story shaped increasingly by global concerns and trajectories, it raises pressing questions concerning issues of «place» in the future development of the city.

In recent years the city has experienced annual population growth reaching 12%, exerting a noticeable impact on the downtown peninsula, where living has always been dense. With a total area of only 5 km2 and a figure of 24 000 people / km2, downtown Vancouver's West End is among the most densely populated districts in the Northern Hemisphere.

 The dynamics of change in Vancouver's built environment have been marked by an explosion in the real estate market, beginning in the 1980's, aided by an early majority of Asian investors, developers and purchasers. In 1989, one third of existing buildings sold went to foreign investors, 90% of them from Hong Kong. In the same year, the inflow of funds to British Columbia associated with Hong Kong immigration was estimated at $1 billion. Fuelled by high levels of foreign investment, the most conspicuous building type to emerge has been the high-rise condominium tower. It is estimated that 60% of the 7 000 condominium units built from 1994 to 1998 were financed in part, or entirely, by Asian investors. Physically, the new towers have quickly filled the gaps in the city's much venerated skyline, adding considerably to the illusion that Vancouver looks like a tidy, miniature version of Manhattan or Hong Kong, an illusion that works better from a distance rather than from close-up, but is nonetheless compelling.

 The new towers are consistent with zoning changes made in the 1960's, allowing for the replacement of single-family residential units in the West End with new high-rises to house the growing labor force in the downtown core, and resulting in the evolution of the slender residential tower type seen here. These mini-towers, which rise from ten to twenty-five stories with as few as four units per floor, constitute much of the residential fabric of the West End, and many have contributed to the city's legacy of modernist architecture.

 The more recent versions of the slender residential tower clock in at around 30 stories, with units ranging from tiny bachelor suites to 500m2 penthouses. Here, a view from Robson street looking towards the «Palisades» towers by James Cheng, introduces the novel concept of the «two-fer» tower, where one tower is duplicated on the same site, with slight but clever differentiation. At street level, generous amounts of design amenity extend the public realm of the sidewalk, but ultimately the lobby of the building is separated from the street by a waterfall and a moat, assuring adequate security for the residents who move smoothly into their slick, hermetic living quarters.

 Located across the way, another «two-fer» by James Cheng, the highly acclaimed «Residences on Georgia», are noted for their incorporation of townhouse units in the podium base, forming a more intimately scaled street-front on Alberni street, where every building seen for blocks has been built in the last five years.

 On Georgia Street, one also finds the «Lions» and the «Pointe» across the way, two new complexes that offer precious views of Stanley Park, Coal Harbor and the mountains beyond. But however attractive their premises appear, with their concierges, fancy landscaping, secure parking, gymnasiums and so on, there remains an odd absence of human activity in these areas.

 Evidently, the austerity of the new towers and their surroundings is paralleled by the austerity of their inhabitation, as many of the condominiums have come to provide a temporary stoop or empty investment for the Asian entrepreneurial class and other part-time tenants. Properties such as these were initially developed and sold in the context of an international property market, with many units pre-sold, unseen to overseas purchasers seeking to acquire assets in Canada. As with the «monster homes», the towers have often become the domain for what is popularly termed the «astronaut»: the sky-bound trans-Pacific Asian nomad with multiple passports, residences, and dispersed family. Condominiums such as the Palisades and the Residences are an extension of their capsule, which comes furnished, and offers full room service from the neighboring hotel owned by the same Singaporese developer.

 Accordingly, Vancouver's Robson-North tower district is becoming more and more like a kind of «international space station». Fuelled in combination by a boom in Japanese and Taiwanese tourism, we currently find countless Asian restaurants, business class hotels, karaoke boxes, duty-free stores, and even a «house of salmon», all frequented by a street population that is overwhelmingly Asian. The area has taken on a distinctly international character, with stores catering to, and substantially sustained by, Asian immigrants and visitors. But, while Robson-North might offer a vibrant account of Asian consumer activity in downtown Vancouver, the benefits of globalization are coupled with the possibility that parts of the city might resemble any place, raising the question, «where is here»?

 The initial explosion of condominium towers has dramatically transformed the physical and cultural milieu of Vancouver, setting the pattern for subsequent residential development in the downtown core. As a concluding segment, we move to Concord Pacific Place located on the former grounds of the catalytic Expo '86. Covering 80 hectares or roughly a sixth of the downtown peninsula, this huge site was acquired in 1987 by the Hong Kong billionaire Lee Ka-Shing. At an estimated cost of $3 billion, Concord Pacific is North America's largest urban redevelopment project, accommodating 15 000 new residents over the next decade.

 As with the towers in the Robson-North district, Concord Pacific wooed the influx of Asian flight capital leading to 1997, with aggressive pre-construction marketing of suites to Asians. In Hong Kong, a replica of the elaborate Vancouver sales center was installed in the Bank of China tower, with mortgage arrangements worked out through banks in either city. In recent years, the selling of Concord Pacific to immigration and investment-conscious Asians has given way to the marketing of a classically white «yuppie» lifestyle to an image-conscious local constituency. The transition from an international to a regional clientele was vividly demonstrated at a nearby tower proudly calling itself the «Canadian», and whose giant billboard advertising featured a well-dressed Asian woman, together with her Caucasian husband, and their mixed breed son.

 In any case, it appears that these units are indeed meant to be sold, but not necessarily lived in. Marketing brochures fictitiously conjure scenes of urban bourgeois living, merging them with terms like «visionary master-planned community» and «vibrant resort-style living». Mock showroom suites feature fantastic simulated views of the city-scape, and interior walls have been cut away to make the spaces seem larger, for the rooms are tiny and awkward.

 With the first phase of buildings completed and the new residents installed, it seems that Concord Pacific has densified the city without urbanizing it. The towers boast a fiber optic network allowing global citizens to be «connected», while viewing live, split screen images from the buildings' surveillance cameras. But this would not be very interesting, as the cameras reveal that there is hardly anyone around, at least not yet. Condominium culture has resulted in a homogeneous and privatised culture; its environments tend to be exclusive, and issues of security and property prevent the possibility of diversity, which is a crucial urban trait. Compared with suburban Richmond, Concord Pacific is like a geriatric ward.

 In architectural terms, condominium culture has resulted in a de-evolution of architectural expression, with each new tower speaking in a neutral, watered-down language that is somehow «correct» but ultimately uninspired. This language is becoming increasingly standardized and global, with similar buildings popping up everywhere: it is the new architectural Esperanto, and has given the city a «plastic and surreal look», where everything resembles an image from a brochure. In urban terms, Concord Pacific is analogous to other urban mega-projects in the Asia-Pacific, which are largely modeled on each other with a strategy of internationalization in mind. They are designed to symbolize a universal but controlled urban utopia for the twenty-first century and they believe in the perfectibility of a built environment.

 Urban mega-projects also speak of global movements of capital as well as flows of people, technologies, products and images. These movements have been increasing in scale, speed and transparency throughout the world, and they can significantly alter cities and affect social change, but often have the habit of squelching the routines of everyday life with which they intersect. If the concept of globalization has become a dominant paradigm over modernization, then its positive effect might actually be an increase in the consciousness of the world as a whole and a complimentary rise in the consciousness of place and how we make the best of where we are, even if we are «all over».

 The story of Asia-Pacific and the built environment of Vancouver lies at the complex intersection of the local and the global; through the translation of existing conditions, it has diversified the city of Vancouver, reflecting shifting cultural and economic interests in architectural and urban form. At the same time, the accounts presented here have raised crucial and contentious questions about our built environment of how we deal with the past and posit our future, of how we reconcile the global and the local, the suburb and the city and of how we might arrive at a sense of place-ness through all of this, informing new urban visions with custom, human-fitting concepts.