City of Glass




Aug '12 - Sep '12

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    You too can be an Architecture Critic!

    Ekaterina Dovjenko
    Aug 24, '12 11:34 PM EST

     Vancouver. What’s the first thing that comes to mind?


    For some of us it’s the spectacular natural beauty. For others, it’s the yoga-doing, sushi-eating lifestyle. Heralded as the “California” of the North, it’s a gem of a city on the verge of global recognition.

    Architecturally though, it’s a little boring. After all, with such natural splendour, why bother with varying form? Apart from a lucky few, the skyline is dominated with repeating steel and glass monoliths, boxes housing expensive condo units the size of my drawer.

    And yet, there seems to be something brewing; at a Westbank lecture by Bjarke Ingels (yeah, he's a babe) of BIG Architecture this past spring, Vancouverites asked themselves why their city fails to deliver world-renowned form. Is it due to the lack of local talent? I doubt it. Has it to do with the interplay between local economy, developer-centric penchants for quick profits and “new money” coming in from all over the world? Possibly. While we can never point a finger to one big cause of this letdown in Vancouver, we can at least start to remedy it. From a community perspective, this means an overhaul of current planning regulations, more international competitions and a complete rethinking of our real estate market. Those are big things that will take years to do.

    Individually though, we can start small; each of us can become architectural critics. In Writing about Architecture, New York architecture and design critic, Alexandra Lang writes, “What we need are more critics—citizen critics—equipped with the desire and the vocabulary to remake the city”, and I could not agree with her more. More than ever, there’s a need for regular people like you and I to be pro-active about our city planning.


    1.       Start Small. The world of architecture, development and planning is huge and confusing. Start with little steps and ask yourself what you want to learn. Is it architecture, urban planning or a combination of both? Are you interested in institutional projects or towers? Do you live in a particular area you would like to focus on? In Vancouver, a lot of attention is currently centred around housing affordability and tackling homelessness and the inflated real estate market (more on that in future posts) but each city differs. Recently, the city launched a Housing Affordability contest. You can take a look at the winners here.

    2.       Read (a lot!) and then go travel. First off, all cities (unless you're in Tehran or something) will publish their Council minutes and info online. That's a little boring to read but if you want up to date info on new projects, it's the place to start. Luckily, Vancouver has a synopsis of large project submissions here. If that's not your cup of tea, there are bloggers out there that will highlight projects as they come up.

    Of course, when looking at a project, it might be useful to know a thing or two about architecture. Not only will it serve you well at cocktail parties (…"oh I hear blah blah pays homage to Le Corbusier…"), it will help you appreciate a building a lot more. Books are always a great start but often it's key to actually go and experience something to truly understand it. When it comes to local projects, visiting interesting sites is not all that hard. Luckily for you, I'll be publishing some lovely top ten architectural sites in the near future along with some books I think are absolutely splendid for architecture.

    3. Everyone (usually) has a valid opinion. I once chatted with a development manager about a man in North Vancouver that has attended every single Public Hearing for the past five years. He constantly misses the mark on facts and rambles on incoherently, but what's important here is that his opinion remains valid and that the District continues to listen. If this man, with no planning or architecture experience, can affect his community, you, far superior, can too.

    Don't get disheartened with lengthy planning sessions, pompous architects (they exist! I know, how terrible!) or even more pompous developers, confusing jargon or the difference between a Corinthian or Greek (or whatever) column. It's our ultimate responsibility and privilege to voice opinions about where we live and to create meaningful space. It's not easy but it's possible.


    This blog is meant to chronicle Vancouver’s big transformation to a world metropolis. It’s a blog about cities and architecture for people, like me, who are only just starting on the road to understanding it all. And maybe it’s also about me and my transformation as I move from one phase of my life to another in one of the most beautiful places in the world.


    Who am I? I’m a recent finance grad turned real estate developer turned future architecture student.  I’ve worked at a real estate developer, an architectural firm and had the opportunity to direct the New Student Union Building Project (more on that one later) on campus. I would like to think that these experiences have brought me a little bit closer to understanding the nebulous world of architecture.


    • monterey

      is this necessary?

      Aug 27, 12 6:14 am

      This is an interesting article, becasue it assumes everyone dosen't care about architecture, when most everybody has an opinion, of at least their home, it's just that architects don't care.  Like the description of the boring architecture of Vancouver, architects have been designing glass boxes for more than 50 years, but they still publish them as cutting edge.  They where boring in the 1960's, but architects just don't care.

      Aug 27, 12 10:04 am

      well, actually it's about selling a place. the author is in real estate. she quotes bjarke ingels, a notorious door to door vendor.  The invitation to read is ok, but there seems to be some teleology at work here.

      RE your concern, it's not that changing the cloak to the boxes anything changes, it's still speculation. people's preferences are problematic, they might deem battery park city or canary wharf "homely". 

      Aug 29, 12 4:56 am

      I read your article and found myself wanting to use your points to take an "amateur" and develop their architectural appetite.  

      1.  Start Small:  Look at the way details are done on buildings. Architects will begin to think buildings are beautiful because when you actually get into them, they are well designed in every room, not just from a photograph taken across the street.   Look at the "small" things.  Did the tile floor get laid down correctly?  What are the details of the door hardware (I posted on this at  Are the windows centered on the room?  Are the lines in the floors, walls, and ceilings working together or random? Why?

      2. Read (alot) and travel.  Maybe reading city council minutes will give you an idea of the thoughts of politicians and zealous locals, BUT, gaining architectural intelligence and opinion might be better accomplished with design magazines.  Even watching Home Network TV shows, like House Hunters (I can't believe I'm endorsing this) give people a very wide variety of styles and cultures to view.  You find yourself designing the possibilities.  And travel is a must...Even the local showroom (IKEA) will give you an eye for design.

      3.  Everyone(usually) has a valid opinion...especially after practicing points one and two. Your opinion will lead to architecture likes and dislikes.  I dislike many "prominent" architects' design tendencies....and yet, I have found that sometimes their work is pleasantly appropriate in certain places.  Like in most things, having an opinion, fighting for it, and pursuing its goals in fine, just don't lose it when the differing design solution is chosen.  Usually, it isn't so bad...BUT????

      Sep 11, 12 9:48 am

      Thanks for the tips and I completely agree with you (except maybe on the House Hunters bit). 

      Sep 17, 12 12:22 am

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About this Blog

Vancouver, the City of Glass. It’s a city of shinning skyscrapers and cardboard homes: a city of spectacular natural beauty, crushing rain, award winning livability and a frightening income gap. It’s a city of contradiction—and it’s growing. This blog will follow Vancouver through its coming of age. It will highlight the city’s search for new forms, its attempts at new urbanism, and its struggles and moments of success within the world of architecture, planning and design.

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