A Roof that Is Not a Roof



On the day we visited the BC Place Stadium, 20 centimeters of snow descended upon Vancouver, marking our record snowfall of this winter. Assessing the situation from my office’s storefront, I text messaged the Luxury Home & Design Show team to see if I could hitch a ride from them, thinking sheepishly that we might end up rescheduling the visit if others were also in favour of a cozier afternoon.

“The GPS says another 30 minutes,” they replied, apparently already on their way. They were crossing the bridge into Vancouver as we spoke.

An hour later, a blue Toyota FJ Cruiser pulled over the snow-beaten sidewalk in front of my office. Two silhouettes dashed out of the vehicle. One of these brave souls was Gordon, whom I was meeting for the first time. From previous correspondence, I had learned that he is a professional builder by trade, and will assist in managing the construction of the Luxury Home & Design Show 2018.

Down-to-earth and sociable, Gordon is the type of guy you want to go fishing with. After a few casual exchanges, a mutual kinship gradually warmed the air. I felt confident that our show is in good hands.

Driving steadfastly alongside other determined drivers, we finally made it onto Cambie Street Bridge. On the north shore of False Creek, hidden behind a barricade of glass-clad high-rises is a white structure resembling a giant albacore laid flat on its side, circumscribed by a ring of fishing-rod-like steel arms. Each rod casts a line towards the centre of the roof. I told my new teammate that this was our destination.


 Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock


Even in the midst of a snowstorm, the unusual architecture of the BC Place Stadium stood out against the silvery grey sky. It first opened in June 1983, and has since hosted notable events, including Expo ’86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. Both Saint John Paul II and evangelist Billy Graham have spoken on its stage, and the young Princess Diana once toured the stadium in her royal Buick.

But the original structure had not been hung with “fishing lines.” In its previous incarnation, the roof was an inflated dome, supported by a constant air pressure inside the building. After the 2010 Winter Olympics, the inflated roof was replaced by a retractable one suspended on cables.

The new structure rising right in front of us has a clever mechanism by which the centre roof fabrics are drawn into a canister at the centre of the opening. The event manager of the stadium later told us that the retracting operation is a formidable spectacle to watch.

We parked our car at a retail outlet across the street, and walked towards the stadium’s east entrance at the ground level, where the exhibitor’s check-in desk was located. Lauren and Wendy had already arrived. Through a narrow passage between towers of bleachers, we entered straight into the belly of the arena. There was a trade show going on that day, and the arena felt like a jubilant marketplace.

Suspended in the centre was a four-sided electronic scoreboard. Measuring 21-by-12 metres, the screens are big enough to inflate a sportsman’s face 2,500 times above us. The advertisements flashing unceasingly on different screens have become quite an entertainment themselves.

But what had drawn my attention was the glowing roof, which admitted much daylight into the arena against the sullen sky. Viewed from below, the hemming of the fabric panels radiated across the roof like a daisy in full blossom.

The central canister into which the centre roof petals could be retracted seemed to be waiting eagerly to showcase its next spectacle, perhaps on a day without wind and downy flake.

“It is a roof that is not a roof,” I said in awe, “but a firmament, a glowing vault.”

We navigated through the myriad vendors lining the floor, taking notes at various aspects of the building pertinent to our event, which will be held in June, the same month as the inaugural opening of the BC Place Stadium 35 years ago. The thought of being inside the civic building during its 35th anniversary, and to be invited to design a feature tea pavilion in this iconic monument of our city, infused me with vigor and excitement.

We gathered ourselves at the south entrance so that the event manager of the stadium could join our discussion and provide the feedback we needed to ensure a successful show. In the next 45 minutes, we plowed through a whole list of questions ranging from loading and access to scheduling and setup.

At some point, Lauren — half inquisitively and half suggestively — asked what it takes to open the roof. A thought suddenly flashed across my mind: what if the design of the tea pavilion encourages visitors to look up and take a glimpse of the glowing roof? The daylight in June will be so much more abundant and lively. We may even see the saffron colour of Vancouver’s sunset on the opening night.

I opened my notebook and, on a fresh new page, wrote: “It will be a tea pavilion within an arena, a roof underneath another roof. And within the pavilion, we will hold a petal of the sky in the palm of our hands.”  

Read Imu Chan’s first diary entry, Prelude to a Potter’s Kiln.

And his second diary entry, Learning From Xiao Long Bao.

Imu Chan is the founder and principal architect of FSOARK, a Vancouver-based architecture practice. Through projects spanning a broad range of scales and mediums, his practice explores the essential, humanistic, and emotional qualities of space, which often demand cross-disciplinary examination. A licensed architect, certified passive house professional, public artist and product designer, Imu believes design has an obligation to the people and places it intends to serve, a capacity to influence life in profound ways. Imu holds a master’s degree in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a visiting scholar in Japan and China, and has practiced in the United States and Canada.