Changing the World’s Urban Landscape
James Cheng just smiles whenever it’s suggested that he invented Vancouverism even though his name has become synonymous with the slender, green-glass towers that define this city’s dynamic, live-play-work style of architecture. Ever since the early 1990s when he began re-imagining our built landscape, Cheng has enjoyed a global reputation as an innovator and visionary. His buildings and neighbourhoods are now conduits for lively, connected lifestyles and are being copied the world over.
“To me, it’s a natural outgrowth of our collective social consciousness. People could live anywhere — Calgary, Toronto, Los Angeles — but they make a conscious decision to live in Vancouver. So I asked: ‘What makes us choose Vancouver?’”
The answer was simple: it’s how this city feels. “Part of Vancouver’s unique character and social psyche is that we’re used to having nature in our backyard, we’re used to seeing the mountains and having green spaces — Stanley Park is as large as our entire downtown. That’s unusual for any North American city.”
Honouring the outdoor spaces inexorably intertwined with the West Coast lifestyle became a fundamental of James Cheng design. “I love gardens — they are my signature,” he says, adding that this passion began early in his career.
After winning the competition to design Vancouver’s Chinese Cultural Centre in 1978, Cheng travelled to China so he could experience authentic Chinese gardens. And it was in Suzhou, China’s famous Garden City, where he discovered the magic of courtyard gardens. “You can be walking down a narrow street, go through a single door, and suddenly it’s a different world. Unlike Japanese gardens which are purely meditative, Chinese gardens are where people live. Poets write verse there. You’ll often find platforms for staging plays. Everything happens in the garden.” Cheng knew he wanted to bring this discovery to Vancouver’s emerging high-density housing market.
The language of high density
While Cheng believes high density is a cornerstone of sustainability, he’s adamant that densification must have a purpose and a plan. “There is a common misconception that high density means overcrowding. It doesn’t. Overcrowding is high density done badly. In Vancouver, we’re fortunate because we’ve densified correctly for 30 to 40 years, so our city centres have good energy.”
He does acknowledge, however, a difference between apartment and single-family living. “In a house, it’s natural to interact with your neighbours. When you sit on your front porch, you wave hello to people. In the backyard, you talk to neighbours across the fence. In apartment living, there is often no socially acceptable, common ground to dialogue with people — even when you’re standing in the elevator, people seldom talk to each other.”
Cheng set out to change that. His first opportunity came in the form of the two-tower Cambridge Gardens opposite Vancouver City Hall, completed in 1990. There, Cheng introduced the concept of placing townhouses, each with a small front and rear yard, around a courtyard at the base of the towers. For Cheng it was the correct response to the site’s context — integrating the heritage of the adjacent stone buildings with a contemporary high-rise. For Vancouver design, it was a trendsetting first.
Then, on the same blueprints, Cheng took the concept one step further. “Since you can’t have a front and backyard in a tower, why not create a controlled courtyard? If you’re in an outdoor area that belongs to you, you’ll feel comfortable just strolling or sitting by the fountain and chatting with your neighbours. It fosters a sense of community.” Today, an enclosed courtyard garden, often raised several storeys above ground-level, has become the de facto standard of tower-on-podium residential architecture and a treasured facet of urban living.
Balance and harmony
“I don’t have a ‘style’ per se, I have a consistent approach,” Cheng insists. It’s an approach that always begins with context — how a structure can complement and enhance a site’s existing neighbourhood, culture, and ambiance.
Even Cheng’s commercial buildings are a reflection of this contextual balance and harmony. “You must always have respect for your neighbours,” he explains, citing the Fairmont Pacific Rim as an example. “Most people aren’t aware that with over 800,000 square feet, this [structure] is the single largest building in Vancouver — the Convention Center is only half a million square feet.” Recognizing that a building this big could easily overpower the Marine Building next door, Cheng carefully scaled the façade into smaller chunks that appear to be an assemblage of many parts, none of them larger than the Marine Building.
The art of living
Inspired by the experience of the Suzhou gardens, Cheng has long been an advocate of marrying art and architecture. One of his earliest and most public successes can still be seen at the Palisades courtyard at Bute and Alberni in downtown Vancouver. “Local artist Gwen Boyle designed two rocks — one original, the other a bronze casting,” Cheng says with obvious fondness. “They are set on the corner where the best sunshine is. At noon you’ll see people sitting there having lunch and engaging with each other.”
Another well known landmark, Shaw Tower completed in 2005, not only marked Cheng’s third collaboration with developer Ian Gillespie but was the first time public art truly became an integrated part of a Vancouver building’s DNA. “Ian and I came up with the idea public art should be more than a painting or a wall sculpture, and we knew we wanted to use light,” Cheng says. The result is a 487-foot column of dissolving, coloured light that runs from the roof to the ground. Designed by Diana Thater, the installation is a beacon of welcome as ships enter the harbour and marks the center of downtown.
Once again, Cheng’s vision set a new standard. “Any major rezoning now includes public art as a requirement,” he says, adding many cities worldwide are following suit.
On the horizon, Cheng says he and Gillespie are working on a new collaboration — a master planned community in Hawaii. And so the James Cheng legacy continues growing throughout Vancouver and around the world.
Photo by Milos Tosic / © Paul Warchol