Exploring Vancouver: The Architectural Guide

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October 29, 2012

Exploring Vancouver: The Architectural Guide
By Harold Kalman and Robin Ward
Photographs by John Roaf
Douglas & McIntyre, 336 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

Exploring Vancouver: The Architectural Guide is a highly readable and informative guide to Vancouver’s buildings, both old and new. And while the city has not been known for its architecture, except perhaps the Vancouver Special, a two-story, basement-less house put up by the block in the seventies because of its low cost, Harold Kalman and Robin Ward manage to integrate Vancouver’s buildings with its history in an engaging way. And the authors do not shy away from difficult topics, such as racism and homelessness.

A brief introduction guides readers into the book. The authors indicate their intention for their work: “Exploring Vancouver reveals the architecture and urbanism of the city, its history and the people and the society that made it.” And they have excelled at this task. The book is arranged into 14 chapters by location, and each building has a short explanation and a colour photograph. Each chapter includes a map and a suggested route to take advantage of the information within the pages. And the chapters are letter- and colour-coded to make navigating the book about as easy as possible.

I was surprised to learn that Vancouver is the only major North American city without a freeway through it. In 1967, the Strathcona Freeway plan was blocked, thus saving the neighbourhoods of Chinatown and Gastown, which the freeway would have cut through. The lack of a freeway contributes to an emphasis on livable housing density, “Vancouverism,” as the ideology is known and admired internationally. The authors are clearly in love with their subject and present Vancouver as a model for the world, with its eco-friendly attitude and residential downtown. What doesn’t come up much is the traffic problem, which is one of the worst in North America.

For people who want to know what they are looking at while on a walk, this book is splendid: it works well for the Vancouverite or the visitor or the armchair traveller. Strolling around is one of the most pleasant pastimes in a city that is relatively safe, clean, and ice-free. Reading about the city is fun as this book has a lively and crisp tone. Anyone familiar with Vancouver will find iconic buildings, such as the Europe Hotel at 43 Powell with its flatiron design and the Marine Building at 355 Burrard with its gorgeous Art Deco features, along with newer buildings such as One Wall Centre at 938 Nelson with its controversial two-tone glass compromise in its 48 towers and the Olympic Village at False Creek, described in a clear, no-nonsense fashion. I will definitely take this book with me whenever I go to Vancouver and will explore some of the sights with attention.

The authors have scoured the city for buildings to include, from the soaring towers of downtown and the West End to the old Woodward’s store to the mansions of Shaughnessy and numerous other private dwellings of all sizes. Bridges are included. Skytrain stations are also included. The scope extends as far as Richmond, New Westminster, and Burnaby. The breadth is remarkable. It’s no surprise that the book is endorsed by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

And to round out the informative value of the volume, the authors include a glossary, a list of books for further reading, and a detailed index. Put all that on a high quality paper with sewn in signatures, and the result is a beautiful, durable – and affordable – book. And that’s kind of ironic. As the authors note, Vancouver is an extremely “livable” city but only for those who can afford the high cost of housing.

Candace Fertile is a contributing editor of The Coastal Spectator and teaches English at Camosun College


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