Recent Posts


Monday News Roundup

Jun 06, 2011

VIA Architecture is pleased to announce an upcoming event in conjunction with McGill University:

Community by Design: A Boomer Gift to the Next Generation

Alan Hart, AIA
VIA Architecture

Sunday May 22, 2011
12:30 – 3:00 pm
Smith Tower – Chinese Room
506 2nd Ave, Seattle, WA 98104

Refreshments will be served
No charge for admission

The Baby Boomer generation began as one of the most idealistic that engendered hope for the future and the planet. Although highly energetic and innovative, Baby Boomers have taken a lot more from the planet than we have given back.

Many of those born between the World War II and Vietnam War years only deferred thoughts of saving the world in order to make a living. Now they want to return to their roots and “make good” on early promises to themselves, and to their communities. Retirement may not be appealing either professionally or financially, but “returnment” or “encore” careers have become hugely popular as Boomers seek to spend the next chapter of their productive years doing work that is meaningful both to themselves and to the world. Embracing community, and being active agents of positive change, will be this generation’s legacy for the next generation.

This generation of 78 million now has an unprecedented opportunity to make our cities greener, healthier and happier places to live. Ideas like alternate housing choices, generational continuity, increased mobility, urban agriculture, intelligent grids, local energy/sufficiency and incremental framework for change will be explored using real world examples including some from VIA Architecture’s projects and initiatives.

Alan’s talk will be followed by a discussion of McGill University’s initiatives in campus greening, alternative energy projects, and community involvement.

The Home Depot Foundation awarded its second annual Awards of Excellence for Sustainable Community Development to Tacoma, WA; Burlington, VT, and Boston, MA. The awards recognize and celebrate cities that are incorporating real-world sustainability initiatives into their day-to-day operations, with a focus on wise use of budget dollars and increasing the livability of each community for all residents.

City of Tacoma won the “large city” award for 2010 — with the announcement stating that they have “incorporated sustainability throughout its comprehensive plan ensuring that sustainable policies and business practices are considered when making all departmental decisions”

Here are some examples of sustainability practices that they have already implemented:

  • 25 new bike racks in the public right of way
  • Public Works is using recycled road material, including chip seal oil containing 5 percent recycled rubber tires
  • Fifteen hybrid vehicles were purchased as pool vehicles this last year, encouraging the use of fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles within the City of Tacoma. A fleet anti-idling policy has been established for General Government.
  • Tacoma Rail has installed idle reduction technologies on 10 of its 17 locomotives that have resulted in a 40 percent fuel savings.

Click here and here to see other posts that we’ve written about Tacoma.

To read more about their submission, click here.

Designing for Loss: The Shrinking City

by Amanda Bryan, VIA Architecture
Photo: Philipp Oswalt; Shrinking Cities Volume 1: International Research © 2005, Germany

Philipp Oswalt and Tim Rieniets; Atlas of Shrinking Cities © 2006, Germany

Whether we’re comfortable with saying out loud or not, the American Dream is based on the idea of expansion and acquisition. First exemplified by the Louisiana Purchase, then modernized by the Interstate Highway Program, and now globalized by our corporate prosperity in countries around the world, we have gotten very good at dealing with growth. If there is one thing that Americans know how to do, it is expand, expand, expand (and yes, I know the same can be said of our waist lines). But do we know how to deal with the antithesis of expansion – shrinkage? To be specific, I’m talking about The Shrinking City, a phenomenon synonymous with the words suburbanization, deindustrialization, and decentralization.

While the issue of the Shrinking City is not unique to the United States, having found perch in old industrial belts like Eastern Germany and post-socialist regions of Russia, our Shrinking Cities are a little different because they are not the products of war, natural disaster, or governmental upheaval. The American Shrinking City is a once vibrant urban center, formerly dependent upon a highly industrialized local economy, which finds itself subject to a rapid population decline within its city boundaries and bloated with an excess of abandoned spaces and buildings.

If we look at the poster child of our nation’s car manufacturing industry, Detroit, we can see that its population has decreased more than 50% over the course of the last 60 years. According to the newest census report, this declining trend is still continuing with a population loss of 25% over just the last decade. The physical reality of this drastic population means that The City of Detroit is now facing the demolition of 10,000 empty residential buildings, 3,000 of which are slotted for demolition by the year’s end. The economic reality is an eroding tax base while the cultural implication is a culture of resignation that pervades the psyche of those left behind.

Philipp Oswalt; Shrinking Cities Volume 2: Interventions © 2006, Germany

So how can a city like Detroit move forward from its shrinking urban form? There have been many ideas proposed over the years, all of which focus on the reclamation of excess space and concentration of existing residents. One such proposal came from the Community Development Advocates of Detroit, a nonprofit trade group of local development organizations, which suggested that Detroit could be classified into 11 neighborhood zones like homestead sectors, village hubs, and traditional residential sectors.

The vision for one of these urban homesteads involves instituting rural living conditions geared toward agricultural uses in exchange for disconnecting from city services like water. Another community group, Detroit Declaration, has suggested creating urban farms in areas deemed as “weedy wastelands” and consolidating smaller parcels to promote urban infill. These ideas represent just two groups’ efforts out of the half dozen who are turning the notion of the city on its head in order to rethink the possibilities of a shrinking city.•urban-agriculture-community-gardening/

However, one thing that these groups have not done is specify which areas should be demolished and which should be preserved because there is a strong belief that this decision belongs to the city. While some skeptics are worried about placing this decision in the hands of government out of fear of a huge land grab, the general belief is that the doing nothing is only a recipe for continued shrinkage and misery. According to Richard Florida, the key to reimagining The Shrinking City is not to hand over whole sections of the city to the government or developers but instead to enable residents to spearhead the revitalization and build quality places they can identify with.

I would dare to suggest that maybe the City of Detroit ought to be the facilitators of a large-scale collaboration between the developers and residents because as Jane Jacobs put it, “The key is to engage the residents of the area, the business owners, the shopkeepers, the workers and the commuters. They’re the ones that can show the way to rebuild.”

Why not use our best asset, a culture based on growth, and harness it within a framework that can be held accountable by the people?

Canada Line featured in Canadian Architect Magazine

“Eighteen months have now passed since the inaugural run of the new Canada Line, which connects the cities of Vancouver and Richmond with the Vancouver International Airport, and has already reached the capacity ridership anticipated for five years hence.”

— Sean Ruthen, writer for Canadian Architect

The Canada Line was featured in Canadian Architect‘s March magazine, and covers five of our stations, along with stations designed by other architecture firms. To read the article, you either need an online subscription, or need to request a copy of the magazine.

Our firm provided master planning for the line, and completed prototypical work for all 17 stations, including each station’s schematic design. Here is a feature of the inspiration and ideas behind the three underground stations: Yaletown, Vancouver City Centre, and Waterfront, and the two elevated stations: Marine Drive and Bridgeport.

Underground Stations

These three downtown stations represent rail, road, and the sea, and we tried to make a reflection of each of those ideas in very subtle ways.

Yaletown — Rail

Yaletown Station pulls its inspiration from the historic Yaletown loading docks in the design of its roof canopy (as seen in the photo below):

image source

It expresses the rail by using continuous horizontal bands of colored accent tile. We knew that the architecture needed to be receptive to advertising and art, so we placed the patterning so that they would become a backdrop:

Vancouver City Centre — Road

Vancouver City Centre Station was inspired by the intersection of Georgia and Granville.  Once you get down into the station, the accent tiles on the walls were randomly spaced, like the pattern of cars on a road. And just like Yaletown, there isn’t a pattern that would be “blocked” by the ads. And like randomness, you can go any which way.

Waterfront – Sea

Waterfront Station tells the story of the water that comes into a tidal pool as seen in the arched wave feeling on the ceiling:

The tile pattern throughout the station has blocks of blue color, which represent pools of water:

Elements of Continuity:

Waterfront and VCC: both had granite frames; stone band with a window in the middle VCC and Yaletown: wood roof

Elevated Stations
The following two elevated stations addressed the industry located on either side of the Frasier River.

Marine Drive Station — Pioneer Logging Industry

Marine Drive Station took its cue from the saw mills and planing mills down at Eburne. Portrayed as a “launching pad” where the tunnel comes above ground (visualize being on a log ride at the county fair).

Actual exit to Marine Drive station

Log Ride at a County Fair 🙂

Very streamlined, dynamic, industrial-oriented form:

Bridgeport Station — Air

Inspired by the ships and the early days of airplane manufacturing, Bridgeport Station’s original design had a curved roof that was based on the mosquito warplane.

*images and renderings copyright VIA Architecture. Please do not use without permission.
*Professional photographs taken by Ed White

University of Washington Headlines Exhibit

Beginning in 2005, the UW Architecture PAC has presented Headlines each Spring: an exhibit on public view for 2 weeks at Gould Court, traveling for exhibit at other Cascadia educational and professional venues, and visible online on the UW Department of Architecture site.

By highlighting unbuilt architectural projects under development by Washington design firms and organizations, Headlines offers the public, professionals, and campus communities a glimpse of work rarely seen outside the studio.

Schedule of HEADLINES exhibition:

April 15th to April 30th – University of Washington, Gould Hall Court
TBD – Architecture Institute of British Columbia, Vancouver
TBD – Washington State University, Pullman
TBD – Washington State University, Spokane
TBD – Montana State University
TBD – Portland State University
TBD – University of Oregon

We chose to feature the following two projects:

Evergreen Line – path of possibility
The Evergreen Line is designed as a new 11km rapid transit line in Metro Vancouver. It will seamlessly connect the municipalities of Burnaby, Coquitlam and Port Moody through six stations to the region’s successful SkyTrain system, local bus service and the West Coast Express commuter rail.

SR99 Tunnel Vent Buildings – urban strata
The designers were asked to develop designs for two vent buildings, located at the north and south portals of the proposed SR99 Tunnel. While the functional criteria for the two buildings are very similar, the designers were faced with drastically different infrastructures, neighborhoods and built environments.

The designers were challenged to develop a flexible material palette, which would allow each building to express an identity unique to its context, while maintaining threads of continuity that make known the connectivity and kinship of the two structures across the city.

By utilizing ideas of geology and stratification, the designers developed a simple set of materials – glass, precast concrete panels, metal panels. By incorporating minor variations in each, the designers were able to develop a rich and vibrant facade, calling to mind the urban strata of which it is a part.

by Stephanie Doerksen, VIA Architecture

In my last post I addressed some of the common objections to the proposal of removing the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts and mentioned some examples of similar initiatives. In this post I’d like to discuss some of the urban design benefits that could result.


Traffic on the viaducts has been steadily declining over the past 15 years. Studies show that most of the traffic accessing the downtown core via the viaducts originates in East Vancouver. In other words, this route is not part of the larger freeway/commuter network.

The viaducts during morning rush hour (8:10am Tuesday)

So if there’s really not that much traffic on Prior Street, why do the residents of Strathcona care about making it into a local street? In this case it’s a matter of quality over quantity. Prior Street may not boast the traffic volume of freeway, but the traffic certainly has the quality of major artery. The viaducts were constructed as part of a never-finished freeway network, but Prior Street was essentially designed as a neighbourhood street. There are no shoulders, large street trees, and minimal front yards. The character of this street is that of a residential collector. Functionally, Prior Street is a very uncomfortable hybrid, wherein a street that is designed to be residential gets used as freeway.

Prior Street at Jackson

Despite the 50km/h speed limit drivers often use freeway speeds. They run the red lights all the time because, in the freeway mind set, they simply don’t see them. In the two years that I’ve lived in the neighbourhood I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve jumped out the way of someone tearing through a red light, or witnessed a cyclist getting hit while crossing at a green light. The road is divisive, not because of the amount of traffic, but because it acts like a freeway.

Looking North across the viaducts towards Hogan’s Alley


Even if only 20% of the viaducts were removed, it would open up the parcel of land south of Hogan’s Alley for redevelopment. The parcel is currently bisected by the viaducts. The remnants of land are nominally park space, but they feel more like left over land – empty and slightly dangerous. The block, which has seen a tremendous resurgence in the last few years, is bordered on three sides by residences. If the viaducts did not exist, no one in their right mind would think it was a good idea to put a piece of freeway infrastructure right in the middle of a low-scale residential neighbourhood.

Houses along Gore Street next to the Viaducts

Removing the portion east of Main Street would make a dramatic improvement in to the area in terms of safety, walkability and the aesthetics of the neighbourhood. It would also reconnect Chinatown to the newer residential developments to the south, to the Skytrain station, the seawall, and to Thornton Park, which holds the summer Farmer’s Market.

Looking west towards Main Street: the viaducts divide the neighbourhood north-south

North East False Creek

One look at the aerial image of North East False Creek reveals how much of an impact the viaducts have on development potential of the area. In the Terms of Reference for the city’s High Level Review of the area, one of the priorities is creating a “normalized” street network which is either at grade or has useful transitions to grade. Studying the potential to remove the viaducts is one of the tasks for the review. Creating a strong and flexible street grid and animating it through good urban design are crucial to the liveability of the neighbourhood. For a neighbourhood so close to the downtown core there’s simply no excuse not to design a strong pedestrian realm and make walkability a priority. The viaducts disrupt this potential pedestrian realm by eliminating the potential for frequent north-south connections, casting shadows, and creating dark “underneath” areas. Transitioning between an elevated and at-grade road network is always going to be problematic, as evidenced by the fact that pacific boulevard basically duplicates the viaducts route. The elevated roads create problems architecturally as well as in terms of urban design. There are privacy and noise issues created by having a freeway buzz past a second or third storey that are difficult, if not impossible to resolve.

The original Georgia viaduct was built between 1913 and 1915 to cross over what were then CPR rail yards. The current viaducts were built in 1972 to replace the existing structure which had long since become unsound. They were built as part of an ambitious plan to build a freeway system through downtown Vancouver that would have included a tunnel beneath Burrard inlet known as the “Third Crossing.” The plan was eventually scrapped due to overwhelming opposition from Vancouver residents, especially those in Strathcona and Chinatown where mass demolition was slated to make way for the proposed freeway. However, before the city allowed the public consultation to occur, a large swath of Hogan’s Alley, then a predominantly African neighbourhood was bulldozed and the current viaducts were built.

The viaducts are Vancouver’s most glaring anachronism; leftover remnants of an age when freeway expansion meant progress and economic growth. However, in hindsight, most people would agree that the best planning decision that Vancouver ever made was to stop the freeway through downtown. As we proceed with planning decisions regarding the fate of the viaducts, we should learn from our past successes.

by Stephanie Doerksen, VIA Architecture

The 50’s and 60’s were the heyday of urban expansion and economic growth in North America. Miles and miles of freeways were constructed and the resultant increase in mobility led to economic growth that went far beyond the stimulus cost of the actual construction. By the 70’s and 80’s the first generation of freeways were beginning to need maintenance and repair. The cost associated with this infrastructure continued, while the economic growth it brought about had already happened.

Recently a new trend has emerged related to freeway infrastructure in North American cities: highways are being removed for the sake of urban renewal, redevelopment and the economic prospects associated with better urban design and more sophisticated transportation networks. Cities like New Haven, South Bronx, and New Orleans are getting on board. Some of them are even receiving federal funding in the form of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. (Ref. Planetizen article This recent NPR article summarizes some of the reasons for and objections to these US examples.

Here in Vancouver, the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts has been a topic of conversation for the past two years, but the conversation has recently picked up steam – and widespread support. City Counsellor Geoff Meggs has been responsible for promoting the idea with the City, but other prominent urbanists such and Bing Thom and Larry Beasley are also in favour.

On April 7th SFU’s city program hosted a public forum on the future of the viaducts. Over 200 people packed the theatre, and the discussion was generally supportive. The remaining question seems to be how soon and how much of the viaducts can be feasibly removed. The following options were presented by Dave Turner, the City’s transportation consultant:

  1. 20% in 5 years
  2. 50% in 10 years
  3. 100% in 20 years.

The Vancouver Sun describes these options in more depth here.

As with most highway removal proposals, the major objections are the cost of implementing the infrastructural change and the potential for increased traffic congestion. In the case of Vancouver’s viaducts, neither of these poses a serious obstacle. Certainly, there is a capital cost associated with the work of demolishing portions of the viaducts, however, if they are left in place sooner or later there will be a cost associated with maintaining them or rebuilding them. At the moment the viaducts are considered to be strong and in good condition but, as with any infrastructure, they will deteriorate over time. Highway infrastructure, even on flat ground, is incredibly expensive to maintain. This article has some statistics on highway costs in the US.

In addition to the future savings in maintaining or replacing the viaducts, the cost of tearing them down would be offset in the present by the gain in developable land. (Bing Thom estimates several hundred million worth of real estate could be reclaimed). The potential to redevelop parcels of land currently occupied by the viaducts is a timely consideration, given the recent and somewhat contentious review of the NE False Creek Area Plan. Removing even portions of the viaducts opens up all sorts of new land use possibilities for the area.

potential redevelopment parcels

The second and possibly more ardent objection to removing the viaducts is the increase in traffic congestion it would cause. However, there is no evidence to support the theory that traffic congestion would increase. In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. The viaducts were closed for 21 days during the Olympics, with no noticeable traffic impacts. Granted, the Olympics were a bit of an extreme example and for residents of Strathcona and the Commercial Drive area it was a bit of a pain to have to detour down to Hastings or up to Pacific to get into town.

It’s important to note that in two of the three options that are currently being proposed, there would still be a local connection to the downtown core, but it would be a normal, at-grade road with traffic lights and intersections, instead of a giant overpass. In other words, it would not prevent local residents from accessing downtown via Georgia/Dunsmuir. As for drivers arriving from further east, according to Turner, neighbouring routes are not currently at capacity and could support an increase in volume. This was certainly borne out during the Olympic closures.

Turner noted that diverting extra traffic to neighbouring routes would result in some increased congestion, but that it would also encourage commuters to use transit or other transportation modes. While he’s right about the second part, there’s good evidence to suggest that even if the overall traffic numbers remained constant, removing one route would not cause increased congestion. It has to do with principles of network optimization and how drivers make decisions on which route is the most efficient. This article in Scientific American describes these principles and some recent research on traffic flow.

The best recent example of this is from Seoul, Korea. In 2003, the city demolished a six-lane freeway through the center of town and replaced it with a park. Sceptics were shocked as traffic flow in the city actually improved as a result.

Coming up: Part 2: Why should we remove the viaducts?

JP Thornton, our Director of Practice in the Vancouver office was just featured in Grand & Toy. Here’s an excerpt:

Q: What’s your elevator pitch?

A: Our goal is to move beyond designing the right building and instead design the right building in the right place. We believe architecture extends past the property line and into the community. Through collaboration, we create connective communities ‘via’ architecture, that’s where our name comes from. We connect the live, the work, the play, the move and the recreational aspect of a community into an interrelated, livable, sustainable and human experience.

Q: How do you keep staff motivated and engaged?

A: Because we’re a studio our employees aren’t doing the same thing every day. One moment they may be presenting to clients, the next they may be detailing a construction project. We encourage collaboration by making sure everybody is aware of what is happening on all projects. The worst thing in the word is people working in silos and not knowing why they’re doing what they’re doing. We’re also innovative and early adopters of new technology.

To check out the rest of the Q&A, click here.

Monday News Roundup

Apr 04, 2011

GORGEOUS “Luna” faucet and shower (Design Milk)
Check out this beautiful faucet and matching showerhead, inspired by the moon and stars.

Before I Die, by Candy Chang (Design Milk)
[love this] In her New Orleans neighborhood, Candy turned an abandoned, graffiti-ed house into something inspiring. She covered an entire side of the house with giant chalkboards with the words stenciled “Before I die I want to _________.” She then left pieces of chalk for residents and passers-by to fill in the most important things they want to do in their lifetimes.

Mobility’s diminishing returns (Strong Towns)
We like to believe that the United States is the land of opportunity. We also believe, for good reason, that increasing mobility increases opportunity. But when does this correlation break down? When do we go too far, to the point where the cost of improving and maintaining mobility actually stifles opportunity?

First Crescent in South Africa (Design Milk)
The original home on this site was demolished with the exception of a small basement area, converted into a guest suite. The oddly-shaped lot offers beautiful views of the Camps Bay beach and Lion’s Head to the north. Everything about this home takes advantage of the views from the windows to the outside space and cantilevered roof.

Is sprawl over? (The Transportationist)
In what is believed to be a turning point in American history, new figures from the U.S. Census indicate that suburban sprawl might be coming to an end.

Ideas for achieving an urban forest (Vancouver Sun)
Instead of stricter bylaws, perhaps what is needed is a heightened sensitivity to the value of trees

Will Seattle look to Portland to make bicycling safer? (Seattle PI)
It’s not a new idea but it has enough appeal that one City Councilwoman is trying to accelerate the development of special bike corridors on side streets, perhaps with new trees. natural drains and vehicle limitations to lure new cyclists outdoors and into the neighborhoods.

Outdoors: Ceramic Lanterns from CB2 (Remodelista)
Spring is here (and summer is just around the corner), and we’re thinking about outdoor lighting: we like these simple Ceramic Lanterns from CB2.