The Master of Shangri-La

The architect James Cheng is designing a high-rise paradise by keeping his buildings grounded

January 2, 2009

By Michael Harris / Photo: Brian Howell

The penthouse at Shangri-la has an airplane’s view of the city. Everything below you is a toy, an intricate model. Wreathing the 62nd storey of Vancouver’s tallest building, there are private outdoor swimming pools, and columnar hornbeams thin as poplars stand sentry. A passing construction worker heaves drywall and notes that the trees are turning a sour brown. “I think they went into shock or something.”

The architect, James Cheng, believes they’ll eventually thrive. Crossing the unfinished suite in his hard hat and steel-toed boots, Cheng can see the States, the ocean, the Lions, and the wreck of a lot where the Ritz-Carlton is meant to be erected on the opposite bank of Georgia Street. (It will be several stories shorter than Shangri-La, he notes.)

Cheng, 61, is a kindly but driven man. He has brushes of grey at his temples; his glasses tint themselves in the sunlight that pours through the penthouse windows; the letters J.C. are embroidered on the cuff of his dress shirt. When excited he speaks in rushes, sentences overlapping. There’s an urgency about him, and to substantial effect: he has contributed 31 high-rises to the downtown peninsula alone, making him an architect of the entire urban experience. Those buildings, combined, house 868 floors of condos and offices, but only their first floors obsess him. “The tower is the easy part,” he says. “What’s hard is where the tower touches the ground. Where it meets all the people.”

Nowadays, almost every planner and architect would agree. Certainly Andrés Duany does, pacing at ground level in his Miami office. Duany is a high priest of North American architecture and a leader of the New Urbanism movement; he talks with a rock star’s brazenness and likes to make hard pronouncements. Today’s target is Vancouver. “The look of your city from a distance and high up is the best of any city in the second half of the 20th century. But walking around on Vancouver’s streets, you’d be hard-pressed to think you’re even in the top 30.”

That may be a matter of taste. When Brent Toderian, the city’s director of planning, took Copenhagen über-designer Jan Gehl on a tour of Granville Island this spring, Gehl declared that Vancouver is host to the finest examples of street-level design he’s seen in any North American city.

The base of Shangri-La would likely impress both Gehl and Duany. A diagonal boulevard of swelling stairs bisects its block-long multilevel podium, so pedestrians can cut mid block from street to street. A grove of bamboo (raised for two years at a site in Oregon) borders the way. An open-air courtyard is reserved for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s use as a sculpture garden-an effort to enliven a traffic-weighted expanse of Georgia Street-and the tower is rigged with projection technology to allow for video displays. Regardless of the elite views that its penthouses enjoy, Shangri-La’s base remains thoroughly social. Three restaurants (one run by New York culinary bigwig Jean-Georges Vongerichten) have generous patios that propagate people-watching and a happy sense of my-we’re-at-the-centre-of-things. A massive Urban Fare (calling card of all insta-communities) slots into the westerly section. The real heart of Vancouver’s tallest structure is no higher than a person’s. The argument goes like this: living on top of each other is only tolerable when we can encounter each other in worthwhile, ennobling spaces.

If downtown Vancouver is part of your life, so is Cheng’s vision. Quietly, with less publicity and fanfare than Arthur Erickson or Bing Thom, he has laid down much of the playing field the next generation of Vancouverites will navigate. Many downtown towers still feel like empty rain barrels hungry for the flood, but the people will come; Vancouver anticipates its own crowded future.

Cheng’s focus on dense urban design springs from a simple but daunting problem: where will we put all these people? The world’s population tripled in the last century. Metro Vancouver is meant to grow from 2.17 million to 3 million by 2031. Canada has only three people for every square kilometre of its territory, but the elbow room hardly matters when everyone is crammed into urban centres.

The pragmatics of density grip our design panels. Yet there is something less tangible than hard numbers at play-the question isn’t simply where to stick these extra bodies but rather, How can we live with each other? How happily? How sustainably? The pancake spread of car-dependent suburbs, spawned from postwar delusions of prosperous individualism, is a failed experiment. Now a generation destined to be forever poorer than their parents will return to the fact of crowds, of bustle, of each other.


Cheng may be responsible for a massive amount of downtown Vancouver’s built environment, but he’s passionately interested in the space between buildings. More specifically, he cares how people do, or do not, live their lives between those buildings. He prefers to design the public realm first, fit the buildings in after.

His 130-acre East Fraserlands master plan, with a scheme concocted by Andrés Duany, will provide homes for 12,500 people. The rezoning is larger than the Olympic Village, larger than any other in the city.

East Fraserlands’ scale appeals to Duany. As a walkable community, a self-contained village within the larger city, it has the potential to suit his New Urbanist dream: “You know what the ideal city is? The ideal city is a medieval town.” Duany calls for a reacquaintance with the models we left behind when we sprawled.

Back with Cheng at Shangri-La, it isn’t apparent how a 210-metre tower heralds a return to an earlier urbanism. His gleaming building seems pointedly a thing of the future. Yet one may move forward and backward at once.

Perhaps the neighbourly philosophy of Duany’s idealized medieval town can be expressed in a skyscraper. Consider the towers that sprang up around Times Square at the turn of the millennium. Paul Goldberger, writing for the New Yorker, noted that these “restless, agitated” buildings evoke “a curiously traditional idea, one worth holding on to, which is that the concept of the city is more important than an individual building.” Eschewing the single-minded pomp of icons like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, these new towers are multi-use shapeshifters and seem to react dynamically to their surroundings.

If towers have previously been standoffish creatures, the new, post-iconic skyscrapers are more social, less opaque. Shangri-La is a different building from every angle, and houses several uses. It narrows to a nearly prismatic point in order to defer to the view it would otherwise block; dancing lightly with its neighbors, the tower almost apologizes for taking up space. Pearlescent square buttons dot its north and east flanks, absorbing and reflecting the changing sunlight; they bleed from copper to yellow to rust depending on the viewer’s position, and even glow faintly in the dark. The tower’s glass, viewed from the Burrard Street Bridge, is the exact blue of the mountains behind it.

“I’m not interested in whether the building is iconic,” says Cheng. “What we strive for is something holistic, an environment for all people. We should be facilitators, not dictators.”

James Cheng was born in Hong Kong during the winter of 1947. By his ninth birthday, Hong Kong was home to the densest population in the world. Photojournalism of the time reveals a madding crowd of individuals in traditional and modern dress, rickshaws swerving chaotically between them. His parents raised him in a small apartment in a four-storey walkup whose stairs were always dark. He slept on a cot; the three bedrooms accommodated his parents, grandparents, and two uncles. (A younger brother came along when he turned seven.)

He and his friends ground spare pieces of glass, affixed the shards to kite strings, and, sailing them from the rooftop, tried to cut each other’s kite free. Kite-flying was a grand tradition in Hong Kong-and that imaginative leap beyond the crowds into wide-open space is fixed as one of Cheng’s strongest childhood memories.

Then there was John Wayne. “I used to watch those Hollywood movies,” he says in his solarium of a boardroom, on West Eighth Avenue. “They were all filmed in Utah, and I’d look at those red rocks, I’d look at them and see this freedom, this space-it was so gorgeous. I wanted to be a cowboy.”

If Hong Kong’s urban landscape was claustrophobic, its social structure was paralyzing. Education meant recitation. (“Why should I memorize Chinese that was written 2,500 years ago on some tombstone?” asked an impudent young Cheng.) And careers were preordained: “In Hong Kong I couldn’t be myself. My family didn’t have the right connections, and there, if you’re nobody, you’re nobody.”

But there were escape hatches. To make room for a grandmother, Cheng’s parents sent him to Lingman Middle School, which was modelled after American institutions. Cheng played trumpet in the school band and joined the photography club. He would skip classes and huddle in the darkroom, fiddling with black-and-white negatives (an obsession that trained his eye-he remains a skilled photographer and the Art Gallery of Ontario has one of his pictures).
“Oh, we were bad.” Cheng’s grin is both delighted and guilty. “We had one English teacher who looked like Mao Zedong. We called him Mao until he gave in and started answering to his new name.”

Finding his academic record to be less than stellar, Cheng’s parents worried he wouldn’t graduate and sent him even farther from home. An American businessman near Seattle took him in. At his new residence, Cheng received letters from his father instructing him to pursue either engineering or business; he replied that no, he was interested in drawing and the arts. Architecture was an acceptable middle ground (though “I had no clue what architecture was”), and in the late ’60s, he began studies at the University of Washington. He became very demanding of his professors there; most did not like him. “I cannot tolerate incompetence,” he says today. “And, mostly, their critiques were a waste of time.”

Another letter from Hong Kong: this time informing him that his family could no longer support his school or rent. He had $800 in the bank. Reading this on his dorm-room bed, he came to tears. But the next morning he told himself, “Fine. I’m on my own.” He found three jobs and worked them simultaneously while excelling at his course work. “I had this fear,” he says. “Maybe it continues to this day. Maybe that’s why I never took vacations for years. I could never leave my work.”

Perhaps it takes a kind of faith to believe the world won’t fall apart without you? “But, you see, I’m from that part of the world where everything consistently does fall apart. We went from rags to rags.”
When Cheng founded his own architectural firm, in 1981, he regularly worked seven days a week. But that mania first called for apprenticeship. He had come to Canada in 1973 and, uninterested in beating around the bush, had contacted the editor of Architectural Record to ask for the name of the best architect in the country-the answer was Vancouver’s Arthur Erickson.

Erickson had him in for an interview and, never being one for numbers, asked another bright young thing, Bing Thom, to negotiate a salary. “You know,” said Thom, “people volunteer to work with Arthur for nothing.”
“You know,” replied Cheng, “I’m not doing that.”

Thom says he knew within five seconds that he wanted Cheng for the firm. “You could tell he had enormous talent and a strong personality. It was obvious he would be successful.” So Cheng found himself a home.
Today, his main connection with China is the plan he’s drawing up for a new city centre on Hainan (China’s only pristine tropical island). When the central government decided to connect the island to the mainland with a 22.5-kilometre bridge, Cheng was brought in to prepare the central business district for a wash of new people. The first phase of his plan (covering 4.46 square kilometres) calls for massive bike lanes, wind turbines, solar-charged streetlights, and a network of pedestrian walkways. The boulevards will be lined with coconut trees. “The work is so satisfying,” he says, poring over the designs, “because I’m preserving the island’s green spaces. Someone else may change the buildings, but the space between will remain.”

He rolls the blueprint tight. “I’ve had offers to go back, you know. To China. But I never will.”


The tighter cities become, the more we need architecture that does several jobs at once. Cheng’s four Spectrum towers are classic mixed-use dense development, with downtown’s first Costco as a podium. And his 888 Beach, built in 1993, is a hallmark of the towers-on-townhouses hybrid. Cheng’s buildings invite a fluidity of purpose (and always boast water features, to drive the point home). In the end, it’s never really about a tower; it’s about getting a life.
Cheng has begun to follow that ethic privately, too. He created an office policy limiting overtime and has granted himself two-day weekends of Pilates, tennis, and family. In the summers his sons, Geoffrey and Christopher, return from school to the modernist home at 41st and Oak where he lives with his wife, Judy. (They were married in 1984.) He designed the house himself-an experiment, he says, that encourages life in the garden. (A nod, perhaps, to his old mentor, Erickson, who lives in a shack-size building at the foot of a massive green oasis.)

While driving between meetings, Cheng finds moments of pleasure, too. He always keeps a small fleet of Porsches and Ferraris in his garages. The criterion is speed-“I’m so damn impatient.” In his youth, Cheng amassed so many speeding tickets he twice had his licence suspended. The need for momentum, that constant impatience, does continue to fuel his work life. “I won’t ever retire,” he says. “That’s the nature of any artist: you only stop when life is finished.”
Naturally, the city as a whole is denied even that reprieve. The mantle is passed from generation to generation, with only good intentions and the fuzzy assurance of “collective memory” to offer design continuity. When Cheng contemplates the future, he starts with the work being done today. Canada Line construction riles him, for instance. “These stations they’re designing are just functional buildings. How do we expect the next generation to believe in themselves if we don’t give them public spaces to be proud of?” And the notion that Vancouver is somehow “built out” strikes him as uncreative thinking. “Why can’t we learn from China and stop using one-storey warehouses? What’s wrong with a warehouse on the sixth floor? There’s no question that up to 70 percent of the world’s population is going to live in metropolitan areas, so we’d better design it right.”

Cheng has no partners, no successors lined up among the 50 staffers at his firm, no planned bequeathal of his thriving offices. (When I ask about this uncharacteristic lack of preparation, he dodges: “There’s no one there who even thinks to buy the toilet paper; I have to go to the store myself.”) But other, younger firms are champing at the bit to have their share in the coming Vancouver. Michael Green of MGB Architects has designed airports in Moscow and Chicago but still has trouble getting a building in edgewise on the Vancouver peninsula. “There are four firms that design everything in this city,” he says, “and that’s why everything pretty much looks the same. It’s incredibly tough for young firms here.”
Looking down at the toy towers of Vancouver from the penthouse of Shangri-La, Cheng tells me about a conversation he once had with city planner Ray Spaxman. The planner was explaining his vision for highly regulated architecture in Vancouver. (Even the colour of windows wound up being prescribed.) “But Ray,” protested a young Cheng, “you’ll never have any really extraordinary buildings in the city if you regulate so tightly.”

“I don’t care about that,” replied Spaxman. “I want everyone to live with some measure of quality; that’d be better than a few people living with a masterpiece.”

Likewise, Cheng’s legacy may be punctuated by the extraordinary height of Shangri-La, but its essence is diffused more generally throughout city life. The countless lives he facilitates are the focus, not some totem of concrete and glass.
One more example: the nine towers surrounding George Wainborn Park on False Creek (Cheng’s dramatically terraced King’s Landing among them) are brand spanking new and could be accused of sterility-all new things have a certain blankness to them. But they are not only towers; they form, collectively, a gateway to a view. The interior buildings furl inward, revealing to anyone on the lawn a great stretch of Richards Street. The eye cuts across the length of downtown and even flies off into the mountains.

There is something impoverished about the notion of a “view cone,” of course. Like rooftop kite-flying, it signals curtailed freedom. But that necessary breath, that fiercely protected space between hard buildings, is the site where we current citizens and the million new ones will walk out and meet each other.

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.