Designing Vancouver’s Future

July 6, 2012

                Matthew Soules  

                                                                                                            Portrait by Carlo Ricci 

For a couple of years Matthew Soules ran his architecture firm out of a bedbug-riddled 12th-floor apartment in the West End. To formalize the space, he tore down the dun-coloured curtains and for lighting arranged a series of fluorescent tubes around the floor (à la Dan Flavin). Looking up from the sidewalk, some thought he was growing marijuana; others, that he was running a boutique porn studio.

Today, Soules is caretaker of the famed B.C. Binning House. He gives occasional tours of the compact masterpiece, which crouches, crumbling for lack of restoration funds, amongst a row of sparkling West Vancouver mansions. But mostly he's left to marinate in its atmosphere. On a recent visit, we tour through the single-level home, with its wonky angled walls, its cramped studio, and those multimillion-dollar views. We disregard the "Do Not Touch" signs and chat our way around its memorabilia. Soules is handsome and bright-eyed, with sandy hair and a winning way of expressing ideas as though they have just occurred to him-when they actually result from lengthy research. There's a definite irony to him having charge of a heritage home, for Matthew Soules is our most forward-thinking architect.

Certainly, he's listened to his forefathers. While completing a master's at Harvard, the 25-year-old Soules spent a summer working at Arthur Erickson's firm, going for lunch twice a week with the only man to build houses in this region more important than the Binning one. After graduation, he jetted to Rotter­dam to intern for starchitect Rem Koolhaas. Next, he flew to New York and interned for I.M. Pei (he who designed the Louvre's glass pyramid).

But Soules (a West Van High grad) returned to Vancouver in 2006 determined to start something of his own; his hometown was due, he figured, for a massive correction. We do plenty of self-trumpeting, but Soules agrees with Koolhaas that this city has become an enemy of urbanism. Crossing the garden of the Binning House, he jiggles a cocktail and begins: "Our density is all about cramming people in, but that does not make a place metropolitan. Look at the supposedly dense Concord Pacific land-it's a vacant place to live. We have invented a kind of pessimistic density where people don't get thrown together in exciting ways; it looks like a city, but the life is suburban."

How to start a revolution? Soules accepted a post at UBC and started work on the sort of projects every architect begins with. Eighteen months in, while finishing a boutique dental office, he was invited along to an informal meeting with the Aquilini brothers (owners of Pizza Hut, the Canucks, and a sizable swath of downtown). He was now 32-an infant in architect years-and no serious connection was forged. But someone else in attendance, Robert Wilson, called a few days later with a not-so-modest proposal.

He and his co-director at Blackburn Developments, Rick Wellsby, had purchased 500 acres outside Chilliwack and they had big, Koolhaas-scale dreams. "They were dissatisfied with the architectural culture in this city," says Soules, "and I knew that I was skipping a crazy number of steps by taking this on, but…"

What Soules took on was, for starters, a pair of mammoth recreation centres. For the 1.2-million-square-foot Crystals, he designed abstract volumes of glass that would house 32 badminton courts, 22 tennis courts, and 21 squash courts. Rosy computer renderings (pulled together in that brilliantly lit West End bachelor pad) depict the largest facility of its kind in the world. At the even more ambitious Quarry Run Sports Centre and Hotel (900,000 square feet) golf players would stroll atop the world's largest usable green roof. Yes, said Blackburn. More of that. Things were looking decidedly, dramatically, up.

Then came the recession. Wilson and partners went bankrupt. Soules, so in love with yesterday's future, bid $60,000 worth of work goodbye. To keep the drawings coming, he paid staff wages himself. "There was no particular phone call," he says today. "Just a creeping realization things had gone sideways." Why didn't he stop when the cheques did? "It was all so exciting. I guess I wanted to hope."

A few years later, the work that has actually brought Soules acclaim is no billion-dollar extravaganza. It is a simple urinal ("pissoir" to the architecture journals that rave about it), which he designed for the streets of Victoria, where drunks were relieving themselves willy-nilly. The urinal, screened by a doorless spiral of poles that offers privacy and yet a shimmer of visibility (to discourage alternative uses), has been hailed as a formal breakthrough, a tiny suggestion of brilliance. "Now I'm the urinal guy," says Soules with a weird, unreadable smile.

The capital has asked Soules to redesign its cycling infrastructure next. He's made bike racks out of a string of Vs (modelled after Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculpture); striking bicycle corrals and shelters are on the way.

Soules is regularly called on to organize museum exhibits about the future of cities, or to explicate his belief that a worldwide drop in violent deaths is related to our increasing urbanization (a dawning pax metropolitana), or to lecture in front of exciting (and implausible) renderings. For his part in the Vancouver Art Gallery's We: Vancouver exhibit, Soules exhorted locals to imagine the city as the new Hanging Gardens of Babylon, to picture themselves kayak-commuting, plucking tomatoes from wallpaper, and opening vine curtains to peer out at coyotes on the sidewalk. 

This is the city that has, as Douglas Coupland points out, more future than anywhere else. And Soules, like Vancouver, looks impatient and flushed as he hails the future into being. Naturally, his ambitions for the city are partly bound up with those for himself. Neither the architect nor the city has begun to unfurl, by his estimation: "The future? It's a weird feeling. As far as my career is concerned, I'm totally not where I want to be. And the current solution is I just don't sleep. That's the only way to keep things moving."

From his perch on a 50-year-old teak seat, Soules kicks at a winged carpenter ant with his fluorescent orange sneaker. (Carpenter ants are the bedbugs of mid-century houses.) "The form of things is really not a concern, you know?" He rakes his hair into a Young Einstein do. "The goal should be to willfully forget what things are supposed to look like and just open ourselves to the unique conditions of the now. Especially in a city like Vancouver, which is such fruitful territory, so young. We have so, so much potential."

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