Unconventional Wisdom

April 1, 2009

Cities with new convention centres usually find they aren’t really centres of anything. The typical specimen is a sleeping giant—sprawling, unwelcoming, a squasher of street life.

What, then, are we to make of the 338,000-square-foot edifice that projects into Coal Harbour? After four years of traffic-choking, pile-driving, headache-inducing construction and at a cost of $883 million, the Vancouver Convention Centre extension, which trebles its size and launches from the seashore out over the water, has claimed one of our most treasured patches of real estate, at the foot of Burrard Street.

Is this giant a friendly one? We can dispense, first, with the idea that it’s just a box. Yes, the exhibition hall—a kind of underground airplane hangar at nearly a quarter-million square feet—is a raw cavern into which hundreds of thousands of name-tagged delegates will eventually file. But the centre’s ballrooms and foyers—girded all round by bright walls of glass—are smart, refreshing to walk into, even inspiring. Throughout, the walls are plated with pixels of hemlock, as though they were actually towering stacks of unfinished two-by-fours. Their crisp, modernist lines contrast (gracefully, for the most part) with the Arcadian vista of Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains. The main ballroom, built to accommodate 2,900 diners, is spangled with hundreds of lantern-like chandeliers, hanging at varied lengths from a lolling ceiling that mimics a seaside hillock.

The expansion is not a complete success: the grand, sighing sweep of the exterior, which mounts upward from adjacent parkland, hiccups when it hits a series of self-conscious lamps that look like enormous concrete bendy-straws. Then, on the city side of the centre, three gargantuan “district markers” (50-foot lamps, essentially) are meant to guide in foreign conventioneers—and were thus made so twisted and striking one can’t help but see them from blocks away.

This centre is generally, though, an accommodating behemoth. The seawall wraps around the building, passing what will eventually be shops on the ground floor. (They will first serve as studios for media during the Olympics.) Nearby Harbour Green Park reappears on the centre’s concrete shoulders in an extraordinary, six-acre, living roof.

That roof redefines the city’s oceanfront, provides a visual terracing from a forest of skyscrapers down to the water, and—here’s hoping—frames a humbler, more transparent, and more sustainable gathering place for today’s business delegate.

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