The word landmark, in the sense that you can navigate your way in a city by reference to the structure, is often applied to buildings that are not worthy of the name. With global architecture firm Pelli Clarke Pelli’s body of work, it’s hard to find a building that’s not a genuine landmark. Their new projects include Riverview Plaza overlooking the Yangtze in Wuhan, the XJH Centre in Shanghai, and Union Park in downtown Toronto. And their portfolio contains some of the highest towers ever built, what architects call supertalls, including the famous Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
Now, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects (PCPA) are bringing their technical mastery of the tower form to Vancouver, as designers of ASPAC’s Alberni Street development. Haute was fortunate to book a slot in the busy schedules of Principal Gregg Jones and Associate Principal Rob Narracci who spoke to us from PCPA’s headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut.
How does the Alberni project fit with your other projects with the Kwok family, the owners of ASPAC?
GJ: We have a long, long partnership with the family going back to the 1990s when we won an international competition for what was to be the last and tallest high-rise tower in Hong Kong, right on top of the train station. It started there — and in the 2000s we worked on their first major project on the mainland, in Shanghai. Just a couple of years ago they came to us — they said it’s a personal, family project. They had just acquired a remarkable site [on Alberni]. The history of our interaction is that we’ve been able to bring fresh creativity but keenly aware that things have to work really well. We bring exciting new ideas to very complicated and very difficult problems.
What special problems does this sensitive site in Vancouver pose?
GJ: Being this close to the water and to the park, we don’t see it as limiting. We chose to embrace it.
RN: The Vancouverism of the pencil tower, through-views, and limitations on floor plates was new for us. A great challenge and a fun challenge. And there was the limiting factor of shadowing public parks.
Is this one of your most poetic towers?
GJ: When you come to Vancouver for the first time, you see the fascinating relationship of sky to water, reflection, the colour of light, the movement. You can’t come away without appreciating that.
RN: We created a presentation for the client where we showed images of ships in the water. It was like a haiku for the building — water as the bridge between earth and sky, gentle, bold, intersecting, folding, floating upward, lifting the sky.
GJ: The minute you get anything moving on the water in the harbour you get complex geometries constantly changing over the surface. We said let’s deliver on all the efficiencies but overlay the motion of water, its transformation and flow, and drape that over the building.
How will people from the street below experience the building?
GJ: Practically every balcony is different. They migrate and drift across the facade in gradual, flowing, undulating forms that are shaped by the sea. We’re really hoping to bring impressions of the harbour to the building, blurring the distinction between what’s cloud-like and wave-like.
RN: It’s a testament to ASPAC that the variation between the two towers didn’t phase them.
GJ: The whole building is going to be constantly changing — it’s very photo-reactive.
What’s going to be the most dramatic aspect of the building for owners?
GJ: There’s not going to be a bad view in the building — the harbour, Stanley Park, sea on two sides. We’ve created balconies that are 12 foot deep at the top of the tower and 8 to 10 feet deep at the lower levels. As often as we could, we tried to create outdoor rooms. And these are not shaped like typical balconies in the city — they’re curved glass.
How will you look back on this building in ten years time?
GJ: These towers will always have a fresh and fluid presence. An observer will see a very interesting resonance with what they see on the skyline and how it maps out onto Vancouver.
RN: That’s the kind of thing they don’t teach you in architecture school! It comes from working all over the world, being very observant, taking a deep breath of the place and understanding what a city is all about.
GJ: Our approach to architecture is always responsive. But this particular project is more responsive — it has a very special signature.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WORDS: Iain Ferguson