Form meets function in new building

Friday, April 30th, 2004

Research centre’s new home is a wonder of architectural iconography

Shelley Fralic


The architecture crew behind the centre includes (from left) Richard Henriquez, David Thom, Mike Zeng, Rui Numes, Ivo Taller, Peter Willemse, Ron Eagleston, Christian Schimert, Raj Nath, Yijin Wen, and sitting Daniel Friesen, Frank Stebner.

CREDIT: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun

There are buildings in Vancouver that make you shake your head and wonder what on earth the architect was thinking.

The bunker on the northeast corner of Georgia and Thurlow does that for me. Its 1968 unveiling was the talk of the town, as was its renowned architect, Arthur Erickson, who designed the stark concrete and glass office tower for forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel.

More than three decades later, it’s still a building you either love or hate.

I hate it. It has always been called, and not kindly, the waffle building. It looked then, and does now, like a hard, dirty ice cube tray.

Then there are buildings that make you beam. For me, these are the ones that wear their years with grace, their edifices still strong and distinct against our young skyline. The Marine Building. The Hotel Vancouver. Tudor Manor. The Sylvia Hotel. Carnegie Centre. The Rogers Mansion.

It’s all very subjective, of course. One woman’s fondness for brick and leaded glass is another man’s decaying eyesore.

But then architecture — from Bauhaus to your house — is all about the visceral, especially for those of us who know zilch about building form and site influences.

And now there’s a new kid on the block to get the town talking.

It rises 14 storeys over the soft, south slope of False Creek, near Vancouver General Hospital. You can’t miss it if you’re out that way, because it has round windows.

Sixty-eight of them.

Officially, it’s called the BC Cancer Research Centre. It’s 231,000 square feet, cost nearly $100 million (including funding from the BC Cancer Foundation, which owns the building), and will house eight cancer research departments and some of the world’s most respected scientists, among them the folks at the Genome Sciences Centre who sequenced the SARS virus.

In all, about 60 principal scientists and 600 technical and medical staff will work there. Its amenities will include a restaurant, an auditorium and a research library. The building will open for business at year’s end.

Here’s the cool stuff: It has an external spiral double helix staircase connecting the office tower to the sustainable lab building, where the mechanical equipment is sandwiched between each lab floor.

All the windows, the round ones for the labs and the square ones in the adjoining office tower, are fitted in coloured glass strips, emulating chromosome 8.

The top-floor meeting room has an amoeba-shaped roof and, in time, there will be a bridge over 10th Avenue to the nearby BC Cancer Agency, and an atrium on the building’s east side.

It was designed by IBI Group Henriquez Partners, a Vancouver joint venture that counts the Justice Institute in New Westminster among its heralded work.

Back to the round windows.

They are what drew me to Richard Henriquez’s office, in a gorgeous old bank at Pender and Homer, my new favourite heritage building.

Henriquez and his architectural firm have been changing Vancouver‘s skyscape since 1969, with projects like the False Creek Housing Co-Op (those red roofs are his) and the UBC Student Recreation Centre.

The Jamaica-born, Cambridge-educated Henriquez is soft-spoken and not given to self-congratulation. He is quick to credit the entire team that worked on the cancer building.

But the round windows, he confesses, were his idea.

“Petri dishes,” he says, as if it isn’t obvious. “They’re Petri dishes.”

Of course.

The Petri dishes, the DNA staircase, the chromosome 8 glass, the amoeba roof — all are architectural iconography, and they are what will stake this building’s claim in Vancouver‘s history.

That, and the brilliant scientists at work within.

Or, as Henriquez more eloquently puts it: “They are all the little bits that go together to make a cure for cancer.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

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