A Fine Line

The phrase public infrastructure should send a shiver up any architect’s spine. Think brute concrete, raw steel, nuts and bolts and form always being sacrificed for function. For it’s engineers—and never architects—who take the lead constructing roads, rails and bridges. Until now that is. Eric Enno Tamm reports from Vancouver for Azure Magazine.

“I’m kind of gushing, but it’s been an incredible experience,” says Alan Hart, the lead architect for Vancouver’s new Millennium Line, the second phase of the city’s commuter SkyTrain. Hart of Vancouver-based Via Architecture persuaded city officials to let them, the architects, take charge of this $1.1 billion infrastructure project and it tellingly shows: each of the 12 new SkyTrain stations are light, airy and highly sensitive to local topography and community—a stark contrast to the original industrial-looking, enclosed Expo Line stations completed in 1986 for the world’s transport exhibition here. Hart says Vancouverites wanted more transparent, warm and well-lit metro stops—“beacons in the community,” he calls them.

Seven of the city’s top firms—Via Architecture, Busby and Associates, Hotson Bakker Architects, Paul Merrick Architects, Architectura, Walter Francl Architects, and Hancock, Bruckner, Eng and Wright Architects—were commissioned to build the stations which commonly feature concrete foundations, glass enclosures, and steel and/or wood canopies. Yet each is unique with the roofs being the expressive element of the architecture and art including stain glass, dynamic sculptures, landscaping and murals integrated into every design.

“The canoe was really the inspiration for the structure,” says Martin Nielson of Busby and Associates who designed the Brentwood flagship station. “It’s a series of ribs with a shell laid on top.” By far the most visually stunning, Brentwood, which hovers on concrete piles over a highway, shows the innovative, groundbreaking design of the Millennium Line. For the first time, wood has been used as a structural component in public infrastructure. The 34 ribs are made of “gluelam”, an engineered wood, and bent to form an inverted canoe-like roof over the arrival-departure platforms. Glass plates are then overlapped like shingles to form the walls of the station, giving you views of the cityscape. The result is Canadiana-meets-Futurama—the craftsmanship echoes, without being cliché, our history (think courier de bois) while the overall form looks entirely futuristic like a spaceship.

The roof of the other flagship station, Lougheed Town Centre, looks like a series of five sleek steel Chinese pagodas, while the Production Way-University Station is a swooping wing tilting to give you views up Burnaby Mountain. The Braid Station has already won a Lieutenant Governor’s architectural merit award.

“The city will shape around the stations because the line runs along an old industrial corridor,” lead architect Hart says, about how the 20-km Millennium Line servicing four suburban municipalities will promote the Greater Vancouver’s eco-friendly growth strategy. “Villages will build up around the stations.”

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