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The delicate expression of a composite culture
by Simon Bélisle, published 2016-06-23
Vancouver’s Chinese Cultural Centre competition of 1978 called for the fulfillment of functional aspects while putting into question the place granted to traditions of the Chinese community. This aspect did not prevail in the jury’s comments, but despite this, the proposals were much informed by the dialogue between traditional Chinese architecture and the local Canadian context. This competition, as original as rare, puts into perspective the turn of the 1980s, nearly 20 years before the final date of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, which for Vancouver, had an important demographic and cultural impact.

By 1978, there was already a significant Chinese community in Vancouver that had been established for several decades; nonetheless the city remains without a cultural center. The building’s future site and programs were established for the requirements of the competition in cooperation with Chinese sponsors. The competition called for more generalized concepts rather than detailed projects. Taking advantage of a significant plot of land in Chinatown, proposals needed to include a Chinese garden, outdoor areas partly covered to accommodate crowds, bazaars, dances and festival performances, adaptable educational spaces and exhibition spaces for an indoor /outdoor museum. One section, which included a tea room, a restaurant, and a gift shop, had the objective of improving the commercial viability of the streets bordering the center. Restricted to architects registered in British Columbia, the competition attracted some forty firms. Selected by the jury, only the top four proposals were archived in the Canadian Competition Catalogue, being the three first laureates and the honorable mention.

While the jury did not completely forego cultural and traditional facets, the official comments focused on practical, programmatic and contextual considerations. As for the competition program, it called for a symbolic entry that could be "imagined as a focal point [or] a backbone linking the spaces.” All four schemes commended by the jury demonstrated a great concern for Chinese architectural tradition, reflected in two published articles of the Canadian Architect in 1978. Regarding the competition, now a few decades old, one can’t help from noticing the concept’s typically postmodern character of the concepts: The honorable mention confronted the principles of traditional Chinese architecture in a new urban context, the second and the third place prizes attempted to marry this tradition in modern western culture, and the laureate was inspired by prominent Chinese historical elements by reinterpreting its basic principles.

Receiving an honorable mention, the proposal submitted by Joe Wai / Beinhaker Irwin Associates caught the jury’s attention for its ability "to incorporate the essence of the basic principles of Chinese architecture while conscientiously respecting the urban context of the Chinese historic area." On the subject of tradition, the design respected “traditional fundamental principles,” and revisited classical forms and materials. Regarding the urban context, a strong commitment was dedicated to the activities happening in the neighbouring streets, demonstrated through different perspective drawings. If the proposal was to leave room for discussion, the questions brought to light by creating tension between tradition and urban context, remain relevant. The jury chose to recognize the good use of the site, while noting a general incoherence and weakly ordered spaces.

The third place prize went to A. Vandiver / Che - Cheung Poon, who also questioned tension, this time between tradition and modernity. Characterized by the use of a unique monument rather than a fragmented approach, the architects proposed a "traditional building composition […] using modern construction". Far from hiding behind a classical expression, these techniques emphasized: if «the ancient temples [had been evoked to explain a] simple and exposed structure," the exposed structure being a steel open space frame recalling a postmodern marriage between tradition and technology. The jury was sensitive to the symbolic potential of a single dominant element, but expressed some reservations regarding the context; such a large element would be problematic for the urban fabric and the site development. Stressing that such a building would be less effective for the sponsors’ commercial requirements.

Awarded the second prize, Downs Archambault Architects + Planners were described as "wed Eastern thought and traditions with Western needs." If this tension had been more finely expressed, the answer would have had something in common with that of the third prize, for it also proposed a sensibility to traditional Eastern design principles while using modern construction techniques and materials. However, the approach was fragmented, technology and modern materials seemed more practical than expressive, and the drawings, in addition to expressing an architecture inspired by the rules of composition of Chinese architecture, expressed some formal, typological, and aesthetic inspirations beyond traditional principles. Nevertheless, this proposal provoked a heated debate on the issue of tradition and the use of traditional elements of Chinese architecture.

The winning scheme, submitted by James K.M. Cheng / Romses Kwan & Associates, was in fact built. The architects said they were inspired by the Forbidden City, (Imperial Palace of Beijing) burrowing its north-south axial approach while reinterpreting the progression through space: The main gate of the cultural center, located on Pender Street, was analogous to the first impressions of the Imperial Palace, a courtyard entrance becoming the first pause, an inner entrance the first transition, a forecourt as first introduction, a central hall as second climax, a main garden as second pause, a rear pavilion as second transition and a park planned at the rear of the cultural center, the third experiment. Finally, False Creek Bay, which borders the future park, was presented analogous to the ultimate experience of the Imperial Palace. Another drawing expressed an analogy between the proposed drawings and a traditional Pekin house, characterized by inner yards surrounded by buildings, the geometry and the emphasised centrality, all this while keeping the north-south orientation. The jury specified that their choice was motivated by the subtle qualities that distinguished this project from the others, mostly involving contextual and functional considerations, but also the quality of its architectural experience.

Generally, in his report, the jury had admitted a difficulty "to define the aesthetic or spiritual determinant in architectural design," adding that "it was not felt that any particular architectural form seen to be generally Oriental in derivation was either desirable or necessary."

The jury’s comments in their public release focused on practical, contextual and programmatic aspects. It is possible that this tendency reflected the desire to break away from blatant aesthetics or formal analogies, or that an important decisional weight, implemented by the sponsors’ already well-defined program, had overshadowed any open debate on tradition.

Be that as it may, the issue of interpreting modern Chinese architectural traditions, when expressing a drifting away from form and aesthetics, did occupy an important place in the projects selected by the jury. Furthermore, this contest reflected a rare encounter, wanting to offer a cultural center in a community – typically postmodern – between a Chinese ancestral tradition and the city of Vancouver as a living space. Now four decades later, we can perceive the delicate expression of a composite architectural culture.

(English version revised by Chantal Auger)
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