On the Hill, Not Of the Hill: West End Woes and Frank Lloyd Wright

The Lauren
Neil Blake. The Westend’s newest apartment building, the Lauren and the art out front. 2015. Flickr.com. Web. 5 Dec. 2015

In a community filled with many old and unassuming buildings, at the corner of Comox and Broughton Street where St. John’s Church used to sit, a conspicuous glass and concrete tower stretches twenty-six floors into the sky. Dwarfing the surrounding buildings in size and sheer contrast, the structure is a sight to behold with its red tiled entrance wall, stylized garden and water channel, and the commanding “Triumph of the Technocrat” sculpture that dominates the corner of the property.

The structure known as The Lauren is located within the parameters of the city’s West End neighbourhood, an area of Vancouver that contains Nelson Park and Sunset Beach, the retail stretches of Robson and Davie, and extends from Stanley Park to Burrard Street. For a long time, as one of Canada’s most liveable and diverse communities, the West End did not show the signs of development that have greatly impacted other areas like Coal Harbour, Yaletown and Olympic Village. While the addition of a modernist, glassy building might not seem so out of place in those areas now, The Lauren seems more commercial space than casual among the historic buildings and residential feel of the West End.

The building’s designers have invoked the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, a German word that was popular with the Bauhaus art school in the early 20th century and translates to “complete work of art”. From the lobby entrance of walnut blocks to the sculpted grounds and public art, The Lauren is supposed to exist as a collection of artistic concepts that unite into one aesthetic whole. Unfortunately, its concept does not extend beyond the property’s borders in any way; instead, it stands apart from and above the neighbouring buildings and the greater West End.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote, “…No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill, belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Often considered to be one of the greatest American architects of all time, it was Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin – an area settled by his ancestors where he played as a child – that contributed to his architectural philosophies. In buildings like Fallingwater house and his home of Taliesin, Wright’s concept of organic architecture is displayed, and in them we see a direct nod to nature, necessity and the area that directly surrounds.

Contrastingly, The Lauren on Broughton Street is not of the hill, but is firmly planted on it like the flag of some other country whose troops have marched in to stake their claim. Along with development projects like The Jervis, Vancouver House and the towers going up on lower Davie Street, its presence seems to foreshadow the erosion of a community rather than existence within it. In a neighbourhood of nearly 45,000 people that is one of the most affordable and diverse in the city of Vancouver, what good can come from such obvious erosion of the West End?

The reclaimed wooden girders contained within the “Technocrat” sculpture are the last vestiges of the former presence of St. John’s Church, seeming more like an ironic reference to the slow selling off of a community than an appropriate homage. It is becoming all too easy to imagine the day when some piece of my building will end up on the front lawn of an expensive tower, a relic of development that is without deference to the community it upends.

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