SECRET CITY: On Buildings Being John Malkovich In Chinatown…

July 21, 2011.

Welcome to Secret City, a new column by Ian Granville, who will be taking Scout readers across the city in search of its architecture and design secrets each week. Granville studied art history, human geography, and urban planning before completing diplomas in sustainable renovations and timber framing. This summer, he is working with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia to research and conduct the architectural walking tour program.

by Ian Granville | Hiding in plain sight, an architectural oddity exists between the first and third floor of many historic buildings in Vancouver’s Chinatown. It is the half-storey, like the one at 529 Carrall St. pictured above, and reminiscent of the strange office space in Being John Malkovich depicted in the clip below. These were deliberate design features, and no…you probably can’t rent one for cheap.

They are sometimes referred to as “cheater floors”, but this is a misnomer. The story goes that during the construction boom in Chinatown at the beginning of the 20th century, property taxes were levied against building owners using a formula that multiplied the footprint of the building by the number of its floors. The stunted 2nd storeys didn’t count toward this total, and thus provided tax-free storage and ancillary space.

The term “cheater floor” emerged from the xenophobia of the 1950s and not-so-subtly suggested that Chinese property owners were deliberately hiding a secret floor. The appropriate nomenclature is “2nd floor mezzanine”, and there is little to suggest that builders at the time could hide an entire floor from a building inspector, nor were there any discernible property tax incentives to do so.

Rear of the Jack Chow Insurance building on Shanghai Alley off Pender St. in Chinatown

The rationale behind the inclusion of a mezzanine level is rooted in vernacular architecture appropriated from Southern China. According to local architect Joe Wai, this concept was introduced to China by Portuguese and Italian builders as a response to the climate. As a passive measure to control temperature on the first floor, the mezzanine would be equipped with trap doors to allow hot air to vent upward. Opening exterior windows at the mezzanine level would allow a cross breeze to exchange this stale air for fresh and cool exterior air. A far cry from cheating the taxman! If implemented today, this type of design would likely merit LEED points for passive air ventilation and indoor air quality.

In addition to its role in climate control, the mezzanine often served as storage and office space to compliment retail uses at the ground floor. For example, the second floor of the Chinese Times Building at 1 East Pender Street (seen above) was formerly occupied by typesetters whose hunched-over work was unhampered by the low ceiling. Today, that space does not conform to current building code and zoning bylaws and is currently vacant.

These mezzanines pose a serious design challenge for any renovations that attempt to reprogram the space for modern uses. A common solution is to combine the first two storeys to maximize the height of the ground floor while maintaining the original window line in the exterior façade. This allows buildings to adapt to the modern needs of its users while simultaneously paying homage to a unique architectural feature that was once ubiquitous in Chinatown.

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You can learn more about Vancouver’s historic Chinatown by joining Ian for urban explorations like this on July 22, 28, August 4, 10, 17, 23, 27, and September 2. For more information on all six neighbourhood tours, please contact the AIBC at 604-683-8588 or visit their website.

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