SECRET CITY: On Why Vancouver Has So Many Flat-Iron Buildings

September 1, 2011 

by Ian Granville | From the iconic Hotel Europe (above) to the Holland Block at the conflux of Water and Cordova Streets (below), Gastown has many triangular-shaped buildings, also known as “flatiron” buildings.

For some, the term “flatiron” evokes Eastern architectural icons like Toronto’s Gooderham or, most probably, Manhattan’s eponymous Flatiron (Fuller) building. In modern parlance it has come to mean any wedge-shaped building that resembles the sole of a clothes iron. It’s only natural that the triangular buildings of Gastown share a common architectural lineage with their Eastern cousins. They are all products of an urban need to maximize space on irregularly shaped parcels of land.

Cordova Street building divided by alley and Cambie Street

Today, the Gastown palimpsest, including its many angular plots, is largely defined by the intersection of two different land surveys, as well as the original shoreline of Burrard Inlet. The official survey for the Township of Granville (now Gastown) was registered by the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works on March 1, 1870, establishing a grid-like road network that included Cordova, Hastings, Abbott, and Cambie Streets. Deviating from this linear form are Alexander and Water Streets, as they follow the original high-tide mark of Burrard Inlet.

A second survey came 15 years later in 1885. It was commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway to establish the soon-to-be-incorporated City of Vancouver and started from a single wooden stake at the corner of Hamilton and Hastings Streets to mark out the grid that largely defines the western part of the downtown peninsula to this day.

401 West Cordova Street

The intersections of the two non-parallel surveys with eachother – and the shoreline – yield many acutely angled parcels of land. The subsequent build-form is a product of constructing right out to the property lines, thereby maximizing the leasable floor space area. As evidence, consider the original, intact cornice line on 401 W Cordova St. as seen above – the entire building fronts the street save for the easternmost section that turns and runs parallel to the alleyway.

The W43 tower, part of the Woodwards development, continues this architectural heritage with its distinctive flatiron shape. In a conversation with architect Gregory Henriquez, he revealed that while W43 can be interpreted as a nod to historic buildings in the neighbourhood, it also takes its scale and massing cues from New York’s Fuller building. In Henriquez’ case, employing the flatiron form helped a 43-story building fit within the character of the historic neighbourhood while simultaneously achieving a leanness often absent in similarly-sized block towers.

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Ian Granville takes Scout readers across the city in search of its architecture and design secrets. He studied art history, human geography and urban planning before completing diplomas in sustainable renovations and timber framing. This summer, he’s working with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia to research and conduct its architectural walking tour program. For more information on the AIBC and its neighbourhood tours, please visit their website.

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