The History Of The City’s Modernist Oasis Of Tropical Cool

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Looking over a city recognized for its abundance of greenery and glass, the Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park is a unique, historic example of Vancouver’s propensity for design. Full of exotic flowers and more than a few awesome-looking tropical birds, it’s a family-friendly city escape with a brilliant view to match.

Construction began in 1967 with funds donated from Prentice Bloedel, a wealthy timber industrialist known for his devotion to the protection of natural resources, reforestation, and recycling. His patronage of 1.4 million dollars (the largest gift to the city thus far) exemplified the post-war trend of large industries wishing to associate themselves with civic development, and complemented smaller financial contributions from the Provincial and Federal governments. Architect McKinley Underwood designed the triodetic dome, surrounding plaza, and fountain to coincide with the Vancouver Park Board’s vision for celebrating Canada’s centennial that same year. Henry Moore’s imposing Knife Edge – Two Piece sculpture also offers guests of the plaza a look into mid-century artistic flair.

The main structure’s design borrows from Buckminster Fuller’s larger Biosphere built for Expo ’67 in Montreal, and features materials manufactured in Ottawa that were then shipped to Vancouver. While the aluminum framework was constructed in 10 days, it took over a year for the entire design, complete with walkways and fountain, to be completed. The design purpose of the Modernist, geodesic styling is two-fold: to capture the optimistic and future-facing mid-century sensibilities of locals and tourists, and offer a new take on the pioneering 18th and 19th-century glass and metal solarium design.

The site also boasts the honour of being the first large triodetic dome conservatory in the country and was intended, as it remains today, to be an educational and scenic display of exotic plants. In its first year, the conservatory hosted over 500,000 guests. Attendance at the conservatory waned over the following decades, and in November of 2009 the Park Board voted in favour of closing the attraction due to growing repair and maintenance costs and the need for a complete replacement of the roof. The conservatory was set to close just after the 2010 Winter Olympics in March, though in January it was noted that attendance had increased dramatically now that pre-Olympic construction in other areas of Little Mountain and Cambie Street has been completed (go figure!). In February, public interest groups and financing, including $50,000 from the Friends of the Bloedel Association, inspired the Board to revise their decision.

The Parks Board ultimately accepted a proposal for the conservatory to be run under the jurisdiction of the VanDusen Botanical Garden, and it remains a gorgeous city escape, especially during the chilly months. The roof is currently undergoing a massive renovation, but inside the spot remains as peaceful as ever. We’re lucky to still have this lush piece of history, so pay a visit next time you need a little escape from winter. It makes a great date spot, too.

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There are 4 comments

  1. I inadvertently discovered this winter that this is also an awesome place to get over a cold! The intense humidity from the tropical plants makes it a pleasure to breathe in here. Next time a cold comes my way, I’m heading to the conservatory with a mug of tea and a good book to while away an hour or two.

  2. Great article, thanks for sharing your appreciation of this architectural ,horticultural, natural, green jewel at the pinnacle of Vancouver. On December 6 this year the Conservatory will celebrate its 45th year of providing visitors fantastic experiences and memories. A new roof will ensure its continued role as a special place in Vancouver. A membership at Van Dusen Botanical Garden includes admission to the Bloedel Conservatory.

  3. Thankfully a small group of dedicated citizens prevented a short-sighted Vancouver Parks Board from destroying this beautiful gem a few years ago. Thanks also to the Van Dusen Gardens for having the foresight to take the Bloedel under their wing!

  4. I agree with John’s comments 100%! It would have been a shame to lose such a beautiful, magical spot for locals and tourists alike.

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