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Vancouver has often been referred to as the “City of Glass” as the city’s skyline is dominated by towers made up of glass, steel and concrete, which create a striking contrast with the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and waterways. But Vancouver has a rich architectural legacy with buildings dating from the Victorian style up to the Modernist style and beyond. As the warm weather begins, it is the perfect time to visit some of Vancouver’s architectural landmarks.

During the 1880s, the city witnessed construction of several Victorian and late-Edwardian buildings. These buildings are characterized by ornate details, steeply pitched roofs and asymmetrical shapes. Some of these still survive around West End and Gastown; one well-known example of this style is the Dominion Building downtown. It was the city’s first steel framed skyscraper and at 13 storeys, it was the tallest building in the British Empire at the time of its completion.

Upper part of the Dominion Building in Vancouver with sunset and cloudy blue sky in the background
Dominion Building by Komal Brar

The 1920s witnessed a short-lived boom in the Art Deco style, which is characterized by geometric shapes, bold colours and decorative motifs. The Marine Building downtown is one of the more striking examples of this style and features intricate terracotta details and dramatic nautical-themed reliefs (mermaids, ships, sea-life) tying it to the maritime industry which had commissioned it. The building also boasts ornate interiors, including a zodiac-themed floor and massive brass-doored elevators.

Vancouver witnessed a period of rapid growth and development in the mid-19th century, and the buildings constructed during this time reflect the principles of modernism. Modernism is characterized by clean lines, minimal ornamentation and an emphasis on functionality. In fact, Vancouver led this movement by developing its own variation of modernism known as the West Coast Modernism which sought to incorporate the natural environment into the design of buildings. With its mild temperatures and frequent rain, Vancouver doesn't experience extreme weather conditions like heavy snow or high winds, which can make building with glass more challenging. Notable examples include the Simon Fraser University campus on Burnaby Mountain, designed by Arthur Erickson and the Evergreen Building in the West End.

Vancouver is also home to notable examples of postmodern architecture which emerged in the late 20th century as a reaction against the stark minimalism of modernism. The Vancouver Law Courts, dating from 1991, is a striking example of postmodern design with its playful use of classical elements and colourful glass accents. The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia is another postmodern building featuring a bold geometric form and an expansive glass atrium.

Moving into the current century, Vancouver is home to cutting edge architecture, which combines audacious design and technological prowess. One of the newest buildings is Vancouver House, which unlike many buildings, starts narrow at the base and wider at the top. Other buildings with unconventional shapes include the asymmetrical Alberni Tower and the stack-like boxy glass facade of Deloitte Summit Towers.

Vancouver’s architectural legacy is a rich and diverse one, reflecting the city’s history, culture and natural surroundings. As the city continues to grow and evolve, it is sure to add even more iconic structures to its already impressive architectural landscape.

A full shot of Vancouver House in Vancouver with the sunset and clear blue sky in the background
Vancouver House by Carlos Gilbert

By: Vikram Naik


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