There is a fascinating and symbiotic relationship between timber and concrete. The timber formwork used to build up the in-situ walls and surfaces of brutalist buildings left its imprint on the architecture — concrete walls inscribed with the grain, the knots, the imperfections and splinters of rough timber forms.
Yet concrete, despite its current fashionable status, is often regarded as environmentally damaging, heavy, aggressively inflexible but permanent. Timber, on the other hand, is seen as green, sustainable, warm, humane and so on. The two materials are bound in a kind of yin and yang of positive and negative.
So Shigeru Ban’s Terrace House — which, it ought to be said, is emphatically not a terrace house — rising up beside and seemingly entwined with Arthur Erickson’s Evergreen Building, looks like an intriguing exploration of this enduring material relationship.
Having just received its building permit, Vancouver-based PortLiving’s development will be North America’s tallest residential timber tower, a 19-storey condo building on the city’s Coal Harbour waterfront.
Ban, who has been one of the most compelling adopters of timber and bamboo in contemporary architecture, has carefully enmeshed his tower with its 1978 neighbour. Evergreen House is a determinedly concrete structure with a jagged profile of prow-like balconies to create one of the city’s most distinctive late-modernist blocks.
Ironically Erickson (1924-2009) was also an architect who worked exquisitely with timber, creating a series of seductive houses in North America, particularly around his home city of Vancouver, which work beautifully with local materials and landscapes.
Here, Ban extrapolates Erickson’s sharp angles into a crown, a 45-degree monopitch. He effectively extends the 1970s structure using the same banding of balconies and even repeating the draped foliage that gave its neighbour its name. Erickson’s building was already very open, its walls entirely glazed behind the concrete terrace fronts, but Ban proposes more, opening up the walls so that they are able to disappear entirely into the timber frame.
Recently released renderings of airy, ethereal rooms flowing into their outside spaces are seductive, if not particularly original. The rooms seem to lose a little of the material quality of the timber, morphing into generic upscale spaces. Nevertheless, this looks like a considered and elegant extension to a modernist landmark in a city where condo complexes have increasingly been seen as pure investment vehicles with little regard for context or culture.
Even more interestingly, the building might yet be a compelling exploration of that symbiotic relationship between these two seemingly inseparable materials, the once-derided concrete of late modernism and the timber that was once the material for all cities yet whose possibilities have languished unexplored for so long. It must, surely, be a sign of things to come.
Photographs: Shigeru Ban Architects; Getty Images