James K.M. Cheng is not yet Vancouver’s most famous architect, but he may well be its most influential. Born in Hong Kong, Cheng’s first degree is from the University of Washington, and during graduate studies at Harvard, he was a protégé of Richard Meier.
After an early apprenticeship with Arthur Erickson (Cheng worked on Robson Square in the team led by Bing Thom), Cheng founded his own firm in 1983, and ever since has been a key intellectual engine for Vancouver’s highly regarded accomplishments in city-building. Rather than the city planners and politicians who usually take credit for these innovations, it is Cheng who has the surest claim on status as the key devisor of the tower-podium typology, the best-known symbol of “Vancouverism.” Cheng was subsequently amongst the first to push for alternatives to the tower-podium typology once it had been reduced (by others) into a dull developer’s formula. One of the first of these alternative constructions - the waterfront Shaw Tower - places elegant condos on top of one of the few substantive creations of new office space built on Vancouver’s downtown peninsula in the past decade.
With the just-opened Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel-condo hybrid next door to the Shaw Tower, James Cheng has produced his most sophisticated and nuanced work to date. This is also the largest building in the city’s history—at 813,000 square feet, its floor area is larger than the new Vancouver Convention Centre addition (LMN Architects, Seattle), located just across the street. Cheng was an early supporter of Vancouver’s design review panel system that has subsequently been adopted in various forms by Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. Not incidentally, he has major projects underway in all of these cities, in large part because of an excellent reputation with developers and approving authorities for crafting superior designs with significant public benefits.
Tower-with-podium townhouses were never an option for the block occupied by the new Fairmont Pacific Rim. Here, the synergy between Cheng’s work as both urban designer and composer of buildings comes to the fore. He played a key role in setting the area’s massing guidelines, new street elevations and land uses for this entire precinct, former railway lands controlled by Canadian Pacific-owned Marathon Realty. Included in this framework plan is the new convention centre, plus Fairmont and Shaw for Westbank, and three more towers to the west also designed by Cheng for Aspac’s Harbour Green. No landward view of the new convention centre is possible now without inclusion of several of these five Cheng towers, appropriate in that his guidelines were devised to pull the Fairmont tower back to permit views to the VCC’s prow from all along Burrard Street, with a bench-lined mini-park paid for, notably, by the developer.
This is no thinly elegant Vancouver tower—at 18,000 square feet per high rise floor, it is triple the average size of typical floor plates here and more like Dallas and Miami condo buildings. A key form-giver is accommodation of distant views towards the Art Deco Marine Building across the street, and the Pacific Rim’s plan geometries are aligned to give seventy percent of the condo floors (which surmount the hotel) harbour views. Deferring to their differing prospects, each of the tower elevations is unique, and Cheng employs a range of devices to break their scale and integrate with urban settings. The Burrard Street elevation is a tour de force, with a mid-building section in white contrasting with hotel rooms below and even larger condos above. Cheng creates elevational interest with two storey units, a device he pioneered at Shangri-la and used subsequently at Woodwards’ W-43 Tower down the same street by Gregory Henriquez. The hotel floor elevations have one configuration where the cut letters of Ian Gillick’s text-based artwork wrap at windowsill level, a flatter treatment in a narrow band under the balconies above then a lighter-colored curtain wall to wrap the corner. Vertically and horizontally, these devices reduce the perceived bulk of the massive tower and generate possibilities inside— the hotel has 44 different room types. This is tower as metropolis.
Cheng’s real breakthrough is found at the lower levels of the 21-storey hotel, where ballrooms and kitchens gave him the rare opportunity to fashion walls which are not residential all-glass (Vancouver’s grey and temperate climate means that entirely-glazed condo elevations are possible, usually without air conditioning.) Cheng views Fairmont Pacific Rim as one of his first complete works of architecture in the round: “More walls, more mass, more refined details.” Along Cordova Street, then wrapping around the corner to face the arrival plaza adjacent to the Shaw Tower, is a perforated, stainless-steel plate exo-elevation on outriggers. Steel plates here are broken with slit gaps to accommodate views from kitchen prep areas, and their surfaces are set with laser-cut holes and machine-punched dimples of varying diameters, “pixels” that come together to form a composite image of a west coast rainforest. “I was inspired by Herzog and de Meuron’s similar detail at the De Young Museum in San Francisco,” says Cheng, where this approach was also employed to create visual interest in a zone not needing fenestration.
Dramatically punctuating the poolside raised deck facing the VCC is the cantilevered black box of the Chairman’s Suite, the flashiest lodging available in Canada’s highest-end new hotel. This bold touch does much to complete the design: It contrasts with the trapezoidal convention centre and its green roof buzz-cut; it turns the corner and creates interest along what might have been a dead street, transforming a motel-village-like raised pool deck into a variegated pleasure zone. Top to bottom, all around each side, Fairmont Pacific Rim is a bold creation from an architect in full command of his art.