Law Courts & Nelson Square Tower, Vancouver, 1983

Nelson Square

Law Courts (rear) & Nelson Square Tower, Vancouver, 1983

The shiny white tower at Nelson Square, with an address at 808 Nelson Street, opened its doors in 1982.

Its completion coincided with my purchase of a Mamiyaflex C-series medium format camera, with which I set about documenting Vancouver’s fast-changing urban landscape.

I’d watched from various vantage points around Vancouver as the office building (with top 5 floors now dedicated to 32 residential suites) rose 25 stories above its foundations at the corner of Nelson and Hornby Streets, former site of the less flamboyant yet grand Trafalgar Mansions, which had stood for barely 50 years.

Though I could hardly be called a fan of modernist architecture, I was nonetheless fascinated by the building, designed by Romses Kwan, strictly as a formal visual element — a vulgar interruption of the low-rise vision laid down in the ’70s by architect Arthur Erickson and the province’s New Democrat government, expressed in the adjacent Law Courts building.

To that end, I reconnoitred the area in search of an appropriate viewpoint, found at the perimeter of a parking lot behind the former BC Hydro building, another Modernist icon, designed by Vancouver architects Thompson Berwick & Pratt and completed in 1957.

(Searches via Google Earth and Streetview fail to turn up my 1983 viewpoint, perhaps eliminated by the construction of Paramount Place, 900 Burrard Street, completed in 2006)

Part of the Robson Square complex seen on the left, the Law Courts as originally envisioned by the preceding Social Credit government featured a 50-story, 208 metre (682 feet) skyscraper that would have dwarfed every other building in the city.

Amidst an ambitious legislative agenda, the provincial New Democratic Party that swept into power in 1972 scrapped the grandiose Socred plan.

The NDP turned the project over to famed architects Arthur Erickson and Bing Thom with a sense of urgency. According toThe Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975, Premier Barrett instructed Thom to “Just make it good and fast. We may not win the next election.”

At the behest of Barrett’s top cabinet minister Bob Williams, Erickson and Thom turned the Socred plan literally on it’s side, creating a 7-storey structure capped by a green-tinted glass roof. At just 42 metres (138 ft) in height, it houses 35 courtrooms. Public spaces in the larger Robson Square development feature rooftop gardens and a skating rink.

“This won’t be a corporate monument,” Erickson promised. “Let’s turn it on its side and let people walk all over it.”

The provincial election of 1972 was the first I was old enough to vote in. I helped the campaign of local New Westminster NDP candidate Dennis Cocke, who successfully took the riding for his party. I can, therefore, take some credit for defeating the Social Credit courthouse proposal, not to mention the creation of the BC Ambulance Service, one of many great social advancements Cocke brought to British Columbians during his brief tenure as minister of health. 😉

Successive Socred governments and its bastard child the Liberal (in name only) Party, have overseen the continued inflation of a Vancouver real estate bubble first puffed up by the “deal of the century” sale of the Expo 86 lands along False Creek to Hong-Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, a boom driven now in large part by a new flood of liquid Chinese capital.

The resulting casino capitalization of construction, to my eye, fosters the crude eruption of crass monuments and the elimination of the last remnants of Vancouver’s more modest, human-scale heritage.

Prints are available for sale in both limited and open editions.

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