Review: Body Heat

Ian Chodikoff’s review of Body Heat: The Story of the Woodward’s Redevelopment originally appeared in the March 2011 edition of Canadian Architect.

It demands a great deal of effort, heart, and soul from a diverse range of people to improve a neighbourhood. Guided by architect Gregory Henriquez of Henriquez Partners Architects, such a complex group of public and private interests have succeeded in turning around one of Canada’s poorest postal codes with a large-scale urban project intended as a catalyst for change—the recently completed Woodward’s mixed-use redevelopment in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The story has been brought to life with Body Heat: The Story of the Woodward’s Redevelopment, a richly illustrated account of the redevelopment process leading toward its realization, told through an insightful collection of 23 essays documenting one of the most socially and culturally sensitive Canadian urban redevelopment projects in recent memory.

As architect and educator Chris Macdonald describes it, Woodward’s was “the perfect storm of architectural capacity, political will, community support, client commitment and—unquestionably—historical moment.” First opened in 1903, the Woodward’s flagship store on Hastings Street finally closed its doors in 1993, sealing the fate of its Downtown Eastside urban context, which had already been deteriorating for several years. Economic and social problems manifested by drug use, prostitution, homelessness, and declining commercial activity was increasingly prevalent in the area. After the defunct department store’s imposing building was abandoned, the site was purchased by a developer in 1995 who immediately sold the attached parking garage to the City and made a failed attempt to build 400 market condos. This marked the beginning of a series of events that coincided with the creation of the Woodward’s Cooperative Housing Society, more failed real estate proposals and further protests. By 2004, Westbank Projects Corporation and Petersen Investment Group, along with Henriquez Partners Architects, were selected to redevelop the block. By 2007, construction began on the one-million-square-foot redevelopment comprising 200 units of low-cost housing, art and theatre facilities for Simon Fraser University, municipal and federal government offices, shops, and 536 market condos.

Body Heat‘s collection of interviews and photo essays include many of the individuals involved in the project—from developer Ian Gillespie to Kevan Losch, a crane operator. Other voices represented include municipal leaders, social activists, housing experts, and consultants who dedicated countless hours to the project, which was eventually completed in 2010. The closing interview with Gregory Henriquez reinforces the role of his practice as a facilitator and negotiator for achieving socially responsible architecture. The book’s odd title is derived from an expression used by Henriquez at the outset of his involvement in the project; Robert Enright explains Henriquez’s view that “body heat” is “5,000 people a day doing any number of unexceptional things: attending classes, watching a film, going to the bank or drugstore, shopping, hanging out. Body Heat is a narrative of conventional urban life; it is a story of living and working in a neighbourhood.” This book is a rare document that gives a voice to countless individuals responsible for bringing new life to an old neighbourhood.

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