5. Dal Grauer Substation (1953-54)

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5. Dal Grauer Substation (1953-54)
Dal Grauer substation (1953-54) at 970 Burrard Street

A local landmark , B.C. Hydro’s Dal Grauer Substation is one of the great early works of the Modern movement in Vancouver, and an ‘A’ on the Recent Landmarks Inventory.

In 1953-4 the BC Electric Company hired young architect Ned Pratt and artist B.C. (Bert) Binning, to develop a light, open design that deeply integrated art and architecture.

Embodying the Modernist form-follows-function philosophy, the entire Burrard Street elevation featured a floor-to-ceiling glass and steel curtain wall, exposing electrical machinery, staircases, and other functional elements set against a backdrop of bright primary colours. Pratt and Binning created, in essence, a three-dimensional ‘canvas’ which, when viewed through the exterior glass and steel grid, has been said to resemble a Mondrian De Stijl painting.

In period nighttime photos, the glass exterior membrane becomes invisible, the coloured backdrop glowing with light in a celebration of electrical consumption.

Notably, when the same architects were commissioned to design the adjoining BC Electric office tower (1957), the design philosophy was extended to the 23-storey glass and aluminum curtain wall that, famously, radiated like a night-time beacon with all of its office lights deliberately left blazing.

In the 1980s, when a transformer explosion damaged the facade, the plate glass was replaced by plexiglass panels, which rapidly became dull and semi-opaque, compromising the original design. Although consultants have prepared a restoration plan for the building, the restoration work itself appears to be stalled. Although not endangered by demolition, this neglected landmark sits demoralized and obscured, a very sad remnant of its former glory as a civic icon.

Heritage Vancouver encourages BC Hydro to take the Dal Grauer building out of the dark and once again create a flood of light and colour on Burrard Street. What a fitting contribution that would be to the 2010 Olympics.