Celebrated architect is “building stories” through historical and cultural narratives
Words Laura Goldstein
Photography Lia Crowe
Look up. A four-ton, 35-foot-high pin oak tree is a lone leafy relic overlooking Vancouver’s spectacular English Bay. Ordinarily, the green to russet leaves melding into magenta in the fall might briefly capture your attention as you walk along the seawall. Except, this tree is positioned on the jaw-dropping penthouse terrace atop Eugenia Place, an 18-storey condo building on Beach Avenue. The sight commands a full stop. How did it get up there?
“The tree, brought from Oregon, represents a first-growth forest that covered the area 80 years ago. The saucer-like planter it sits in holds 100,000 pounds of earth. The tree was hoisted up there using a Liebherr crane,” says the building’s architect, Richard Henriquez, founding principal of Henriquez Partners Architects (HPA), from his studio in Vancouver.
In an homage to the origins of the area, which once housed wood-frame cabins and a teahouse, Richard’s design of concrete-embedded imprints in the lobby and parking lot are a subtle salute to the original site. Landscaped with hand-sculpted, coloured concrete tree-trunk planters filled with indigenous ferns, the building commemorates the vast forests that once enveloped the area.
The down-to-earth architect doesn’t exude the uber-ego of the many “starchitects” who design incredible buildings out of context to their surroundings. That’s because the dapper octogenarian, with a thatch of white hair and red-framed specs, has a tremendous respect for the history and culture of the community, which he fastidiously researches before embarking upon each architectural project.
Perhaps that tendency grew out of Richard’s fascinating personal history in Jamaica, where he was born.
“The first Jews came to Jamaica fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1665, and at the time the British had conquered the island. My ancestors arrived from Britain, and that’s where I was brought up,” Richard explains. He laughs, “I still have a few cousins there who keep the only synagogue going.”
A prolific artist and sculptor as an adult, Richard reminisces: “I made sculptures out of limestone and paintings when I was a child, and at around 10 years old, I’d already decided that I was going to be an architect like my grand-uncle Dossie. I also remember the smell of paint, because buildings in Jamaica were made of wood and always painted on the outside.”
In celebration of Richard’s 53rd impactful year of work in the City of Vancouver and beyond, a 30-minute documentary was commissioned by Marcon Developments. Richard Henriquez: Building Stories, by All in Pictures, captures Richard’s passion as one of Canada’s finest architects through interviews, animation, collage and, above all, the historical context of each building project.
Richard’s many awards include the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Gold Medal in 2005, a Governor General’s Medal in 1994 and the Order of Canada in 2017 for his contributions to architecture in Canada.
“We got to do a deep dive into the man and his work,” enthuses All in Pictures producer Leah Mallen, who is involved with the Architecture & Design Film Festival in Vancouver.
A few of Richard’s projects include the Sylvia Tower, the Presidio, the aforementioned Eugenia Place, the Sinclair Centre and the BC Cancer Research Centre in Vancouver; the Justice Institute of British Columbia in New Westminster; and the Environmental Science Building at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
The documentary also showcases Richard’s insatiable creativity as an artist in his own right. His mesmerizing in-home cylindrical Memory Theatre, which he designed, is re-imagined from the “cabinet of curiosities” made popular in the Italian Renaissance. Wood shelves and cabinets on a glass floor soar upwards towards the beamed ceiling’s skylight, displaying models, drawings and family mementoes. Memory Theatre premiered at an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery before travelling to Italy for the 1996 Venice Biennale.
Richard’s workshop in his home’s converted garage boasts power tools and drawers brimming with collected ephemera such as feathers, skeletal and beach finds from nature that he conjures into sculptures and collages.
In 2021, Richard created COVID Totems, an installation of sculptures on Jericho Beach made from found objects and wood collected by him and his wife of 60 years, Carol Henriquez, during daily walks in nearby Jericho Beach Park.
In the same year, Richard completed a redesign of four storeys and a theatre for Arts Umbrella, an arts academy for young people on Granville Island. Coincidentally, his wife Carol was a co-founder of Arts Umbrella in 1979.
And the acorn doesn’t fall far from the pin oak tree. Richard and Carol’s son, architect Gregory Henriquez, managing principal of HPA, is overseeing the current $5-billion-plus Oakridge Park complex with Westbank in Vancouver.
With no intention of slowing down or resting on his laurels, Richard is currently working on Phase II of the Coal Harbour Elementary School on Vancouver’s waterfront. It will include a childcare facility, a play space on the rooftop, and 60 units of social housing within the upper six levels. The project’s expected completion date is August 2024.
Richard says, “To me, architecture is about creating a unique place in the world. Art tries to connect those things that are not connectable and to explain what it’s like to be human.”
Richard Henriquez: Building Stories is playing at architecture film festivals across Canada and internationally. It can also be seen on Shelter, an architecture streaming service. Visit richardhenriquez-building-stories.com to learn more.