Richard Henriquez Back To the Future: The celebrated architect is Building Stories through historical and cultural narratives
By Laura Goldstein
Look up. A four-ton, 35-foot -high pin oak tree is a lone leafy relic overlooking spectacular English Bay, Vancouver. 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 Tower, 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 and the saucer-like planter it sits in holds 100,000 -lbs of earth. The tree was hoisted up there using a Liebherr crane,” relates the building’s architect, Richard Henriquez, Principal, Henriquez Partners Architects, from his studio in Vancouver. In an homage to the origins of the area that once housed wood- frame cabins and a teahouse, his 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, they commemorate the vast forests that once enveloped the area.
The down- to -earth, Henriquez doesn’t exude the uber-ego of many ‘starchitects’ that design incredible buildings out of context to their surroundings. That’s because the dapper octogenarian with a thatch of white hair and red frame specs, has a tremendous respect for the history and culture of the community that he so fastidiously researches before embarking upon each architectural project. Perhaps that grew out of a 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,” Henriquez explains. “I still have a few cousins there who keep the only synagogue going,” he laughs.
A prolific artist and sculptor as an adult, “I made sculptures out of limestone and paintings when I was a child and around ten- years -old, I’d already decided that I was going to be an architect like my grand-uncle Dossie,” Henriquez reminisces. “I also remember the smell of paint because buildings in Jamaica were made of wood and always painted on the outside.”
In celebration of Henriquez’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 Henriquez’s passion as one of Canada’s finest architects through interviews, animation, collage and above all, historical context to each building project. His many awards include the 2005 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Gold Medal, 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 and Design Film Festival (ADFF) in Vancouver. A few of those projects include Vancouver’s Sylvia Tower, The Presidio and the aforementioned Eugenia Place Tower; Sinclair Centre, Trent University’s Environmental Sciences Building, New Westminster’s Justice Institute of British Columbia and the BC Cancer Research Centre.
The doc also showcases Henriquez’s insatiable creativity as an artist in his own right. His mesmerizing in- home cylindrical Memory Theatre that 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. It premiered at an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery before travelling to Italy for the 1996 Venice Biennale. His workshop in their home’s converted garage, boasts power tools and drawers brimming with collected ephemera such as feathers, skeletal and beach finds from nature that Henriquez conjures into sculptures and collages.
In 2021 he created Covid Totems an installation of sculptures on Jericho Beach made from found objects and wood collected by Henriquez and his wife during daily walks in nearby Jericho Park.
The same year he completed a re-design of four-storeys and a theatre for Arts Umbrella, an arts academy for young people on Granville Island. Coincidentally, his wife of 60 years, Carol Henriquez was a co-founder of Arts Umbrella in 1979. And, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak tree. Their 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, Henriquez is currently working on Phase II of the Coal Harbour Elementary School on the waterfront that will include a childcare facility, play space on the rooftop and 60 units of social housing within the upper six levels. Expected completion date is August 2024.
Says Henriquez, “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