RETAIL ARCHITECTURE | R.I.P. César Pelli’s Eaton’s Pacific Centre :: 1973 – 2012

I’m going to stick my neck out here and state unequivocally that I really liked the original Pacific Centre (Block 52 consisting of Eaton’s and the TD Bank Tower, plus a very tiny subterranean mall) when it opened in 1973. I thought it sleek and glamourous and felt that it changed Vancouver’s “village by the sea” image a tiny bit and made the city seem suddenly a little more upscale.

Canada Good on Flickr

(For non-Vancouverites: Some call Eaton’s/Sears the ugliest building in downtown Vancouver and its nickname is “The Great White Urinal” or “The Great White Toilet”; the Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower‘s moniker is “The Tower of Darkness.”)



Yes, the way the Eaton’s store met the sidewalk was a disaster. But the main idea of the architecture was to suck rain-soaked Vancouverites into the great white box and up the escalators through Eaton’s or down into the subterranean mall – capitalism in action.

Although nearly universally despised, my teenaged eyes liked the Centre’s simplicity of form, the detailing of their skins, and all those bevelled edges …

… and how the tower’s two mid-height mechanical-floor slits in the skin were also bevels:

I liked how superwhite Eaton’s contrasted with The Tower of Darkness – the horizontal and vertical made explicit by colour.

CVA 784-104 – Pacific Centre, 701 Granville Street (1986 landscaping with the Norris sculpture before it got scrapped)

I also thought that the Centre’s original street paving (pink!) and street furniture were way better than the-then norms for Vancouver:

Digression: Blocks 52 and 42 are the only 2 remaining blocks in the city that still sport these supergroovy “Fat Albert” street lamps from the city’s 1967 – 1971 Theatre Row Renovation project.

They lit Granville Street until it became Granville Mall in 1974 (below).

I’m still loving the few remaining ones lining Blocks 52 and 42, now painted a cool chocolate instead of the original white.

CVA 780-26 “Belmont Grocery,” Theatre Row, [at 999 Granville Street], 6 March 1969. Nice garbage bin.

VPL 85922F Theatres along 900 Block Granville Street at night in the rain, March 1972 Photo > Curt Lang

“Cover – designed by Jan Westendorp – combines a picture of Curt snapped sometime in the late sixties with a photo of Vancouver’s Granville Street which Curt took in 1972.  This was part of a mammoth street photography project Curt undertook.”

> Visit Claudia Cornwall’s blog

César Pelli of Gruen Associates was not well known when he designed Pacific Centre – his star would start to shine with the opening of “The Blue Whale” (a.k.a the Pacific Design Center) in Los Angeles in 1975. That one really captured the imagination of the architectural press (note the rotunda lifted from Pacific Centre):

Two decades after Pacific Centre, Pelli’s brain produced the intriguingly Islamic twin towers for Malaysia’s state-owned oil and gas company, PETRONAS, (1998).

Digression: The Petronas Twin Towers held the world’s record for tallest building for a mere six years before being outdone by Taipei 101. After more than a decade of Third World Skyscraper Madness they remain the world’s tallest twin towers (they stand 452 metres tall; the Burj Kalifa in Dubai, 2010, rises an incredible 829.84 metres from the desert sands; the TD Tower Vancouver is 127 metres high – it was Vancouver’s tallest when completed and is currently number 14 on Vancouver’s skyline).

Pelli’s architecture has always been, to me, about the skin of the building. The colour of the Blue Whale, for example, was radical and audacious for its time, and the detailing of the Petronas Twin Towers’ curtain wall remains nonpareil.

For late-‘60s hicktown Vancouver, Pelli chose a chocolate brown glazing for the tower component of the block and very white precast stone aggregate panels for the 5-storey department store:

People hated it.

Yet it went on to “inform” Eb Zeidler’s architecture for Eaton’s flagship Toronto store (1977):

In Pelli’s minimalist vision, the edges of the high-contrast materials (glass/stone) and colours (white/brown) meet in the form of a rotunda – the main entry into Eaton’s:

The interior of this space was originally adorned with a long tubular chandelier containing hundreds of tiny light bulbs plus a two-storey tall mannequin of vaguely alien female  proportions.

Pelli’s architecture for the T. Eaton Co. stood in high contrast to the store’s great rival, the Hudson’s Bay Co., and luxe jeweler Birks, both across Granville Street:

Over the years, Pacific Centre has been added to (Blocks 42 and 32) and tacked up beyond belief – we’re talking seriously bad decisions and atrocious additions and stupid subtractions.

Pelli’s bold and minimalist vision has been compromised beyond recognition.

The Crimes against Architecture committed by Cadillac Fairview, the Centre’s owner, against Block 52 alone are too many to enumerate here.

Perhaps the worst crime (aside from the atrocity plunked on top of Eaton’s in 1981) include Crimes against Sculpture: the removal of two works that dignified the large public plaza at the intersection of Georgia and Granville streets.

The first to go was a long neon sculpture and waterfall that demarked the elevation change between Granville Street and the plaza. (I can’t find a photo of that one — the sculpture didn’t last long before CF shut it off and threw some topsoil in the fountain and planted some scrubby things). Here’s the “after” photo (note the atrocious street furniture of the first Granville Mall, ca. 1974):

CVA 784-219 – [Pacific Centre plaza]

Then, in the late ’80s, a major crime was committed against George Norris’ untitled soaring stainless steel sculpture:

CVA 784-135 – [Candid photograph of Pacific Centre plaza]

CVA 784-107 – Pacific Centre, 701 Granville Street

CVA 784-190 – [Metal sculpture at Pacific Centre plaza]

CVA 784-138 – [Candid photograph of Pacific Centre Plaza with metal sculpture]

1987 > An untitled sculpture by George Norris, that had stood before Eaton’s store at Granville and Georgia since 1974, was removed. In a 1981 guidebook, Terry Noble had described the piece as “a majestic, glistening, glinting dragonfly, bowing gracefully to all who pass.”

 Artist Statement:

The artist said that “The sculpture to me was like a silent song.” Piece was removed by owners and donated to City of Surrey in 1988, where it was supposed to go in front of the justice centre. However, it was disassembled and stored. It was sold for scrap metal in 1996. It was reported to have been an accident by city staff but the union said the city manager ordered it sold. Surrey issued a public apology to the artist. (K. Sinoski, Province, 4 March 1996)

– Vancouver Public Art Registry

George Norris at the Planetarium

By far the worst Crime against Architecture, however, was the late ’70s decision to add additional floors to Pelli’s department store.

McCarter Nairne and Partners designed it. Their addition  looks as if a ginormous Sealy Posturepedic® floated down from the heavens and landed on top of Pelli’s cool minimalist (and very straight) box.

That’s the kind version. If we use the “Great White Toilet” nickname, then McCarter Nairne and Partners surely added the final touch – the padded toilet seat.

This toilet lid is made of non-sympathetic materials and destroys the basic shape of the original building, including all of those bevelled edges – oh, the horror! It displays a total disrespect for Pelli’s intentions. It’s beyond ugly. I have to avert my eyes it’s so gross (and you won’t find a picture of it in the next post’s photo tribute to the building – my compositions edited the carbuncle out of the picture).

With that thing plunked on its roof in 1981, Eaton’s became undoubtedly the ugliest building in the downtown core.

It’s screaming for redevelopment.

Photo > Gmcmullen via Flickr

The original box about to be destroyed: expansion work was underway for Eaton’s in 1980 when two floors were added to the existing store. 

Photo > Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun

CVA 779 – W02.18 – 700 Granville Street west side, 1981 – the toilet seat is almost complete

Photo > Steve Bosch/Vancouver Sun

1981. Eaton’s store at night. Photo > Ralph Bower, Vancouver Sun

A photo showing the illuminated spandrel bands across the top of each entrance alcove!

The spandrels say “EATON’S EATON’S EATON’S” in a strip along the bottom edge.
Think of the missed opportunity in the 1999 renovation.
. officedweller @ skyscraper city


Design Vision’s façade redesign was geared to maximize brand visibility for pedestrians both near and far from the store. The firm did a fantastic job on the ecstasy pill logo redesign and the rest of the rebranding — Aubergine! — but failed miserably at the architectural challenges of the task, further desecrating Pelli’s vision.

This series of designKULTUR posts is my tribute to the original Pelli design and its importance to the development of downtown Vancouver, circa 1973 when I was a young lad developing an appreciation of the art of architecture.

Block 52, 1961

CVA 1135-42 – Pacific Centre. Detail below.

CVA 1135-41 – Pacific Centre.

CVA 780-37 – Pacific Centre [construction progress]

CVA : 2010 006.185– Vancouver – Eatons  12 November 1970

Jan. 30, 1972  - 0358c2c9-6d20-47c0-894f-6697e76fe8be-2010-006.198

AM1551-S2-: 2010-006.198 Eaton’s New Stone Started – Centre of Pic. Jan. 30, 1972

CVA 447-75– [View of] Pacific Centre [under construction-Georgia between Granville and Howe Streets]

VPL  85881C – View of downtown from the new Georgia Viaduct, March 1972 Photo > Curt Lang

CBC Vancouver Archives > May-June 1972. Pacific Centre nearing completion. (CBC/Alvin Armstrong)

May 1972. Street scene at Granville and Robson in front of new Eatons’ Building. Photo > Vancouver Sun

The 8 February 1973 grand opening of Eaton’s on Granville. Photo > Vlad Keremidschieff, Vancouver Sun

Eaton’s shoe department in 1973.

CVA 780-13 – [View of the Toronto Dominion Tower, 700 West Georgia Street, at] Granville Street and Georgia Street (detail)

CVA 784-134 – [Candid photograph of Pacific Centre plaza]. Note the chandelier in the rotunda.

ca. 1975/76 via Vancouver Lights > check it out!

Eaton’s Pacific Centre, 1973 Commercial illustration from a promotional newspaper, prior to the 8 February 1973 grand opening. Detail below.

via Illustrated Vancouver – check it out!

It was an advertising insert, announcing the grand opening of the Eaton’s Pacific Centre on February 8, 1973 (date, publication, and artist unknown). Odds are, this was printed by the thousands, most of which would have ended up in a landfill within a month. Fortunately, at least one copy was spared to decorate the room of a new baby boy circa 1974.

Take a close look at the styling fashion illustrations of the early 70s! I love the fact that an Emily Carr sneaks in the background of the lady’s fashions, while the men’s side features all manor of extreme plaid, with a few Vancouver landmarks appearing in the background. Good to see cycling was considered high style in 1971 as well! Special thanks to the young woman who saved this in 1973 for all of us to enjoy today!

– Jason Vanderhill, Illustrated Vancouver via Vancouver is Awesome [with dates corrected from 1971 to 1973]

Feb. 8, 1973: Grand Opening, Eaton’s Pacific Centre

Aug. 20, 1999: T. Eaton Co. files for protection from creditors under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

Aug. 24, 1999: Eaton’s lays off or gives termination notices to thousands of employees across Canada. Eaton’s shares are suspended from trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Aug. 25, 1999: Eaton’s starts liquidation sales.

Sept. 20, 1999: Sears Canada announces a $50-million deal under which it will buy all the shares of T. Eaton Co., eight of its stores, with the option to buy five more, and the Eaton’s name, trademarks, brands, and Web site.

Dec. 30, 1999: Eaton’s officially becomes part of Sears Canada.

Nov. 25, 2000: Seven Eaton’s stores are officially relaunched, land and about $60-million over budget.

Feb. 18, 2002: Sears announces it’s giving up on the Eaton’s brand and plans to convert the Eaton’s stores to the Sears banner.

SOURCE > Western Libraries: Business and History – Eaton’s

Oct. 7, 2012: Last call at Sears Pacific Centre.

2014: ETA for Nordstrom Vancouver.






August 1971

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Robert Ciavarro | flickr > Vancouver 1960/1970s

ouno | Vancouver, Ltd. by Don Gutstein

The Department Store Museum | Eaton’s

The Vancouver Sun | Sears closes in downtown Vancouver. Last days of a store: The masses have descended on Sears to snap up $25 million in ‘must sell’ merchandise PDF

Illustrated Vancouver | More Eaton’s Fashion from the 1970s | César Pelli archive

 darrellinyvr | Eatons, The LATE great Canadian Department store


Larraine Henning | Sears