Design Clinic

In July, after a year of construction and delays, a derelict stretch of Hastings just west of Pigeon Park finally shed its hoardings. What shines out today from the formerly forlorn spot is most unlikely: a gorgeously designed, extravagantly welcoming space appointed with sensuous materials—carefully finished woods, cleverly contrived lighting, concrete buffed to a sheen. What vanguard operation has adopted such a famously beleaguered location? An intrepid restaurateur out to one-up Chambar? A gallery drawing the moneyed down to the land of low rents? A no-fear boutique?

Lu’s is none of those. Beyond its tall glowing panels of glass and innovative lighting, it signals a fundamental rethink of how health services are delivered in the Downtown Eastside. Named for 85-year-old activist Lucette Hanson, Lu’s—a pharmacy that provides services solely to women—will reinvest earnings from its sales into social programs on-site.

No pharmacy like it exists in North America; so, in 2006, when parent organization the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective (VWHC) conceived the idea, its design was an open question. The group had found a 270-square-metre lot at 29 West Hastings, next door to the Army & Navy store. After teaming up with Inge Roecker, an assistant professor of architecture at UBC, they began the process of re-inventing what a pharmacy could be.

From the start, the group faced a major setback: after years of waning government support, the VWHC was in trouble. That’s when Roecker got inventive. The Stuttgart-born architect, who received her master’s from the University of Manitoba in 1999, used the opportunity to revive a design practice called clerestory lighting. Until the 1950s, many buildings in Gastown and Chinatown, including 29 Hastings, filled their clerestory (the top third of a storefront window) with prisma glass—heavy triangles of glass used to reflect light further into the building through a series of “light shelves,” or mirrors along the ceiling, the walls, and the top of filing cabinets and other furniture. “It was a pretty smart system,” Roecker says. “But as soon as electricity came, they boxed it off.” Sometime in the 1950s, a backlit Helen’s Cafe sign barricaded the clerestory, consigning the space to decades of electric lighting. In the power-challenged 21st century, however, Roecker saw a chance to revisit prisma.

It was at about this time that the VWHC ran into another problem. Back in 2005, the City of Vancouver, concerned with the growing number of so-called “methadone pharmacies” in the Downtown Eastside, passed a by-law preventing new pharmacies from opening within 400 metres of existing ones. The law targeted small-scale operations, facilities 600 square metres or smaller, because their numbers were mushrooming. Over 10 years, the number of small-scale pharmacies had leapt from two or three to nearly 20 in the 10-block radius around Main and Hastings. This was partly due to the rampant use of heroin in the DTES through the ’90s, partly opportunism. Methadone dispensing had become a lucrative business thanks to a provincial Pharma­Care program that pays pharmacists $16.30 each time they administer the medicine.

In response, many small pharmacies in the area began luring patients with free coffee and other incentives. These pharmacies offer few other services. Abbott Renuka Pharmacy, a block away at 100 West Pender Street, is the size of a walk-in closet. Heavy bars cover the front door and windows, giving the pharmacy an oppressive air. The walls are bare, and there are no shelves—no Vicks VapoRub, no condoms, no tissues, no tampons, just a pharmacist and a gallon jug of methadone next to the coffee machines behind the counter. Patients and clinicians operate in separate spaces, transacting though a half-inch of glass.

Even though Lu’s is only a stone’s throw from Abbot Renuka and two other pharmacies, the city granted it an exemption to the bylaw, accepting that it would provide “necessary health benefits” to the women of the DTES.  

To understand those needs, Roecker’s architecture students handed out disposable cameras to women in the area and asked them to create a photo essay of their weekend. The students were expecting images of hotel rooms and parks and dirty streets; what came back shocked them. “We had so many photos of barriers to access,” says Magali Bailey, 28, a third-year master’s student. “The entire Downtown Eastside has a backdrop of bars and locks and Do Not Enter signs.”

Roecker divided her students into competitive pairs, a common way to kick-start architecture projects. Technically, Bailey and her partner, Andrea Hoff, won the competition, but Lu’s final design is the product of all the participants. Many of the green and cost-saving features that Bailey and Hoff imagined—walls made from bales of recycled cardboard, refurbished trailers as indoor consultancy pods—have not come to be. But their original floor plan survived, as did the staggered wall scheme that divides the storefront pharmacy from the services and consultation rooms in the back.

The lighting system, like everything else, is a work in progress. The clerestory will not house prisma glass, though mirrors along the façade function similarly and the students are investigating reflective fins to direct light deeper into the space. One-off chandeliers made out of coat hangers and bicycle wheel rims hang from the ceiling. In other places, steel colanders have been mounted over recessed fixtures. No glass window divides a customer from her pharmacist. At the end of the counter is a private area where methadone can be administered in a dignified and respectful way.

Remembering the women’s photos, the students were especially mindful of avoiding barriers even as they built in safety measures. “We wanted the façade to be secure,” says Bailey. “But how do we make it so that we’re not adding to an already oppressive landscape?” The solution was retractable steel panels across the front windows, perforated with a cherry-blossom motif. “It would look like a piece of art from the street,” she explains, “and when it was backlit it’d look like a glowing light box.”

Lu’s customers are delighted, and Magali Bailey is gratified to have helped bring “a higher ideal of what design could be” to the neighbourhood. “It elevates people’s idea of what is possible.”