OVER THE TOP: Omer Arbel Humanizes ‘Master of the Universe’ Penthouse-cum-Showroom

by Trevor Boddy / The Globe and Mail Published November 2013

It is one of those ‘only in Vancouver’ tales.  The top two floors of the condo tower at 1000 Beach Avenue are roughed-in a decade ago—potentially the grandest penthouse in the entire city.  Construction proceeds only to raw unfinished concrete walls, with a never-used private lap pool, and an empty 35 foot high ceiling living room. This sky abode to-be was bought and sold a number of times, but never finished, never occupied.

While the price of this potential penthouse increased with every transaction, the fact that it could make people money without anyone ever actually living there became symbolic of a downtown Vancouver real estate scene soaring past vitality into absurdity. Why bother with paint, furniture and occupants, some in the business wondered, if there is money to be made on flipping a cipher, speculating on a ghost, trading on mere potential, rather than messy reality?

It is ‘Vancouverism’ in a nutshell that this proto-residence became more profitable than most others complicated by actual inhabitation. Like any icon, the empty space at 1000 Beach became the object of speculation and gossip, and over the past ten years, I have heard lots of it: “Pavel Bure has made an offer;” “They are going to subdivide the nearly 8,000 square feet of it—it’s too big for Vancouver;” “It’s going to be used as a diplomatic mission, or a VANOC guest house;” “Axl Rose is going to buy;” and most often of all, “The space is uninhabitable.”

At very least, current condo owner Randy Bishop and project designer Omer Arbel—who are also business partners in the furnishings company Bocci—have largely dispelled this last worry.  Design and real estate entrepreneurship at its best, Bishop and Arbel have pushed the empty shell into a state of completion—a flashy and highly original implication of a residence—one they have re-dubbed the “15.2 Penthouse.” The at last completed condo succeeds as kind of show room for how these two floors might be lived in after the next owner puts down the going price of $18.2 million.  If realtor Sotheby’s Canada and owner Bishop sell the 15.2 at that price, it will be the most expensive re-sale, ever, for a Canadian condo (but this figure has been nearly matched in recent sales of all-new penthouses at the Fairmont, Jameson and Shangri-la towers under construction downtown.)

A couple of key numbers will put this condo’s literal over-the-top-ness in context. Vancouver real estate super-marketer Bob Rennie—who spent $1.2 million dollars on an off-site pre-sales showroom for the Norman Foster-designed Jameson Tower—says marketing costs for Vancouver condos range around 16% of selling cost (one of the highest ratios going), and all design fees average 4% (one of the lowest.)  With figures skewed like these, it is no wonder than Vancouver has a reputation for world-leading condo marketing, but less than world-leading condo design.

By contrast, Bishop decided that inverting this ratio by investing in design was a better way to sell the condo.  Clearly, 16% of $18.2 million is enough to both keep the fee-collecting agents at Sotheby’s Canada happy, while also providing a career-breaking opportunity for architecturally-trained Omer Arbel to shift from his established reputation for designing clever objects, to an enlarged one of crafting clever environments.

Owner and designer started with an understandable desire to feature some of their own current line of Bocci products. Their “14 Series” globular cast resin hanging lights, for example, are used to great effect in almost every room.  These bocce ball-like round lights are now selling globally, and helped inspire the name of their company (note all Bocci products have series numbers as names.)  One wall of the formal living room is dominated by an innovative modular stacking wall system, its various wooden components cut from veneer plywood sheets using leading-edge computer milling technology.

Investment in new design extended to Bocci devising new furniture lines, first tested here.  Boldest is the “17.1 Series” –square-corned, deep-decked tables made of Ipe, a Brazilian wood similar to walnut. Their most unusual feature are numerous insets carved into the tabletops to hold custom-fired ceramic condiment bowls—just the thing for your Dijon Ketchup. There are two sample 17.1 tables in the 15.2 condo: a smaller one for the breakfast room; and a much longer one set in the same spot as the former lap pool, which Bishop excised in the makeover.

Omer Arbel’s other striking design feature here are back-lit walls made of long sheets of onyx.  The designer has inserted five of these onyx-covered rooms-within-rooms—he calls them “pods”—and they are successful in breaking down the office building scale of the bi-level condo. Light passing through the natural stone infuses warm tones all around, and its variegated veins bring welcome organic forms into spaces that are otherwise hard-edged.  The onyx sheets are hinged, which permits the rows of fluorescent lights behind them to be changed. This same detail also makes it easy to dis-assemble the pods, then ship then to another locale, or even back to the stone store.

This may well be the most ‘Vancouverist’ quality of the whole condo—both owner and designer readily admit that most prospective owners who can shell out $18.2 million are quite likely to want to customize the 15.2’s spaces and appointments.  Here in our provisional and ever-changing new city is a provisional and open-to-change ‘Master of the Universe’ condo, soaring above it all. The fact that the 15.2 also serves as a showroom does not temper Bishop and Arbel’s ambition and accomplishment—using design as the best form of marketing.