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Vancouver’s Bensen has been synonymous with the best of West Coast design for more than four decades and running. In recent years, Niels Bendtsen, the Danish Canadian designer who founded the furniture brand, decided to move production to Italy, but he wanted to continue to invest in the city he loves and the district — Railtown — where it all began. “It’s an amazing neighbourhood and a hidden gem,” Bendtsen says. “It has the best views of the city: overlooking the harbour and its containers and the North Shore.” Now, at 411 Railway Street, he has inaugurated a building that will house the company’s headquarters and energize its surroundings with a future commercial hub.

Street-level entrances to 411 Railway Street scale the building down to an intimate welcome. Photo by Ema Peter

In fact, the building exemplifies new city zoning that encourages “creative product manufacturing,” referring to the making of clothing, furniture and other types of light production. As dry as it sounds, “zoning was the key inspiration for the project,” says Steve McFarlane, whose firm, Office of McFarlane Biggar Architects + Designers (OMB), created the six-storey, 10,400-square-metre beacon. “It was designed to be as flexible as possible,” says OMB architect and associate Rory Fulber. “It is purpose-built for creative manufacturing, but it can also become any other kind of space.”

The new Bensen headquarters in the Railtown district, by Office of McFarlane Biggar Architects + Designers, makes a gleaming addition to the industrial streetscape. Photo by Andrew Latreille

Curving gently in tandem with the sidewalk, the architecture comprises two blocky halves that meet at a soaring central atrium, which is animated by its framed view of those vibrant shipping containers outside and the main circulation route it encases within. This, in essence, is the project’s masterstroke: a series of zigzagging mass timber bridges that slide through the twinned structures’ concrete walls.

An internal series of mass timber bridges animates the atrium. Photo by Ema Peter

The upper storeys of the building are wrapped in a glass and charcoal aluminum facade that peels back on the top two levels to provide tenants with three generous and lushly planted outdoor terraces. Its slender fins, which help mitigate solar gain, also subtly play with the light, allowing the building to morph from solid to transparent as you move past it. The dynamism embodied in the architecture is articulated in the program.

The glass and charcoal-aluminum fin facade morphs from appearing solid to seeming transparent. Photo by Andrew Latreille
The building’s energy systems enable it to allow for light manufacturing or be adapted to any future use. Photo by Graham Handford

On the ground floor, several small design and architectural showrooms, a restaurant and a Pilates studio have separate porch-like entrances, and all spaces are wheelchair-accessible through the main internal corridor. For its part, Bensen will occupy the top floor — on both the west and east halves. With 400 to 600 people expected to work in the building, 411 Railway will see lots of movement on those fantastic bridges. “I’m hoping it will be a game-changer,” says Bendtsen.

Drone image, top of page, by Graham Handford.

In the Zone with Bensen in Vancouver

The local furniture brand Bensen inaugurates an HQ in a handsome building that acts as a beacon for a newly designated light-manufacturing zone in the city.

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