Vancouver might finally get its missing public square
There was once a time when Vancouver did not have a central public gathering place. Instead, we had this:
Yes, that is Robson Square….
This site was not even originally slated for a public square. It was to be the site of a massive skyscraper even taller than the Shangri-La, which currently holds the record as the tallest building in Vancouver; but, a change in government from W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit Party to Dave Barrett’s New Democrats in 1972, led to that plan being scrapped in favour of a public space. The provincial government commissioned a new design from Arthur Erickson Architects (who designed the initial tower also). According to Arthur Erickson biographer Nicholas Olsberg, the reconceptualization Erickson came up with was of a skyscraper laid on its side, a “B.C. Centre on its back.”
“Arthur came in and said ‘This won’t be a corporate monument. Let’s turn it on its side and let people walk all over it.’ And he anchored it in such a way with the courts — the law — at one end and the museum — the arts — at the other. The foundations of society. And underneath it all, the government offices quietly supporting their people. It’s almost a spiritual progression.”
The new development that became Robson Square was completed between 1979 and 1983, encompassing three city blocks of alternating levels of public space. At ground level, the Vancouver Art Gallery sits on the north side and the BC Law Courts sit on the south side. Concrete steps lead upstairs to water features and gardens, while downstairs leads to a covered ice rink and the University of British Columbia’s downtown campus.
Robson Square during the 2012 Vancouver Jazz Festival (Photo: VPSN)
Unfortunately, time and politics have weathered Erickson’s noble vision for Robson Square. Today, the road - the 800 block of Robson Street - running through the south side of it is becoming increasingly oppressive to public gathering in the square (it was originally going to be four lanes!) and the north side is big field of muddy bark mulch with a large, loud fountain in the centre (I have written a number of posts on the future of Robson Square here).
The north side of Robson Square in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery
Is it time for Robson Square to get a tune up? You bet. Public space theory has changed a lot since it was planned and built in the 1970s (hardly the golden age of planning…more like the dark ages).
The City is currently consulting the public on the future of Robson Square and the north lawn of the Art Gallery. They have temporarily closed the 800 block of Robson Street, allowing the space to be car free until 2013 (as opposed to the usual temporary summer closure). And, a few weeks ago they held “Block 51” - two public engagement events to look at the past and future of Robson Square (a reference to the Vancouver city block containing Robson Square- apparently they are all numbered).
Both events involved a program of activities that included presentations, slide shows and collaborative drawing exercises. Appropriately enough, the two evenings took place at the VAG – in a room overlooking the south end of the Gallery.
Looking down on Robson Square during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games
Monday’s event, subtitled a “A Look Back,” featured a screening of the 1973 NFB film, Chairs for Lovers The short film details the efforts of architect and illustrator Stanley King and his pioneering work in participatory urban design – and focuses in part on his work with Robson Square. Following the movie, a panel discussion ensued with Bing Thom, Alan Bell, Nick Milkovich – three members of Arthur Erickson’s original Robson Square design team. The trio took turns reminiscing about some of the planning and design ideas that went into the original concept.
Urbanist and planner Stanley King working with guests at a Block 51 event (Photo: VPSN)
The event was inspirational to both the panel and the audience. Thom, Bell and Milkovich were visibly moved to see a large audience of young people so interested in reviving Robson Square and turning it into the pedestrian oriented plaza that they had always envisioned.
After the panel, attendees broke into small groups, each with their own graphic facilitator in order to explore and visualize their ideas for the possible uses for Robson Square and the north side of the art gallery. My group’s vision for the space included trees, lunch carts, a market, movable chairs, and rain canopies.
If you didn’t get a chance to attend one of the Block 51 events, the City is currently working on a survey for all to comment on what they want for the future of Robson Square (which I will post here). It has taken over 30 years, but Vancouver might finally get the public square it is missing. Don’t miss out on supporting this opportunity and having your say in its future.
UPDATE: The Block 51 survey is now live. Please participate! http://fluidsurveys.com/s/Block51/
My group’s vision for Robson Square (Photo: VPSN)
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