Having a Picnurbia in Robson Square
Robson Square finally reopened to the public a few weeks ago (following a year of renovations). In a short window of time before the Square is split in two by the reopening of the 800 block of Robson Street to traffic, Vancouverites are finally getting a chance to enjoy this public space through a design project called Picnurbia. Picnurbia is an undulating beach landscape encouraging people to have a seat, gather and relax without going to Vancouver’s more common public spaces - the seawall and beaches.
It is part of the City’s summer-long VIVA Vancouver project, to transform street spaces into people places and provide extra space to walk, bike, dance, skate, sit, hang out with friends and meet neighbours. Picnurbia was created by Loose Affiliates, a design collective of architects who were awesome enough to answer my questions. Here are their thoughts on Robson Square and Vancouver’s public spaces.
Photo of Picnurbia by Krista Jahnke c/o Loose Affiliates
How did you come up with the idea for Picnurbia?
Originally, we proposed an undulating croquet and picnic landscape to the City of Vancouver’s Viva Vancouver Competition.
Earlier, when we had contemplated what design idea to propose, we had discussed how much we enjoyed picnicking last summer in Montreal’s parks with our friends. We thought we’d miss that this summer so we decided to propose an idea for a croquet-picnic-spot. The design went through a lot of revisions and changes after this original proposal. The focus shifted from croquet to picnicking, and the site changed. Originally Picnurbia was proposed for the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, but after a tense neighbourhood meeting where members of a local strata voiced their opposition to their street being closed for part of the summer it was obvious that we needed to find a new site. The City proposed placing Picnurbia on Robson, as the construction was finishing, and the street would be remaining closed until Labour Day. It’s exciting to see Picnurbia now on Robson Square.
Do you feel that Robson Square and the front of the Art Gallery are well-designed public spaces? What would you do to improve them?
We think that Robson Square is an amazing spot in the city. There’s a lot of problems with the design of this square. But there’s also many design features that are working. One of the major problems is the Street itself. Having a busy street with through traffic cuts the whole plaza in half. No one wants to hang out on a square and watch cars. People want to watch people. Second the connections from the Street to the underground are not inviting. I don’t want to go down there from Robson. The glass domes are nicely renovated, but they block the view down into the lower level or across to the art gallery or courthouse. These glass domes aren’t really needed as the space underneath is artificially lit in the daytime. We would like to see the city engage with an architect to do a redesign of this space in the future - but implement a design that preserves aspects of the square.
Picnurbia is an excellent opportunity to test how something else can happen on Robson Square. People experienced during the Olympics the potential of Robson Square, but I think many people chalked that up to it being a special time in the city, and everything felt like it had more potential. But now, with Picnurbia up, and so many people using the installation, it becomes clear that there is potential on this site every day, not just when something special is happening.
Picnurbia acts as a destination between two very busy shopping districts in the city. We have watched many, many tired tourists and shoppers sit down on it. It is perfectly located to tap the flow of pedestrians moving between Granville and Robson. It is important to give those groups a space to take a break, especially in the summer. Picnurbia is rather an experiment than the solution, we know that. But we are convinced that it’s a step in the right direction.
Photo of Picnurbia by Krista Jahnke c/o Loose Affiliates
How did the Loose Affiliates come together?
Katy, Olena and Alana are recent graduates of UBC’s Masters of Architecture program, and Philipp met them as a visiting student. He completed his degree at ABK Stuttgart last year. We came together after Phillip lost his job and answered the call for a public space competition. We share an interest in design and share the feeling that Vancouver has incredible amounts of unrealized potential in its public spaces. And we also all like colour. We are not fans of beige everything.
What other projects would you like to work on in Vancouver (or elsewhere)?
We believe that colour has a positive impact on the urban environment, especially in Vancouver thanks to the overcast conditions that regularly occur. On top of that we see that Vancouver is dominated by only two of them: safe and safer. There is the blueish-greyish-green colour (‘City of Glass’) and, of course, beige. The colour of the yellow/orange picnic waves of Picnurbia have proven to be fun, vibrant, and inviting to people of all ages and backgrounds.
Soon we hope to see what a series of rainbow logs on the beaches of Vancouver can do in terms of way finding (“Come meet me by the pink log!”) and celebrating the anomaly that is Vancouver’s urban beaches using a temporary, biodegradable paint. The natural pigments would fade over time, returning the beach to its original state.
Photo c/o Loose Affiliates
What do you think makes a good public space?
Right now we are testing the notion that an unfamiliar but inviting picnic landscape situated in the center of Vancouver might make for an enticing public space. There are many different combinations the world over that make for comfortable, inviting, and ultimately popular public spaces at a myriad of scales.
Some common key ingredients are the possibility to rest (for free!) and enjoy good views, of people, the city and a well-arranged square-setting. The option of protection from the elements and of good food or drink close by in a busy pedestrian-friendly and vehicle-free environment.
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