Vancouver courthouse Blocks 51-61-71: The Final Erickson proposal
October 25, 2012
This post follow up on the history of the Blocks 51-61-71
- The Provincial Court House or Block 51-61-71 History Part 1 (~1900 to 1972)
Prologue: The 70’s at City Hall
The 70’s was years of intense civic engagement worldwide and public interest for civic participation was something city hall, controlled by the NPA for the last previous 40 years, was not prepared to deal with. The Chinatown revolt on the freeway plan in 1967 is something the city hadn’t see coming.
That had eventually lead to the formation of “The Electors Action Movement” (TEAM), and COPE in 1968, which made inroad to the council in 1968 (Philips and Hardwick for TEAM and Rankin for COPE). the four ensuing year, 68-62 was electric ones at city hall. Each development put forward by the administration was supported by the NPA, fought by COPE and TEAM, and ended to be defeated in drama, the apex of it being probably the third Georgia crossing in 1972, resulting in a full blow fiasco for the couplet NPA/administration. The only major project of the time which had been able to move forward was the Eaton center (sic). The NPA and the city administration was so distrusted that the NPA didn’t even present a mayoral candidate in the December 72 election, which was won by the TEAM. The first major decision of the new mayor, Art Phillips, had been to dismiss the director of planning of the time, Gerald Sutton-Brown. other dismissals and administration re-organization was on the TEAM menu leaving a vacuum in the city hall affair
The W.A.C Bennett government is defeated by the NDP, in the Provincial election of August 1972. The Provincial plan for the Vancouver Courthouse is stopped. Naturally (sic), considering his previous work on the site, Erickson will be the architect of choice.
The Premier of the time, Dave Barrett, had said something, Bing Thom, then member of the Erickson’s team, translated as “You need to go fast, because we don’t gonna be reelected” . This and the fate of the aborted previous project was also more than an encouragement to do so.
In the meantime the consequence of the politic turmoil at city-hall, involving many dismissals among civil servants, was leaving a vacuum in the Vancouver civil administration giving the Erickson’s team pretty much free rein on what to do in the city, so allowing a speedy process  :
As seen before, the Erickson proposal was to locate the provincial offices on block 61 and the court house on block 71, leaving block 51 for civic activities. To move forward with this spatial organization required to resolve some ownership issue:
- Block 71, including lanes, was sold to the Province for $4.6 millions in 1974
- Block 51 is leased to the city of Vancouver, by the Province, for $1 per year for 99 years started on August 29th, 1975
- In return, the city of Vancouver leases street sub-surface and air-space to the Province for 99 years started on August 29th, 1975 . exception are
- The city own the air-space above Robson
- The Province can sublease Smythe and Robson sub-surface (it can’t on Howe).
The province was also proposing to install and maintain street furnishing including trees on Robson street, and other detail which could still need to be sorted out.
- Following the freeway revolt, the rapid transit idea was getting steam, especially with Rankin as alderman , and a plan for downtown was as illustrated above, which was calling for a rapid transit station at Hornby and Georgia
- More importantly for the project itself, was the public outcry at the tower, but also the conveyed idea that block 71 could have been a green-space
People didn’t want the tower, but wanted the green-space.
The 1973 Erickson analysis
The city was seen like illustrated below, where Robson Square at the highest point of the peninsula, is not considered at the crossroad, but as a destination in itself :
The concern for the building height and its corollary, shadow, starts to commend the shape of the court house:
That leaded to the below proposal in late 1973, early 1974:
Some striking elements:
- Robson street is interrupted between Howe and Hornby, both being only connected by a pedestrian passerelle.
- A sunken Plaza on the East side of the block 51/61, featuring a food court on block 61, and a sculpture garden on the block 51
- A “city square” on the block 61
- The north side of the old court house, facing Georgia, is in the original proposal a large reflecting pond. This aspect of the design disappears very quickly -the model above seems to show a lawn- certainly due to the lease term of the block 51, which excluded the Centennial fountain
Those elements will be altered in the subsequent project development, but basically the overall design is already fixed:
The thing will be built pretty much as planned. Nevertheless the city took issue with at least three components of the proposal.
The rapid transit station location
- To accommodate the rapid transit plan of the time, the proposal was provisioning a station access along Hornby on block 51.
- For some reason, the city didn’t like this idea and was wanting it along block 61. That is what has been built 
Erickson architects was planning to have London plane trees on Howe and Hornby street, and had purchased them right at the start of the project . While a staple and beloved tree in London, Paris or New-York, the city engineers objected to this species, and provided numerous reports explaining that the Acer rubrum was a better choice. This curious bickering could have passably irritated the Erickson team, but the Acer rubrum has been the planted species
Mirroring his fordism view of the city, Erickson was looking at keeping separate the Robson shopping mall (then made of small shops) of the Granville one (then envisioned as the high end fashion mall) :
The bus routing was supposed to support this vision:
Accordingly, the original vision was calling for an open sunken plaza without at grade connection between Howe and Hornby to de-emphasize Robson. Nevertheless, it was a telecommunication duct below Robson they couldn’t realistically move, also they have choosen to ” hide” it below a pedestrian passerelle .
The city engineers didn’t like too much this idea for the reason below :
- A too narrow strip above the sunken plaza was breaking the continuity of sidewalk along Robson street, and they wanted to preserve the ability to return the traffic in case of the scheme was not working as expected
By early 1974, The province, the city and the architect, AEA, will agree on a bus only connection. Arthur Erickson rationalized the agreement as below:
“The only traffic through the square will be inner city buses, linking the West and and False Creek. Since buses function as people movers, they are seen as a compliment or enhancement to the pedestrian activity of the civic square, whereas the present car traffic would present and irreconcilable conflict.”
- Robson street was one way street at this time, with a peak transit traffic of 11 bus/hour in the West direction, leaving the transit lanes empty most of the time, what was not seen as a best use of the road space by the city:
The city was calling for foundation allowing a 4 lanes -80 foot- wide street (what has been granted), but was satisfied with the construction of a 3 lanes- 50 foot wide- street (that is the Robson street width between the domes). Another problem at this time was the Connaught bridge (or second Cambie bridge) landing at the foot of Robson at Beatty: the city was pushing its views by painting them as interim, up to a relocation of the Cambie bridge, able to move the traffic away of Robson.
The defeat of the NDP government in the 1975 general election, by the son of W.A.C bennett, Bill Bennett could have signed the abandon of the project again. Something, Bing Thom among other had worked at avoiding by pleading their case to the new Premier . The Province court will move in the new building on September 6, 1979. The entire complex cost had been reported to be $139 million in 1979 . The Vancouver art gallery will move in a renovated old courthouse building in 1983
The project will have received several awards, more noticeably, It won the American Society of Landscape Architects President’s Award of Excellence in 1979, where the jury commented on the “extraordinary integration of landscape architecture with architecture–consistent and coherent.” Envisioned as a “linear urban park, importing nature into the city“. In 2011, The RAIC architecture jury rewarded Arthur Erickson Architects with the Prix du XXe siècle. The jury had commented
“Thanks to its splendid horizontality and its complex system of landscape terrace, pools and waterfalls, this vast urban landmark is able to embody a West Coast sense of space and relationships. Bridging between law and the arts, it epitomizes the urban monument in its highest civic aspiration”
 The originally proposed lease was on a 50 years period. it has been extended to 99 years , and starting date choose, to match the lease agreed with the Pacific center.
 This day in history: September 6, 1979, VancouverSun, September 6, 1979
 Verbatim of Bing Thom intervention at the Block 51 event, a look back, VAG, Oct. 15, 2012
 Memorandum to Vancouver city Council, Blocks 51/61/71, November 29, 1973
 It was in this post 72 context, that Stanley King came to propose his co-design method, object of the movie chair for lovers
 Robson Square, The Canadian Architect, May 2011
 Urban Development Standards: The Block 51-61-71 Project, Arthur Erickson, JAE, Vol. 29, No. 3, Canada (Feb., 1976)
 Development standards case study 1. Arthur Erickson Architects, Vancouver B.C. June 21, 1973
 Department report, Vancouver B.C. June 21, 1974
 51-61-71 Project, block 71 Schematics, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1974
 Following Erickson recommendation, the Province bought, at apparently discounted price 300 London plane trees which had been over-ordered for the World’s fair in Spokane, WA. Later the city refused to plant them, they have ended on a waterfront promenade in Victoria 
 Seven Stones, A portrait of Arthur Erickson, Edith Iglauer, University of Washington Press, 1981