Vancouver 1966: The Erickson/Massey proposal for block 61 and the Downtown core

October 22, 2012

in the 1960’s the Province and the city of Vancouver were in thorny discussions regarding the development of critical downtown blocks known as block 51 (where the Vancouver Art Gallery sits) and the block 61 on its immediate southern edge. The city, unhappy with the direction imposed by the Province, had the Vancouver art Council to commission Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey, to develop a counter-proposal [1], what they will do in 1966:

Robson square and the provincial court as originally envisioned by Erickson/Massey in their 1966 proposal

The Erickson/Massey proposal was redefining an area much larger than block 51 and 61. It was including also block 71 and 42, among other:

The Massey/Erickson’s proposal for block 61 and the downtown core

One will eventually draw some parallels with the Le Corbusier‘s plan Voisin for Paris. While the cold reception of the plan Voisin had contributed to make Le Corbusier person non grata in Paris…Vancouver gave a much warmer reception to the Erickson modernist ideas! [2]

In detail, this plan, extend the government activities on block 71, reserving the block 51 to civic activities. Erickson was considering that:

“If the downtown is to survive as a shopping center street, it must compete on equal term with the suburban shopping center, it must provides adjacent parking, free pedestrian traffic flow without crossing traffic lanes and some degree of shelter and pleasant surrounding for the shopper.”

Accordingly, the traffic movement was addressed in a multi-layered system, in which car and pedestrian were atop, while bus and truck, considered as service, were put underground:

1966 Erickson/Massey proposal: traffic organization, notice that most of car traffic crossing is done using under/over pass, like suggested for the Burrard/Georgia intersection

His rationals for the segregation of traffic per mode -also promoted by Le Corbusier then for different reasons- lead him to design Robson street and Granville street, the identified main retail Malls (by Erickson, as by the city), on at least 3 levels:

1966 Erickson/Massey proposal: Granville Mall is multi level, transit at lower level, pedestrian-called “shopper”, above

  • atop, a covered pedestrian mall on one to 2 levels
  • below, a bus tunnel, where the bus, in the Erickson view, are understood as parking shuttle
  • and at lower level, a service lane for truck traffic

Robson
A case of more interest to us in the context of the current city plan

1966 Erickson/Massey proposal: Section along Robson street, showing the transit tunnel, the truck tunnel, and 2 level of covered shopping level above.

The Strasse becomes a Shopping arcade

The Robson Strasse, transformed into a shopping arcade. there is some opening -for light and ventilation- allowing you to see the buses at lower level

The access to Robson square is done thru the second level of the Shopping arcade – to not impede car traffic on Hornby street.

The Square

1966 Erickson/Massey proposal: Georgia cross Burrard thru an overpass. Robson square is connected to Robson street on the West via a passerelle…on the East the connection is unclear. It seems the pedestrian is expected to go/from Eatons and pacific shopping centre.

How to get there?

Of course, all that had to be serviced by an appropriate network of freeway, and Erickson was also calling for a ring road:

A ring road was proposed to connect all of the then envisioned extensive freeway network including , Brockton, a third crossing of the Burrard inlet

Some comments

Eventually there is a rational to believe that Erickson was better architect than urbanist, thought some will probably explain that the Erickson mastery is not enough understood:

The general development form, with strict separation of movement according to transportation mode, implicitly negating the social function of the street, was a staple of the time, and is usually concomitant to a general organization of the space on multi-level. Such schemes have almost universally proven to be a failure

That said this proposal is important, because it lays down many concept which will be applied in the design of the existing provincial court house complex. One of the most important is not to consider an extension of the Provincial court (from block 51 to block 61), but a relocation of it ( from block 51 to blocks 61/71), freeing block 51 to civic usage. The concept of the sunken plaza, is also introduced in this proposal.

Some other concepts will appear in a different form in the Vancouver urban landscape…like the covered mall of the proposal, which will later translates into the rain-screen above sidewalk- in fact more inline with what was envisioned by Eugène Hénard in its vision of the Parisian street of the future…in 1900.

The street of the future, as seen by Eugène Hénard, shares significant commonalities with the Erickson vision. The main difference being that Henard keeps the transit and all human activities on the surface. he eventually didn’t fathom the space required by the automobile

It also states some important analysis:

  • bring the people as close as they want to go

While the car was considered as the mean of choice. Tansit was considered as an important complementary component to the accessibility, and was brought right into the high street of the town, including of course Robson street and square.

Analysis/critics and concern expressed on the Eatons centre; can also be considered as prescient for the time:

“Cemp-Eaton development could very well help the surrounding commercial areas instead of showing a blank face to them. We see the Cemp_eaton project as a vital catalyst to the downtown but are anxious that it not to be inward-looking and self-cenetred, threathening the existing shopping of Granville Street by creating its own subtarrean shopping centre, divorced from the existing shopping pattern.”

As well, a good analysis of why the downtown Vancouver didn’t follow the path of other downtown in North America:

“The downtown Vancouver has strong characteristics, principally from the uniqueness of its site, the surrounding sea, the beaches, the harbour, Stanley Park, and the crossing to the mountains.Largely because of this, the West End has emerged as one of the unique residential precincts in the world”

Cities downtown will eventually learn later, that to be thriving, they don’t have to compete on equal term with the suburban shopping center, but have to offer what they can do the best: a “real” urban experience in all its complexities… which supposes a certain level of “entropy” in its spatial organization


source: A Proposal for Block 61 and the Downtown Core. Erickson/Massey architects, Vancouver, 1966


[1] Bruno Freschi was also part of the team (source, VancouverSun, May 18 1966) thought his name didn’t appear on the author list of the proposal

[2] It was of course some dissident voices. The more noticeable was the one of the jurists, and the attorney general of the time, Robert Bonner. They had commissioned the architect Vladimir Plavsic to draft a “counter-counter proposal” (I don’t have more information on it, but for the record, Plavsic was a “brutalist” architect: he has designed the 805 Broadway Medical Dental Centre known as the Frank Stanzl building).

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2 Responses to “Vancouver 1966: The Erickson/Massey proposal for block 61 and the Downtown core”


  1. […] Voony’s Blog | Vancouver 1966: The Erickson/Massey proposal for block 61 and the Downtown core […]


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