On October 15th and October 17, It was a so called “public consultation” on the block 51 respectively titled “a look back” and “a look forward”. If you were not made aware timely by social media like twitter, there is little chance you could have attended it, since it was quickly sold-out (sic).

The Panel of the first evening was a discussion involving Bing Thom, Alan Bell, Nick Milkovich – three members of Arthur Erickson Architects at the time of building the courthouse complex, reflecting on the 1973 design [7]. In the second event a short 6mn lecture by different speaker was given. The historian John Atkin gave an historical account of the north plaza [5]. Lon Laclair from city of Vancouver was here to talk of how great the Olympic experience was. Jenniffer Sheel and Krisztina Kassay from Viva Vancouver, the brains behind the Robson square programming, gave an overview of what has been done on the square. They didn’t explain why the programming need to be exactly in the middle of Robson street to be successful-and not let say on Bute at Robson [6], but were apparently wanting to make the point that according to them, “people don’t want traffic at all here”. Heather Forbes from VPSN explained that an overwhelming majority of entries to their “Where’s the Square?” design competition selected Block 51 as the heart of Vancouver, omitting to mention that the people choice was the North plaza, but noticing that solutions can be found for other user/need, like transit.

Lausanne, la Sallaz, in Switzerland: Square programming is popular in Europe. Usually it concerns non 'self-sufficient' space, or temporary underused space, like this one (left picture): the programming is poised to give place to buses, in a new arrangement of the square called 'espace rencontre' (meeting place) where buses mingle with the pedestrians (right) - credit photo left (1)

Her speech was followed by Matthew Blackett from Spacing Magazine, who, probably not briefed enough on the agenda concerning transit, incidentally presented those “solutions” starting with London’s Exhibition road:

People waiting the bus 360 on the renovated London’s Exhibition road by Gehl Architects.

He followed up with Pioneer square in Portland, Oregon:

Pioneer square in Portland is well served by Transit (2)

and ending with its preferred, Ban Jelačić square in Zagreb (Croatia):

Ban Jelačić square in Zagreb, where the transit go right into the middle of it, is the “best” square according to Matthew

Since Matthew Blackett is from Toronto, he couldn’t have mentioned Yonge and Dundas square. He doesn’t like the electronic billboard, which are “cheapening the place” in his word, but it his hard to deny it has been a successful place since its opening in 2002:

Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas square has been a resounding success since its opening in 2002 – credit (4)

You will have certainly noticed that all the great places presented by Matthew have a transit component, and it is probably not accident to the success of those places. The bus along Exhibition road was rerouted on a very nearby street (Queen’s gate) during its construction, but once completed, the bus came back, certainly for good reason!

The talk session of the evening, was closed by the Pop Rocks designers Matthew Soules and Joe Dahmen presenting how they have designed their huge pillow from recycled roof material of Canada Place [3]. They proposed some interesting design guideline fro Robson Square, summed up in the below artist’s rendering:

A rendering of Robson square integrating Matt Soules design idea:, flat surface; playful pavment; interactive street furniture, example of Rotterdam’s Schouwburgplein hydraulic lamppost was given – credit (13)

The last hour or so of the evenings was a co design workshop, driven by Stanley King’s team co-design [14].

Comment

Speakers were certainly interesting, but beside the fact the public was not provided opportunities to interact with them, the whole session was missing key points to a public consultation:

What is the problem?
No proper diagnostic of the Block 51 has been done:

  • No metric has been provided on the amount of traffic: how many pedestrian, how many bus rider…: does there is a space allocation problem there? [8]
  • No geometry analysis of the space has been provided
  • When come public space, the audience was seeming to think of a one size fit all [12], what is not necessarily true, and it seems that a wealth of diverging opinion has been expressed. Using the Olympic celebration to explain how the place can be is like using your last family gathering to explain how your dining room can work routinely. It is irrelevant. Spatial Geometry of space is important; A failed party in the large living room, can be transformed in a success in the tiny kitchen [9]; and that supposes to have some known metric.

  • No analysis of what is working and what is not has been done
  • It seems to have been an non spelled rule; worship of Erickson work is mandatory; preventing any honest and franck diagnostic of the robson Square deficiencies.

  • No context analysis has been provided
  • The site has been presented on a North-South spine. That was effectively the original Erickson idea. But nowadays, Robson square is dominated by an East-West flow. No discussion on the future of the VAG was opened: The organizers seem to think that a place-making can be done independently of its context, what seems perfectly silly.

What are the solutions?

Since, in fact no problem was identified, the whole function of the consultation was to find a reason for the only proposed solution: “full closure of Robson square to all traffic“. That was the apparent purpose of the co-design exercise.

What are the potential impact of the proposed solution?
No evaluation was provided at all

  • Transit?

    Apparently, the organizers didn’t find useful to invite Translink to the consultation table. Transit is considered as a second thought, not to be integrated in the urban thinking of the place, what is a striking departure of successful placemaking. Transit has several implications, among them:

    • Operating cost of the re-routed line
    • impact on handydart if people can’t use regular transit
    • impact on the ridership at large, due to lack of clarity, speed, good network connection, involved by transit change
    • impact on pedestrian safety: transit riders are pedestrians, and have them boarding/alighting in safe spot is important (today bus 5 is rerouted thru Burrard, one of the most pedestrian accident prone arteries of Downtown)

    They are not the only reason Transit is important

  • Street vibrancy
    In Vancouver, vibrant streets, with flourishing retail businesses, are more often that not correlated to transit rich corridors. Transit has certainly been a causation effect in the past. could it be still true?

    • The example of the struggling Cambie village area after loosing good transit access and visibility need to be compared to the recently flourishing areas next to the Yaletown station

    Could it be different with Robson? Why?

    There is also the problem of the Robson street segments between Burrard and Hornby and between Howe, Granville and Seymour. Traffic closure between Howe and Hornby, involves a drastic motor traffic reduction on those segments, while a successful Robson square involves an increased pedestrian traffic. We could have one without the other making those segments unappealing as it is the case now – but one could fairly assume it is also due to building construction/renovation. That said, it is hard to see how a space reallocation on Robson square can’t involve one on those segments, and then come the subsidiary question: Will it be enough pedestrian to make this stretch of Robson of success? [10].

The displayed lack of sophistication in the discussion surrounding the pedestrianization of Robson square is for the least, curious [11]:

  • It eventually helps us to understand why pedestrian squares are largely a failure in Vancouver, and more generally in North America.
  • Georgia#Granville tends to replace Robson square as the natural meeting place in Vancouve.

    Georgia#Granville tends to replace Robson square as the natural meeting place in Vancouver.

  • It helps also to understand the lack of forthcoming of some other spaces, like Georgia#Granville: A very busy corner since the advent of the Canada line, one which could tend to replace Robson square for some functions, like demonstration, but more importantly, people meeting. The subway station entrance hindering considerably the space when it doesn’t need to do witness this lack of forthcoming. Similar observations could be done at Yaletown, where the subway entrance is turning its back to the square

What is wrong with this idea of Robson square? answer has not been provided – credit photo City Of Vancouver


[1] 20mn romandie, July 6th, 2012

[2] Project for Public Space

[3] see ‘Pop Rocks: Soft Urban Boulder Field’ Installation / Matthew Soules Architecture + AFJD Studio

[4] flikr user sean_marshall

[5] The post Block 51: North Plaza capture most of the presentation

[6] That is a spot identified by the Vancouver’s transport 2040 plan

[7] The post Vancouver courthouse Blocks 51-61-71: The Final Erickson proposal fueled by insight of the conversation, capture part of it

[8] Normally any reallocation of space is preceded by a careful study of traffic, pedestrian, transit riders, and vehicles. Of course, that was the case for London’s Exhibition road, On the section illustrated in this article, there are ~4000pedestrian/hr vs 550car/hr at peak hour (Exhibition Road Monitoring, August 2012). What are the number for Robson square?

[9] Verbatim of Jan Gehl, Livable Cities lecture, Richmond city Hall, Jan 27, 2011.

[10] Robson street is 80′ wide. There is virtually no example of pedestrian only street in Europe with such width. New York Broadway Avenue, at ~80′ wide, could be the closest, but the pedestrianized block around Times Square see a traffic of 350,000 pedestrians/day

[11] for matters of comparison, one can refer to the Paris’s place de la République renovation involving space reallocation in favor of pedestrian. the project is €17millions, what is relatively benign in the Paris city budget of €8billions. Nevertheless, the public consultation process is order of magnitude more elaborated that the one in place for Robson square. It includes the elaboration of shared diagnostic on many aspect of the space, walk tour,…

[12] For more idea about the different function of a public square, see Geography of Paris squares or plazas, oct 29th, 2012

[13] vivendesign.com

[14] The company site explains well the process. A 1973 movie, related to the block 51, was projected in the first evening, chairs for lovers, which introduced the “co design process”. co-design has also a blog

Block 51: the North Plaza

October 26, 2012


This post is closing our historic errand series of the Blocks 51-61-71:

The north Plaza of Block 51 is the square sitting north of the VAG. Thought it is part of the block 51, and more generally of the Block 51/61/71 complex, this square has a life of its own.

After the opening of the second courthouse in 1912, This square will very quickly become the ceremonial Vancouver square. Its location along Georgia street, providing frontage to a preeminent and formal government institution, makes it almost a non brainer:

Mayor James Findlay welcomed the Duke and Duchess of Connaught to a civic reception at the newly-completed Vancouver Court House on 18 September
1912

The early days

  • A first fountain, commissioned to sculptor Charles Marega in 1912, had been installed as a memorial to King Edward VII right along Georgia. It was initially equipped with bronze cups on chains, but these were quickly stolen and never replaced.
  • On august 29, 1913, a flag pole has been erected in the middle of the square. It was said the tallest flag pole in Canada

The Vancouver Court House square

It was apparently a staple to be photographed on the front step of the courthouse,and the Vancouver archive are full of group picture [1]

1966: The Centennial fountain

respecting the formalism of the space, the city idea for the square in 1964 was as pictured below:

1964: City vision for the block 51 north plaza (4)

It happens that W.A.C Bennett had another agenda. He commissioned R. H. Savery (design) and Alex Von Svoboda (sculpture/mosaic) to design an “XXL” fountain, 72’x26′ and 16′ high:

The Savery/Svoboda fountain model, showing the original plan for the plaza

According to [5] quoting an official report: the “symbolic twin-pillar centrepiece” is “meant to represent mankind rising from the sea and depicts gods of Celtic mythology”.

The $250,000 fountain will be controversial right from the beginning, and will be called the secret Bennett Project[5], erected behind blind walls. W.A.C inaugurated it at night, during a rainstorm, after having inaugurated the Grouse tramway, on December 15th, 1966. The semi-private ceremony was perturbed by a so called act of vandalism: someone had poured detergent in the fountain, making huge bubble [4][5]

The old fountain has been put in storage up to 1983, when it has been reinstated along Hornby street.

Vancouver people have never been fond of this fountain [2] and we can give here a couple of keys why:

  • The fountain looks over-sized, in respect of the square size, and more especially the old courthouse building
  • Disregarding aesthetic taste, The chosen Artistic choice, doesn’t pair well with the Neo-classic building

To be sure, the Vancouver administration hasn’t made any effort to improve the fountain setting, and the fact that the today VAG is turning its back on Georgia doesn’t help the matter. More generally we can consider that all the intervention on the Rattenbury’s building after 66 (lobby on ground level, rooftop patio…) are unfortunate acts of vandalism

The Erickson proposal

The Erickson view for this square in 1966, was not much different of the one of the city:

1966 Erickson/Massey Proposal: The view along Howe Street looking south

In his 1973 proposal:

  • It was envisioned as a largely hardsurfaced plaza — adapting itself readily to multiple uses according to [6], but model photography suggest nothing much more than a lawn

This part of the complex design has never been implemented, allowing the Centennial fountain to stay up to today [8].

2009: the VPSN competition
In 2009, the VPSN held a design idea competition, “Where’s the square?”, and one of the co-winner of the “people choice” was HAPA collaborative, with their entry, “red carpet”:

Vancouver Red Carpet – Hapa Collaborative – entry of the 2009 VSPN Where’s the Square Competition

We will find some remarkable analogy with the City Hall 1964 vision, and this HAPA proposal epitomizes quite effectively what is the Vancouver collective conscience and wish for this space. It also shows a remarkably solid consensus overtime on the idealized vision of this square.

2011 The Concert-hall by Bing Thom

On March 4, 2011, The Vancouver Concert Hall and Theatre Society proposed a Bing Thom plan for a 1,950-seat concert hall underneath the existing plaza fronting Georgia Street.


The 2011 Bing thom proposal for an underground concert hall – credit (3)

notice how this vision fits well with the HAPA proposal.


[1] Verbatim of John Atkin intervention at the Block 51 event, a look forward, VAG, Oct. 17, 2012

[2] That includes John Atkin, who even qualified it as too noisy![1]

[3] concerthallcomplex.org

[4] VancouverProvince, December 16th, 1966

[5] VancouverSun, December 16th, 1966

[6] heritage vancouver society newsletter, Volume 17 Number 1, June 2008

[7] Redevelopment in downtown Vancouver : report No 5, City of Vancouver, 1964.

[8] In fact the fountain is excluded of the Block 51 lease agreed between the City and the Province. That along original negotiation line dating back January 1974- (Vancouver City council mn, January 8, 1974)


This post follow up on the history of the Blocks 51-61-71

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

1973

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” [3]. 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 [3][8] :

Ownership question

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 [1]. 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.

Civic context

The original 66’s design for the block 51-61-71 could have been built with minimal alteration but two important things had happened in the previous years:

  • Following the freeway revolt, the rapid transit idea was getting steam, especially with Rankin as alderman [9], 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 [10]:

73 Erickson case analysis of Robson square. It is at the center, but not a connector (notice how Robson and Granville are clearly disjointed)

The concern for the building height and its corollary, shadow, starts to commend the shape of the court house:

73 Erickson case study: Height and global shape of the court house, are assumed to minimize shadow casting

That leaded to the below proposal in late 1973, early 1974:

Overview of the Erickson project in 1974

The city Square (left) is located south of Robson on Block 61 while that the east part receive a sunken plaza (right)

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 Erickson proposal in 1976

A low profile building, with terraced garden designed by Cornelia Oberlander supposed to emphasizes north-south pedestrian continuity between the blocks with multi-level; pedestrian connections[11]

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 [3]

The Trees

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 [13]. 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

Robson street

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) [10]:

The bridging of the Robson street shopping area with Granville one was not something seen as desirable in the Erickson views, who was preferring to see them separated - credit (10)

The bus routing was supposed to support this vision:


The center is not seen as at a crossing of major road/arteries, but as a destination. credit (10)

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 [3].

The city engineers didn’t like too much this idea for the reason below [4]:

  • 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 Westend 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.”[12]

  • 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.

Completion

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 [3]. 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 [2]. 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”

(Amen)


[1] 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.

[2] This day in history: September 6, 1979, VancouverSun, September 6, 1979

[3] Verbatim of Bing Thom intervention at the Block 51 event, a look back, VAG, Oct. 15, 2012

[4] Memorandum to Vancouver city Council, Blocks 51/61/71, November 29, 1973

[5] It was in this post 72 context, that Stanley King came to propose his co-design method, object of the movie chair for lovers

[6] Robson Square, The Canadian Architect, May 2011

[7] Urban Development Standards: The Block 51-61-71 Project, Arthur Erickson, JAE, Vol. 29, No. 3, Canada (Feb., 1976)

[8] It was also an opportunity for Erickson to have the city adopting much of its proposed standards and guidelines [7][3]

[9] see The case for rapid transit in…1970

[10] Development standards case study 1. Arthur Erickson Architects, Vancouver B.C. June 21, 1973

[11] Department report, Vancouver B.C. June 21, 1974

[12] 51-61-71 Project, block 71 Schematics, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1974

[13] 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 [14]

[14] Seven Stones, A portrait of Arthur Erickson, Edith Iglauer, University of Washington Press, 1981