A brief historical context is available here

The war on buses is continuing.

The City of Vancouver is losing no occasion to attack the downtown bus system:

the North Plaza site analysis as presented in the open house material

Even when a design doesn’t need to threat transit, City of Vancouver can’t refrain to do so:
The site analysis, while showing permanent bus stops on Burrard, and temporary ones on Howe, fails to show a single bus stop on either Robson or Granville. Also surprising is the lack of mention of any major transit corridors in the vicinity (Granville is not considered as such!).

That could be due more to ignorance of the site and unfamiliarity of the bus network by the design team, than malevolent intentions. Nevertheless, the result is still a deceptive material, raising questions on the openness and good faith of the city of Vancouver in regard of the Down Town bus service review.

(why go thru the exercise, when it is all decided as eventually suggested on the left?)

Passing the above provocation, which eventually left little ambiguities on the city intentions if it was any doubts left after the disastrous “block 51 consultation” in fall 2012 [1], let’s have a look at the proposed designs


Since the VAG is poised to move to Larwill park (Cambie#Georgia), in a relatively near future, the purpose of the exercise is a bit futile, but as the underground vault below the square is leaking: work on the plaza needs to happen as soon as possible. That somewhat can explain the relatively low profile adopted (e.g. no design competition) for one of the most important place in Vancouver, which, potentially temporary, facelift is budgeted at $3 millions. 3 options are presented to the public:

Plalo Ring


PlaloRing2PlaloRing3 A Plalo Ring, transforming the square as a night club at night? May be for a “Nuit blanche” event, but permanently?

The focal point of the square is obviously the Rattenbury building, and any design should be driven at making the best of this heritage building. This Plalo ring, not only ignoring the Rattenbury building, but also diminishing it, is probably out of place on the North Plaza. One could also infer, it could create some problem for some events. (lighting issue, and sound reverberation).

The fact that it is considered by the design team, and is a favorite with the public [2] is eventually one reason of despair of the Vancouver cultural and urban scene:

Someday, they will propose to demolish the Rattenbury building to increase the size of the north Plaza![4]

Active edge

Some "edge" on the side of the square?

Some “edge” on the side of the square?

The goal of it is unclear: bring some intimacy to the square?… square being surrounded by traffic sewages on 3 of its sides, that looks:

  • A loosing battle
  • and an unnecessary one, since the spaces north of Robson street fulfill this need

All those “edges” seriously limit the versatility of the place, think the Vancouver Sun Run:

 

  • The Georgia side

 

The fountain along Georgia, seems more inspired by the current “centennial fountain” than anything else. As much as the current fountain, it creates a psychological barrier to the Rattenbury building access. It is worth to note, that a fountain used to sit along Georgia (and is now along Hornby: it is also surprisingly missing of the site inventory). Why not restore the historic fountain in its original location?

 

  • The Howe side

 

The site inventory notice a bus stop at the foot of Howe street, so this design turns its back on Howe, and erect a “wall” there, preventing the transit users to be part of the square life…enough is said!

Wet

the water mirror

the water mirror – for bottom photos, credit (3)

May be the rendering is not making justice to the design, which in some sort is reverberating an early Erickson concept for the square: it doesn’t seem to encouter a great public adhesion [2], but it is by far the best option among the proposed ones:

  • It is the most able to address the formalism and ceremonial aspect of the square
  • while offering a versatility of use, and still not offering an empty place

That is the purpose of such a mirror in Bordeaux, and more recently Place de la Republique, Paris, a huge “demonstrating” square, as we have seen before, that said:

    • Does the water mirror, need to cover all the square?

probably not, since it hinders other spontaneous activities

    • Does the water mirror, is a necessary feature on the North Plaza?

may be, may be not: the square is somewhat small, and a proper surface treatment and other urban furnishings, can be enough, to both compliment the building, and enlivening the square.

Place de la Republique, Paris: a skateboard ledge? a speaker corner? a mattress? Basic, moveable and still permanent furnishing, can gather many spontaenous uses, enlivening  the square at low cost.

Place de la Republique, Paris: a skateboard ledge? a speaker corner? a mattress? Basic, moveable furnishing, can gather many spontaenous uses, enlivening the square at low cost.

And The red carpet

All presented proposals seem to be relatively weak, focusing more at addressing the need of a 3 days Jazz festival, rather than addressing the place itself. As such they are relatively uninspiring, especially when compared to the “red carpet” as presented by Hapa collaborative, at the “Where’s the square?”, VPSN design competition.

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

The surface treatment

All design are based on “Hard landscaping” landscaping because it is “more durable and long lasting”: If Granville mall, where the city believes an outstanding job has been done, is an indication, one should not hold his breath on it. Since, the setting could be temporary, the city could be well inspired to use a compacted fine gravel surface, which has the merit to be much cheaper than a good quality hard surface, and easy to recycle, whenever a new arrangement of the square is required by a different use of the Rattenbury building.

Like many squares in France, Place Bellecour, Lyon, has a compacted surface, able to accomodate a great range of venues

Like many square in France, Place Bellecour, Lyon, has a compacted surface, able to accomodate a great range of venue.


And why not also keep the space as a blank page?… pretty much like Place Bellecour in Lyon, France, which Viva, or other group could program (instead of organizing a blockade on bus routes), and revisit our options when we will have more clarity on the future use of the Rattenbury building?


[1] see “block 51” public consultation, which has left a sour taste with many observers, as we have already noticed here and there. In despite of all evidences, VPSN, a group advocating for aggressive pedestrianism and co-organizeer of the block 51 consultation, unsurprinsingly and sadly, still believe it was a good consultation.

[2] According to a poll by Vancity buzz (3 stunning design revealed for new Vancouver art Gallery North Plaza, Kenneth Chan, VancityBuzz, Oct 1st, 2013), 65& of its polled prefer the “plalo Ring”, while 20% prefer the “wet” concept, with 8% liking the “active edge” one.

[3] flickr user hisgett

[4] This is paraphrasing Victor Hugo, whose famously said, “somedays, they will destroy the cathedral Notre Dame, to increase its parvis”, about the Haussmann work in Paris

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).