Advocacy, education and outreach in support of Vancouver's public spaces


January 27, 2008 at 7:18 AM

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Rethinking the Robson Square Clamshell…

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There was an interesting article in Friday’s Globe and Mail (January 25, 2008) by Trevor Boddy. Entitled “Overarching aspirations,” the piece looks at the Province’s proposal to redesign of Robson Square. Since being made public about a month ago, the planned re-do (involving a giant, wooden clamshell cover), has been getting a lot of press.

Boddy starts by making a very good point about the nature of the public realm in the downtown area. Stanley Park excepted, public space is, as he notes, in short supply on the peninsula:

“We dwell collectively in cities, so it’s only natural that we would come to think of a place like downtown Vancouver as one big home. Conceived this way, our downtown peninsula makes for a very strange dwelling indeed — one having a huge backyard (Stanley Park and Burrard Inlet), lots of tiny bedrooms (all those condos), but precious little living room (urban public open space.)…”

The article continues by spelling out the importance of Robson Square which, coupled with the Vancouver Art Gallery steps, is one of the city’s truly vital public spaces.

By a long shot, downtown Vancouver’s largest and best-loved “living room” is Robson Square. It is a welcome oasis of light and greenery for the residents of our ever-denser core, a healthy outlet for our city’s political life as favoured locale for protests, and home to the Arthur Erickson buildings that put Vancouver on the world’s architectural map.

For reasons that one could easily be cynical about, details of the $87 million “revitalization” were only released on January 18. And yet there is already a sense of Olympics-fuelled imperative.

According to Colin Hansen, the Minister responsible for the scheme, public input will be sought… even though construction plans have to be finalized in just a few short weeks. This does not bode well for public involvement in general… less so, given the nature of the proposed design. Consider this point by Boddy:

In addition to the enormous visual impact the new arch would have on the Francis Rattenbury-designed Edwardian courthouse, Arthur Erickson’s provincial buildings at Robson Square, and landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander’s plantings in-between the two iconic buildings, the current proposal may have a fatal urban design flaw. In order to accommodate vehicular and pedestrian traffic along Robson Street, this is an arch without walls — just a glazed roof, open on the sides…

The worry is that the arch’s inescapable need for openings may mean more rain on the rink below, not less. As experienced by anyone who has encountered a mild wind accelerated to gale force at the base of office towers, the shape of buildings can amplify winds. Engineers call this the “Venturi Effect,” and an open-sided arch may well push rain even further into the skating zone than under the current ranks of brown plastic skylights….”

Boddy’s solution is in keeping with one of the original, yet unrealized components of the Erickson-designed square: a redesigned northern extension that leads from from the front of the Art Gallery up to Robson Street. The original vision called for a multi-purpose design that mixed subtle landscaping with a hard-surface that useful for a variety of functions.

Not, in fact, a bad idea. Part of the problem with that front area now is that it lacks the sense of enclosure that would make it feel more like the sort of “urban living room” that urban designers often talk about in connection with public squares. Perhaps a strategic intervention of this sort would help to give downtown Vancouver an even more potent gathering place? Currently, aside from the monthly Critical Mass gathering, and the new coterie of tourists visiting the Olympic clock, the north end of the VAG is woefully under-used.

Not only would this sort of design be more in keeping with the already existing sense of place but, as Boddy points out, it would come with a considerable savings over the current price tag…. leaving some money left over for – who knows – the recently announced (but not yet funded) transit plan, other public space improvements, more social housing, a meaningful public process around this sort of urban design…

But wait, on that latter point… let’s at least hope that there’s some realistic oportunity to get these sorts of considerations onto the table.

For the complete story by Trevor Boddy, check out the Globe and Mail website.

To contact Colin Hansen, Minister of Economic Development and Minister responsible for the Asia-Pacific Initiative and the Olympics, email colin.hansen.mla [at]

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