Monday, November 30, 2009

City as Redesigned Public Square (Sort of)

Originally posted for Beyond Robson.

Some months ago the Vancouver Public Space Network held a competition in which entrants were supposed to design a public square for Vancouver's citizens to gather in the downtown core. But, wait a tic--don't we already have a public square?

Built in 1980 by the late Arthur Erickson (the man who designed the SFU campus), Robson Square is a labyrinthine maze of concrete, waterfalls, benches, shrubs, and tilted glass, that covers the area from Nelson street up to the Vancouver Art Gallery across from Robson street. There is no doubt that it's an interesting and often beautiful area; it's a reprieve and oasis from the city streets below. The only thing is that it isn't really used.

Yesterday, I went back to Robson Square to check out the first phase of its reopening--the underground ice rink, which hasn't been there for many years. It was an Olympic dreamworld down there, with LED lights in our official pastel green and blue colours, a jazz band performing at one end, and the Olympic logo plastered around competing for space with the large GE logos stamped onto the surface of the ice and set to remain for a few months (it is the GE plaza after all). It was the first time I had seen people taking the time to come off the consumer flow of Robson to walk down the stairs and check out what was happening beneath the street.

Could this be the rebirth of our public square?

I guess it all depends on how they use the space from now on and after the Olympics. The ice rink will be an attraction if they keep it up, and will bring in tourists and residents who want to skate. The ice was packed with tripping 5 year-olds and teenagers attempting to take self-portraits for their Facebook profiles while trying not to fall down. Personally, I have never understood the thrill of being corralled in a space and made to slowly rotate in a circle with a group of other people. At one point, the guy on the speakers made everyone skate in the opposite direction, causing a few collisions and shouts of "wrong way!". Entertaining from the sidelines, anyway.

I have to admit, it looks nice. The rink, while not nearly as big as those in New York or Toronto, is still a decent size. Being under the street makes it a bit dreary, but they have spruced that up with the lighting system, which makes the ice glow a cool blue. Although, you can't really combat the fact that the rink is underground, hidden and away from street view and the people above. The area suffered from much under-use, considering its location below one of our busiest streets. But why would anyone have gone down there before? To watch the breakdancers that sometimes practice there? To check out the UBC downtown campus? To renew their driver's license? Fun...

Erickson was a good architect, but he did a disservice to this city when he built our public square underground and hidden behind a maze of elevated concrete paths and trees. I often walked around in it on hot summer days, when the streets just a few feet away were teeming with people, and found the place empty. This, when just across (or above) the street, dozens of people were sitting cheek to cheek on the steps of the art gallery, which has become the popular place to hang out. On a totally anecdotal side note, I have known two friends who have been jumped and beaten pretty badly while walking through Robson Square at night. The place does offer many nice hidden areas.

Even though, the rink area was filled, the rest of Robson Square on this mild, but wet Sunday was completely empty. I worked for almost two years right next to Robson Square, but never once chose to take my lunch in there. The thing is, it feels too disconnected. If you want to people watch (which is what the VAG steps are good for) then you won't find much to do inside Robson Square. On the same day the photo to the left was taken, I counted about over a dozen people sitting on the art gallery steps.

So, I guess we'll have to see after the Olympics and when the summer creeps up what exactly the fate of the redesigned Robson Square will be. If they can convert the ice rink into a kind of roller rink then perhaps you'll still find people under there during the summer months. But if the rest of Robson Square remains as closed off as it always is, then my guess is it will remain a place to walk through perhaps, but not sit down and enjoy the city from. All in all, I wonder exactly where all the 40m spent on the redesign went (the ice rink upgrade cost $2m). On the plus side, at least they didn't build the clamshell.

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