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.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

City as Fast-Flowing Stream

The rush of people at transit stations, busy intersections, stairwells, movie theatres, classrooms, always seems so chaotic and unformed to me while I am in the midst of all those jostling bodies, scrambling for purchase, elbows tucked in—or thrust out, depending on the person—everyone attempting to just get the hell out of there and to wherever they’re going. It feels at these moments as if humans should have evolved with retractable arms, as I always find myself spinning this way and that, ducking my body and weaving like a drunken boxer in an attempt to slip my way through the crowd without accidentally punching or elbowing someone in the head.

But, these moments are not as chaotic as they appear to be at first. Perhaps in slow speeds, when you are stuck in the middle of them, they feel like they have no form, no poetry, just a bunch of random molecules bouncing off each other; however, when these scenes are sped up, they reveal an intricate and highly choreographed dance that we are all participating at all moments of the day, but to which we are very nearly always never aware of until it is shown to us through the lens of a camera, or we have a moment to stand up somewhere far above the fray and just watch for a good hour or two.

There are numerous examples of what I mean, but I think now to the film Koyaanisqatsi, the first of the Qatsi Trilogy by director Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi contains many scenes of these high volume human traffic locations at their peak—these same places that seem so awful and slow and formless at the time—but which is revealed, through running the film back at high speed, to actually have a beautiful flow to them, an organization, a structure almost akin to that of a fast-flowing stream, curving and bending itself around rocks and logs and other obstacles placed in its midst in the symbiotic way that only nature seems to be able to pull off so well.

What is revealed in those time-lapse scenes of high volume human traffic is a vision of order, as if we are all performing a dance practiced months in advance. And it’s not just people that reveal this ordered choreography at high speeds, it’s other scenes in the city as well. Busy traffic intersections—which at normal speeds consist of yelling drivers, honking horns, nudging cars, red lights, and crossing pedestrians—also unfurl like a beautiful flower when we rewatch those scenes at high speeds. The tail lights blur into a single line, the traffic that seemed just a moment ago so chaotic and unordered, suddenly takes on the appearance of an assembly line of lights, stopping here, going there, continuing on and out of the factory.

There’s something comforting to me in knowing this; that while I might be experiencing frustration, I am in fact participating at that very moment in a complicated dance and ordered routine, one that is anything but chaotic. I think we even recognize this orderliness in the moment, if perhaps only in the back of our minds, in the way we move through the dense scene, the way we pull our shoulders this way and that, the way our concentration is broken and the whole machine stutters to a halt when we actually collide with someone, jolting us out of our choreography (but then again, slow-motion accidents and crash tests also seem to have a certain poetry to them).

Mostly, however--car accidents, pedestrian collisions, tripping on a curb--these are aberrations in the choreographed dance of the city, perhaps even caused by the fact that we are so subconsciously comfortable with this dance, know it so well, that we don’t pay attention, turn on autopilot and let the fast-flowing water guide us down the stream, around obstacles in our path and on to wherever our destination may be.