Sunday, January 15, 2012

Vancouver's Cathedral Square


Cathedral Square in the eastern portion of Vancouver's downtown, right at the edge of Gastown, is one of those spaces that I've walked by a dozen times but never stopped to go inside and explore. Mostly it was because, despite the dramatic design of this public space, there was never any real draw to check it out. The square usually draws a cursory glance as people walk by to other things. It exists as one of those public spaces that were designed with the best intention, and then left to rot, untended.

Cathedral Square consists of a grassy expanse dotted by wooden benches on concrete platforms and a zig-zagged pathway. In the centre is a pool, the colour of the which makes it look less like a reflecting pond than your neighbours over-chlorinated and neglected backyard swimming pool, leafy detritus and cigarette butts magnified from their sunken spot at the bottom. This blue is "complemented" by Expo 86-style steel girders that make an open-air cage propped up on thick, concrete turrets. There is even a 'pier' should someone want to sit out and suntan. 

This cage sits atop a stepped plaza of sorts that is littered with trash, and mostly hidden from the street beside it. The site's architecture is imposing and unfriendly and almost prison-like in the huge concrete barriers and metal cage. Some of the benches are even missing, so all that remains is the concrete block on which they are supposed to sit.

Part of the reason for the site's lack of people, no doubt, is that the space is located in a inconvenient spot. As time passes in Vancouver the city's 'centre' has moved ever westward, from the pioneer days when the hot spot was what is now called the Downtown Eastside to contemporary times where most people are found along the commercialized spine of Robson Street in the West End.

However, it's undeniable that the design of this square is not a welcoming one. I found some pictures from the Vancouver Archives of what the square looked like when it first opened in 1986 to find out if it was as unwelcoming looking back then as it is now. 

Vancouver Archives, CVA 7840-098

In these photos the concrete pillars are fresh and have not yet succumbed to the rusty discolourations from years of rain, and there are flowers and small trees. 

Vancouver Archives, CVA 784-099
The cage overhead is revealed to have once been the frame for a covering that shielded the space from rain, but they obviously found it too difficult to maintain so removed it. You can also see in the below picture how the southern edge of the square is cut off from the adjacent street due to a change in grade, making this part of the space feel closed off and private.

Vancouver Archives, CVA 784-101
It's unfortunate that this space gets so little play. Vancouver's downtown peninsula has a real dearth of public squares and plazas larger than those occupying a ceded corner of real estate on a busy downtown block (the small plaza at the corner of Georgia and Granville outside of the Sears building was such a corner until the city built an oversized entrance to the Vancouver City Centre Canada Line station there). For now Cathedral Square remains mostly discarded.

As it stands, however, Cathedral Square does seem to serve a function of providing shelter and privacy to those who may be living on the street. I came across two people sleeping in separate sections of the plaza behind the giant concrete pillars. So a "rediscovering" of this space by the City would likely result in inequities in terms of who is able to use this space and for what.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! You know, I feel like I've seen this (somewhere near Seymour?), but you're right that it's so unwelcoming/unclear as to what it is and how it should be used that it's almost invisible!