Let's re-imagine the VAG at Robson Square

Post by Mike Klassen in


Robson Square
Why can't this space become the cultural heart of the city? click for larger

When I attended Abraham Rogatnick's wake last summer, one of the speeches in his honour mentioned that he was a passionate advocate of keeping the Vancouver Art Gallery in its present location. Since this recent discussion erupted on the future of the VAG, I thought about how much we missed the feisty octogenarian, who never shied away from a good debate.

As it turns out, even from the grave Rogatnick manages to wade into the argument. In today's Vancouver Sun, a posthumously published editorial by him opines that we must keep the Gallery in its present location. The issue put forward by the VAG's board is the present location's lack of space. Rogatnick responds:

For a skillful architect the ample spaces available for expansion under the Georgia Street lawn as well as the space between the main building and the annex offer a great variety of possibilities for expansion to satisfy the gallery's needs for several decades to come. Please note the recent brilliant additions to world famous galleries housed in heritage buildings such as the Louvre in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, to name just three. Many more could be cited.

As someone who spent a lot of time at Robson Square, both inside the former courthouse building and on the surrounding streets, I'm even further convinced that we must "re-imagine" this part of our city. What follows are my proposals on what we could do:

  1. Keep the Vancouver Art Gallery at its present location. Expand the Gallery underneath and into the space currently occupied by UBC's downtown campus. It is a contiguous and open space with a small 400-seat amphitheatre. It would be easily adapted for gallery space.
  2. Remove the ice rink and sub-street level plaza, and level the whole south side of the courthouse plaza into a contiguous public square. As much as I admire Arthur Erickson's work, the network of stairs and the subterranean retail/office space next to the rink has been an abysmal failure. I would argue that our Games experience downtown would have been even more exciting if there were not so many obstructions caused by the poor design of this plaza. Take the space reclaimed by the rink and empty storefronts, and devote it to the expanded VAG.
  3. Close Robson Street between Howe and Hornby permanently. The only way to allow this square to live up to its full potential is to remove cars. Use the open space to showcase sculptures, similar to Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park, or the lovely revamped plaza on top of Queen Elizabeth Park with its Henry Moore sculpture.
  4. Retain the Ziptrek line, and accommodate more fun attractions. While Da Vinci drawings and thrill rides might seem incongruous, I disagree. The VAG benefits from the critical mass created by popular attractions, and visa versa. A fifteen-year old who wants to zip across the square may never want to see a Jeff Wall art piece, but at least you've got her down there. It then becomes the Gallery's job to attract non-traditional patrons inside.
  5. Re-open the Georgia Street entrance, and remove the fountain. The old Vancouver courthouse building has been hobbled by the Gallery since they moved in there, mainly because of the need to close the prominent entrances on Georgia and Robson Streets. They should be re-opened as proud and prominent doorways, as the original architect intended. The square on the Georgia Street side has one of the ugliest public fountains known to mankind – remove it. Replace the grass with a hard surface and keep the grounds as a continguous space for public gatherings – yes, celebrations AND protests. This is happening anyway, and we have to blow a budget to keep fixing the grass. This shady north side of the Gallery deserves to be as important as the sunny side.
  6. Use Larwill Park development to pay for VAG upgrades, invite a private partner. Seattle's lauded sculpture park is sponsored and managed with help from Microsoft as a corporate partner. Provide naming rights to the square as with GE Plaza to provide funding to devote to the rebuild of Vancouver's "art square".

    The Larwill Park site should have at least 35 storeys of density (I would argue MUCH higher), and it could possibly accommodate a new UBC downtown campus. It would then place it right next to Vancouver Community College on Dunsmuir, and it would only be just a few blocks from SFU's Woodwards cultural campus. Having all three educational institutions clustered would give incentive for an exciting new district of social gathering spaces along, Hastings, Beatty or Cambie streets. It's also served well by Skytrain and public transit.
  7. Retain the celebration space on the Gallery's top floor. For those who were lucky to get inside the Gallery and attend one of the many receptions held on the fourth floor, you can see how valuable the terrace – which was temporarily built for the duration of the Games – would be for future gatherings. The space could be kept, and rented out to sundry organizations who want to be in the 'centre of the action' downtown.
  8. Move the Vancouver Museum to Robson Square. Some have argued that the moribund Vancouver Museum at Vanier Park should be moved down to this location. We should explore this as an option.

By re-thinking the square surrounding the VAG/Courthouse we provide many opportunities. For example, the lovely log house erected to promote Musqueum carvers could be a regular fixture down there, perhaps even connected with more aboriginal cultural and culinary attractions. The "Jack Poole Hall" of the Four Host First Nations pavilion was a great and under-celebrated setting that we should try to keep alive.

Until the disgraceful Sears/Eaton's building site (aka The Urinal) is re-developed, perhaps we could arrange to have a permanent large screen hung on the side of that white building for more regular public gatherings. We could project either broadcasts of important events, or large video art placements. The City could on occasion close Howe street between Georgia and Robson to suit special occasions, as they did successfully during the Games.

Vancouver, and the VAG, are only limited by their imaginations when it comes to a new vision for a cultural centre of the city. I agree with Rogatnick when it comes to the VAG. Let's slow down and really think about what we can do with the existing location before we rip it up.

- post by Mike


What about a “joint land use” - Art Gallery new Concert Hall on the old bus depot property?

Joint ownership, joint facility staff, audience building and located in the existing "theater district" like some that exist in say: Dallas, Zurich, Toronto, NYC, to mention a few.

This “joint-venture” might even save of property taxes.

One can dream on, but, now may be a good time to “seize” the moment!

Aren't there already two concert halls there? The Queen E Theatre and the old Ford Theatre (can't remember what it's called now). I'm more convinced that the Larwill area would be more enhanced by another educational facility. I forgot to mention that Vancouver Film School has its campus near there, too.

This is a completely rational way to get the maximum benefit for the city along with the maximum cost benefit. Unfortunately the voice of the cynic in me, which just gets louder and louder the longer I live here, says it likely won't happen.

The prospect of a vainglorious new "starchitect" gallery offers too much potential for profit and prestige in itself and in its associated deals. That is, profit and prestige for influential personages and corporations, of course, rather than for the city and its people.

Anyone proposing to spend so much on a new gallery ought to explain what we are going to put inside. The current VAG collection is far from 'world class' and so far as I know the existing building is big enough for visiting exhibitions. If occasionally it it were not, a very large expensive building is usually available on the waterfront next to the Olympic flame.

Instead of the 'Emperor's New Clothes' we'll have the clothes with no emperor!

Mike, while you have some innovative ideas, some are let's say, too weak to be considered. I hate to do this again but here's my Tuppence on this comedy of errors.

“ Annual Income £20 quid, annual Expenditure £19.96, result happiness – Annual Income £20, annual Expenditure £20.06 result misery – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens”

“Annual earnings $ IOU note banks, annual Expenditure $ Billions, result disaster –
Budget by BC Liberals “

So, in times like this I say, leave the VAG alone. It’s nothing to do with the present location or building. It’s more likely to do with Hypocrisy, Lying, and Gangsterism.


We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

Mike, while you have some innovative ideas, some are let's say, too weak to be considered. I hate to do this again but here's my Tuppence on this comedy of errors.

“ Annual Income £20 quid, annual Expenditure £19.96, result happiness – Annual Income £20, annual Expenditure £20.06 result misery – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens”

“Annual earnings $ IOU note banks, annual Expenditure $ Billions, result disaster –
Budget by BC Liberals “

So, in times like this I say, leave the VAG alone. It’s nothing to do with the present location or building. It’s more likely to do with Hypocrisy, Lying, and Gangsterism.

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

The push to relocate and build another 'Gehry' or the like smacks of 'edifice complex'. If the VAG collection were truly world class art lovers would be flocking to see it. I'd be going regularly! It's not and it will be a long time before it is unless the VAG can tap some generous benefactors.

If there is private money out there willing to support an improved VAG then have a competition and let's see what can be done with what we have.

Great ideas Mike. You've made the strongest case yet, logistically, financially, and culturally, I've heard for keeping the VAG at Robson Square. I was a proponent of moving it, but this proposal makes complete sense!

Thanks, Paul. And for those who think I've got it in for the ice rink, I could picture a temporary rink like the one set up at Richmond's O Zone last month during winter months on the Robson plaza. It was an absolute hoot for an ankle skater like me to glide around the icy go-cart track. When it gets to warm, pack it away for next winter. And yes, give GE or some other corporate entity the naming rights to cover the costs.

Erickson's Robson Square - like SFU, like the Courthouse, like everything he builds - is designed to be admired from a helicopter not for the tenants. Walking in his "picture perfect" buildings is confusing AND sould destroying.

Close Robson between Hornby and Howe, flatten the square - Art Gallery at one end, waterfall at the other.

Sure develop the underground to pay for it.

The best squares in the world are just - that, plain old squares. (throw in some folding chairs if you'd like)

I would disagree with the need to completely destroy Robson Square in expanding the gallery. I love the steps for sitting, and part of the reason I used to love going to the ice rink as a child was because of the enclosed space, with a feeling like being in a cozy living room. I've used it in summer months for impromptu dancing (all you need is a stereo and some music and some people willing to goof off) but I don't know if I would have felt like doing that in a regular, exposed square.

Also, I love the steps, especially the way they climb up along the courthouse, as they're perfect for sitting in groups without the need for folding chairs, or chairs of any kind. As well as that tiny little patch of grass surrounded by bushes.

Maybe I'm also a little bit bias because of how perfect the space is for manhunt games, though.

I do agree that the Georgia street side needs some work, and the grass is not practical there. A fountain could work, though preferebly much smaller than the existing one. And I also agree the art gallery should stay in its current location, but expand underground. But it probably could use an expansion. I've been through the gallery several times (Brian Jungen was one of my favourite exhibits, going back several years now) and it's so quick to get through it all.

I have no idea how good or bad the gallery's permanent collection is because I've hardly seen any of it. It would be nice to get a chance. Art shouldn't languish in dusty basements, regardless of whether it's DaVinci or your grade 3 kid.

Tessa, thanks for your thoughtful comments. My proposal doesn't necessarily mean removing all the stairs. There are many of those stairs that are above street level on both sides of the plaza. However, many of the stairways lead to nowhere, or worse, they lead to low visibility crannies where you might find someone taking a pee (I've seen that).

If we level the plaza from the foot of the steps beside the Gallery Cafe across to the court house on the other side of Robson street, you've still got significant staircases on each side. Also, what's to prevent the new design from putting in pedestals for sculpture that have plenty of room to sit on?

Public debate is ALWAYS fruitful. But life must evolve... However, if CITIZENS as opposed to taxpayers have a valid input, then they have an important contribution to the future of our fair city. Let everyone know what YOU think!

Thank you for this posting. Clearly we need to have a lot more public debate about this proposal before it is approved/any changes are made. I should point out that in NYC the Rockefeller ice rink has a more open feel to it. So I do not agree that it needs to be tucked below, all comfy and cozy. I also agree that the maze-like setting of the central portion of Robson Square hampers the flow of activities during larger public events.

what about the eatons/sears bldg on the other side of Howe st? it would be ideal for contemporary art exhibitions, and certainly could be tuned up and connected to the current VAG with some appropriately outrageous architecture....

I'd love to see the Vancouver Art Gallery at a new Larwill Park site. Sure, it might not be at the "core" of the city today but neither was the former courthouse nor when the VAG moved into building. The centre of the city was still at Hastings around Victory Square.

The core of Downtown is slowly expanding east, it takes vision to see that this eastern half of the Downtown peninsuala will become as vibrant as the western half. And what better way to have the Vancouver Art Gallery be a further catalyst to speed up what's already happening.

The only issue I have with the Larwill plan is that it's far too small. At 300,000 square feet, that's not that much of an improvement from the existing facility at Robson Square.

With the VAG moved out, make the old courthouse building a new home for the Museum of Vancouver. Vacate UBC from its two-floor underground space for the museum and also build space under the Georgia Street plaza (while also doing some much-needed beautification to the plaza).

In addition, move the Space Centre out at Vanier Park to a much, much, much larger Science World. Science World as it is today caters far too much to children, and for it to be a serious attraction it needs to cater to the interests of all ages. Moving the Space Museum here would boost up attendance, which it would never see at its existing location.

The current Vanier Park structure would see a different usage with both museums vacated.

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