Last March, just days after the end of Vancouver's 2010 Olympic Games, while the city was still glowing with pride about our Games success, I weighed into the debate about the future of the Vancouver Art Gallery. While I am still open to a major cultural facility happening at Larwill Park (one that includes a Vancouver Arts Centre and Vancouver historical archive (see my post about the CBC Vancouver archives), I still think that the true "centre" of Metro Vancouver is at Robson Square.
Last week, Coun. Suzanne Anton again proposed closing Robson Street between Hornby & Howe as I had after the Games. The response has been very positive, including an endorsement from the Vancouver Public Space Network. I might suggest going even further...why not move the Law Courts to Larwill Park, and move the Vancouver Cultural Centre (museum + art gallery) into the whole Arthur Ericksen law courts building, the underground and the present VAG (old court house)?
It's a fun debate. Here's my CityCaucus Redux post below from last March...
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
UPDATE: November 30, 2010 Vancouver city council to delay decision on VAG move until January 2011.
- post by Mike