Concert hall proposal makes the case to keep VAG at Robson Square

Post by Mike Klassen in


Giant clothes pins: good use of public space?

Folks, I'm taking a few moments out of a precious Sunday afternoon to comment quickly on Saturday's Vancouver Sun story on Bing Thom coming up with a plan for an underground concert hall at Robson Square for the Vancouver Concert Hall and Theatre Society. It's been hailed as big thinking to go subterranean, which is exactly what I did when I argued for keeping the Vancouver Art Gallery at its present central location in the heart of the city.

Seeing Thom's design has me digging in my heels even further. I still think that the Vancouver Art Gallery has a higher stature by remaining at Robson Square than at Larwill Park. I know people who work at the VAG, and I know to almost to person they desperately want out of the old courthouse building. "Not enough space for the collection," they argue.

What the VAG should count among its priorities is their relevance to the general public. As I argued in my post-Olympics essay titled, Let's re-imagine the VAG at Robson Square, the Games were among the best things ever to happen to the art gallery. However, I don't know if that elite organization felt that they benefited from having non-traditional patrons visit their facility.

proposed-design.jpg With the greatest respect I can muster for the late Arthur Erickson, and lauded landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, Robson Square has never lived up to its promise as a city center. I believe that a renewed cultural center must include our art gallery, and it must be in the heart of the city.

If only Gregor Robertson's off-the-cuff remarks about our downtown moving east were accurate. Our downtown is still centered around Robson Square. I challenge anyone to stand at the corner of Cambie and Georgia who can see how the rump side of the CBC bunker, the Sandman Inn and the parking lot in front of the Media Club will be transformed into anything beyond the asphalt paradise it already is anytime soon. Yet the VAG is now trying to raise a quarter billion dollars now to do just that.

Erickson's Robson Square & updated court house complex, praised by some for its uniqueness, effectively destroyed any vitality on Howe Street between Robson & Nelson. Howe Street along those blocks has been a depressing, barren urban desert since the building opened back in the 1970s. The Sears building (formerly Eaton's) also derided as "The Giant Urinal" beside the gloomy TD Tower are like a dagger in the heart of Howe Street. And the Hornby Street side is hardly much better as it is lined with concrete planters and now a separated bike lane.

If I have my Vancouver urban history correct, the reason why Erickson pock-marked the plaza with below ground entrances and rows of stairs is because the city one time had plans for a subway entrance to connect the area surrounding the ice rink. I can't count how many restaurants and offices opened down there only to go bust. The downtown UBC campus came to the rescue to save part of it.

The whole plaza should be re-levelled at the street grade as I argued last year. It should be a true city square. Robson Street can be closed off permanently. Use the surface for sculpture like the fantastic Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle.

Why do we have the Provincial Law Courts here? Can't they be just about anywhere else in the downtown? Why not move them to Robertson's desired "east" downtown instead, possibly with better access to both the police station and the business district who use the courts the most? How about Larwill Park?

Perhaps the best thing that could happen to Arthur Erickson's creation is for it to be adapted into a building that the public can fully embrace. Re-think the plaza and surroundings, and move the cultural heart of the city inside both the old and "new" law courts buildings.

Dare I suggest that instead of separating our art gallery and our city's museum that we start thinking of them as a combined Vancouver Centre for the Arts & Culture? I described how much of our city's history is captured in the CBC archives, the City of Vancouver archives and the UBC archives. Yet there is no central body to maintain these precious records of the 20th Century.

Worse yet, the public has extremely limited access to them. This is inexcusable.

Right now the plaza on the north side of the VAG building is a sad little mud pit which I was astonished to see had vegetable planters on it. Vegetable planters in front of the Art Gallery? This is sounds like more Vision Vancouver madness.

If there is a quarter billion dollars out there waiting to be spent on a new arts facility in Vancouver, let's devote it to an even bigger idea, keep it at Robson Square, and re-imagine how fantastic those blocks could be. As long is it's still there, let's use blank wall of the Sears building to project videos in the evening, let's build galleries below ground, let's make this place into a true heart of the city.

I look at that red clothes pin spring in the image above that adorns Erickson's building and ask myself, surely we can do so much better. I challenge the leadership of the VAG board and our other cultural institutions to start collaborating and "think big" – like Thom has – when it comes to the future of the heart of our city.

- post by Mike. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeKlassen.


Bing Thom's idea is stunning. More people will come to the concert halls than to the VAG. I wish VAG luck at the new heart of the city.

The Thought of The Day

“In the House of Bartels, Crap is Queen... and King... and Jester.”

Let me rephrase that:
'In the Kingdom of Garbagelonia, Bartels is the Queen Crap.’, uh huh, better.

What were the odds for me & family to visit the Art Gallery during this past weekend? I would say 80-90%, keeping in mind that we held a VAG family membership for almost a decade...

Terrible idea.

First thing I did when I got back home, I took a shower and I rubbed, and I rubbed some more at the garbage particulates that stuck onto my clothes, my shoes, my hair and my skin, that went inside my nostrils, way down to my lungs. I’ve been subjected to Crap Art before, many years ago in London, England when I witnessed a first prize winner ceremony for the Exhibit titled, if I remember correctly, ‘Fluorescent Rice’, where a pile of rice, a metric ton of it, was longitudinally crossed over by a continuous row of lighted, velvety - purplish neon fluorescent lamps. Aaah, the 1990s!

Move forward to present time, Vancouver, BC... the best place on Earth, if you are in the Art Business Administration, that is.

Welcome to Vancouver Art gallery meets Value Village, though in all fairness, the Village has got a better selection. And a better taste.

Dig this. This past Saturday and Sunday were ‘FUSE’ days, or what in VAG language is known as Family Days. They could have easily called them Pervert Days. Read on.

First floor – as you slalom through a bunch of red tents, known as the homeless collection (no pun intended here), the plastic fibre, twigs and paper huts and something resembling one of the Three Little Pigs shacks, careful not to get tangled in the ‘vintage ‘clothing collection hanging around for no good reason, you would come across a nice porn cartoon featuring a big tits, voluptuous woman pursued by a very eager young fellow, with an obvious dirty agenda. Despicable.

Nice, obscene cartoon to start your art day with your seven years old brat, don’t you think? That will keep his mind occupied for some time. Well, maybe only until you reach the third floor, dark niche where your little one could be subjected to some more graphic entertainment. Another glorious video-art installation showing a little girl, peeing full frontal, in grandiose detail, on a couple of huge eggs... as part of a man’s dream, all ended in a butt spanking...there, the first flushing in public of your toddler.

Have I told you about the naked men walking around in another animated short, with their instruments out, and leaving nothing to the imagination? The imagination of a seven years old, that is.

Family days, eh?

VAG management cries out loud for the lack of space they are in 'dire need' for showing their ‘buried treasures’ stored in the basement. Really? Maybe if they didn’t use the huge salon on the third floor for displaying a bunch of used sofas and soiled mattresses... believe me, I watched people walking back and forth for some ten minutes. They all, with no exception, would enter the space, realize shockingly in an instant what’s in it, turn back and continue on walking...somewhere else.

Or maybe the other room where the wall-art was comprised of posters, placards and signs with messages that would make an amateur graffiti artist proud he’s doing his art outside, on the steps of the VAG instead of inside.

All is well that ends well.So you'd think. Fat chance with that. By the time I caught up with my seven years old daughter, she was standing in front of a mirror, one of many hanging on the hallways, with the words


printed/ glued/ stuck onto its front surface.

That was my cue to leave. The. Hell. Out. From. There.

On the way home, my little one said to me (and I swear to God these are her exact words):

'If it’s the Art Gallery, they should do Art! Why don’t they?’

Yes Ms. Bartels & company, why don’t you? I didn’t give her an answer, I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. But I have a few words for you, pompous snobs, corporate welfare advocates, pretend art connoisseurs, and forever perpetuum mobile frauds...


We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.


Mike, sorry for the bluster. But they got to me! Not only that I will not renew my membership, I’ll claim irreconcilable differences, but I will be one of the most vocal voices in Vancouver speaking out against VAG’s idiotic wet dream relocation. Bing Thom is a down to earth, humble genius. Robertson and his Vision puppeteers, mmm, not so much. Just want to say, this post of yours made my day, and was the main ingredient for this comment. I am backing your suggestions 100%, maybe 111% if possible. As for the underground concert hall what can I say, my name is Glissando Remmy... that’s music to my ears!

Funny, I also went to the VAG this weekend with parts of my extended family. We loved the first floor collection. Thought provoking and moving, especially the urban gardening work and the idea of brigning nature into the city (I hope this idea can be built into the Vancouver Greenest City Plan). We tool lots of notes and made sketches. But we were not allowed to take photos - why doesn't the VAG allow photos? But I digress. I had seen most of the Ken Lum work over the years. What surprized me was how much the teenagers I was with liked it and related to it. They got the use of store signs and all the questions on identity seemed to resonate. We didn't look at the rest of the collection. So some people with families do enjoy the experience of the VAG. And we like to see the borders stretched. Why should you get to tell me what art is?

I agree that I am much happier if the VAG can remain where it is. It is a great location and brings that part of the city alive. It is easy to cycle to using the excellent Hornby cycling lanes (they really have made downtown a safer and more pleasent place to cycle). I understand the need to have a larger space. Is there no way that ugly I.M Pei building could be taken over and converted? I would like to see ap roposal from Bing Thom on how the Sears building could be transformed. But perhaps, like Vegas in Vancouver, the developers have already decided what they want to do.

Mike, you really are a visionary. You should run for public office!

This maybe one of the few times I've agreed with you.

I totally agree with your statement about the Art Gallery "elite". I may just be a low class hick (a left wing hick perhaps but still a hick) but as another commenter said, for a place that has "no space" they sure seem to have alot of empty or near empty rooms.

I have a lot more to say on the subject, but you covered most of it. I would rather have the money spent on a new museum nearer to the core of the city and a really city space.

I guess my point is to repeat what I said last year about the Gallery. It should become more accessible to the community at large. Glissando's comments are valid ones, I think. Are the shows appealing to all?

I've been at one of those FUSE nights and absolutely loved it. In fact, I had my 9-y.o. kid at it who also found the energy in the VAG that night to be addictive.

It's time for Vancouver to grow up already. We don't have a compelling centre for the arts that would attract visitors and locals. Robson is the place to make it happen.

Glissy, the algorithm on our spam filter tends to block URLs. If you get "held" by our system we'll just have to login to post it. Who'd censor you anyway?

Keep in mind Bing Thom is an architect not an engineer. Pitty the poor bugger that inherits this idea.

The Thought of The Day

“’The VAG is naked. Look, they haven’t got anything on. The VAG is naked!’ shouted the little Glissando from inside a lethargic crowd of Vancouverites.”

Steven, you said ‘Why should you get to tell me what art is?’
Funny you said that, ‘cause...I didn’t. You, assumed that. Read my comment again.
What I did, was reporting exactly what I saw, the way I remembered it, the way I felt about it and how it resonated with my second grader. I’m sure you enjoyed your little voyeuristic adventure, throughout the numerous peep shows. But hey, you were carrying teenagers, I wasn’t.

BTW, your reference to the’ Hornby cycling lanes (they really have made downtown a safer and more pleasant place to cycle)’ was a scream. Now, why should you tell me what an excellent cycling lane, Hornby is?

Apropos, did you catch the drumming experience, first floor, in the atrium? Three strapping lads. Five full size drums. Three pairs of sticks...and a clear ‘deaf’ wish in all of them. Maybe they were trying to raise the undead. Beethoven would have definitely approved of that. And that’s not me telling you what music is...

I have friends who would describe the ‘Puppetry of the Penis’ as a great art show. Some would say ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is too lesbian for their palate. Others would say they like their Jackson Pollock...herbed, in a bit of melted garlic butter, and sprinkled with Parmigiano.

Go figure. Critics and critics.

My dog is a great art critic. He finds the red fire hydrants most appealing, 400 psi of liquid brute force, a utilitarian piece of street art, day in day out. And he pees on them. Contrary to what others may think, that’s a sign of great appreciation. Art is in the eye of the beholder, even when they are dog eyes.

Lately, I found increasingly that VAG is becoming more and red hydrant. After all, we are such animals!

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

@ yuri:

I believe there is a concert hall built under the soccer field at York House School.

Just a quick note on the Provincial Court. Only part of the Court sits at Robson Square, hearing family matters and civil disputes up to $25,000. The other part hears criminal matters at 222 Main, with easy access to the police as you suggest.

Glissy, re. this post and the previous. You never fail to amaze me. You are such a great storyteller! It's like I was there too...I agree, the VAG management needs to wake up, their programming sucks.

Couple hundred mil for a new art gallery, a quarter bil plus for the Hastings park redevelopment, another couple hundred mil down the crapper on the Olympic Village, probably a big fat casino right in the gut of the city, while community centers and libraries are being forced to cut back on hours and summer park programs for kids are being eliminated. You need to be a three income family to afford a rundown house, and the Economist's intelligence unit declares us the most livable city in the world? We should petition for a second opinion, maybe from CSIS or MI5?

PS "I look at that red clothes pin spring in the image above that adorns Erickson's building and ask myself, surely we can do so much better". Shows how much you know about art-that's a water-slide for underprivileged squirrels... ;-)

True. Liked this one. See? I'm fair.

You're right on Gerry. Putting your observations into historical perspective, it is possible to understand that Vancouver, which the "Economist's intelligence unit declares is the most livable city in the world" has nothing to do with recent civic and provincial decisions. That recognition comes from 32 prior years of pretty good, enlightened city building by the City of Vancouver. However, this Vision Council;'s unfortunate initiatives are taking the City in entirely in the opposite direction -- down the drain.

And, the 'community centers and libraries cut backs on hours and summer park programs for kids' are due to Vision's misplaced priorities and bad management.

Check out!

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