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.
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.