On June, 22, Vancouver’s premier spot for protest and promenade was re-opened, following a four-year $9.6-million process to re-imagine and remake the public space.
In a significant investment in public space, the city placed a higher value on social infrastructure than on physical structures, fancy architecture or expensive materials. The redesign was aimed at enhancing the openness of the plaza and enlivening the space through happenstance and programming in order to encourage social interaction.
The initial budget for rebuilding the plaza in 2014 was reported to be $3.2-million, one-third of the final cost announced at its opening.
Historically, the North Plaza adjacent to the Vancouver Art Gallery has been the city’s most prominent site for protest, festivals and demonstrations. Political demonstrations as well as annual rallies in support of legalizing marijuana were held frequently on the plaza. In recent years, Occupy Vancouver, a peaceful protest that coincided with Occupy protests against inequality and corporate greed in several cities, established a pop-up community on the North Plaza that stayed from Oct. 15, 2011 to Nov. 18, 2011. Around 150 tents were set up on the plaza. The protest ended only after the city obtained a court order.
The plaza is at the north end of a three-block site between Nelson, Hornby, Georgia and Howe streets designed by visionary architect Arthur Erickson (see Milestone 1973 in online chronology) after a newly elected NDP government rejected plans for a tower. Erickson conceptualized Robson Square as a skyscraper laid on its side – a provocative idea that provided 1.3-million square feet of floor space, encompassing three city blocks, and water pools with cascading waterfalls flowing through a beautiful urban garden landscape, designed by award-winning Cornelia Oberlander.
A fountain, built in 1966 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the merger of the British colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, dominated the space. The fountain featured a 16-foot tall marble sculpture and a handcrafted mosaic tile basin.
By 2013, the fountain had been turned off. Water from the fountain had leaked into space under the plaza occupied by the Vancouver Art Gallery, requiring extensive repairs to the layer of membrane underneath the area.
Although aesthetically engaging, the fountain was an awkward obstruction during gatherings in the plaza. The fountain was ripped out; so was the bark mulch that covered the adjacent lawn. Under the redesign, the entire plaza was covered with intricately patterned stone blocks that were expected to make it less susceptible to wear and tear.
Potted plants, maple trees and benches were strategically placed around the plaza. A breezy structure that could provide shelter from the rain sits on the east side of the plaza.
The architects say the plaza’s design “is a milestone in the conversation about Vancouver’s public spaces, cultural expression, sites of resistance and protest, and the role of arts and culture in city-making.” The plaza redesign core team was Nick Milkovich Architects, Hapa Collaborative and Matthew Soules Architecture, and construction was completed by Jacob Brothers.
- City of Vancouver. Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza opens for events as Vancouver’s most compelling public space. June 22, 2017.
- Bacia, Dario. CTV News. Art Gallery North Plaza re-opens after $9.6-million reno. June 22, 2017.
- Daily Hive. Vancouver Art Gallery water fountain to be permanently removed. June 26, 2017.
- Hapa Collaborative. Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza.
- Eos Lightmedia. Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza.