By Alexandra Venner
“Block 51-A Look Back” was the title of an invigorating public consultation event at the Vancouver Art Gallery last week. Participants spent the evening listening, engaging, thinking, designing, and creating, as we looked at the history of 800-block of Robson Street and the Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza. The evening gave many people a larger perspective on the importance and the need to re-envision Robson Square – well beyond it being a space that one mindlessly walks through.
To help us open our minds, ears, and eyes to the history of Robson Square, the night was set in context with a screening of the 1973 National Film Board Film “Chairs for Lovers.” The film highlighted the grim, dull and grey downtown core that Vancouver was in the 1970s, which left many of us saying at the end of film, “Man, Vancouver was an ugly city back then!” However, the main focus of the film was about the specific design process by Canadian architect, Stanley King: public design participation.
In “Chairs for Lovers” King collaborated with children and youth to gain ideas on how to turn a downtown parking lot into an invigorating, livable and playful space that would contribute to a great downtown public realm for Vancouverites. For Stanley King, it’s about the “social art of architecture” and he reminded us that the way any space is designed is to see how we want to live. Indeed, King’s wisdom serves as a reminder as we strive to re-invent 800-block of Robson and the VAG North Plaza as a vibrant and recognizable landscape in the space of Vancouver.
Later on in the evening, King took the public under his wing once again, along with other professionals from the Co-Design Group, as he led his collaborative design process and asked, “what would you like to be seeing or be doing in the 800-block of Robson and the VAG North Plaza?”
The people overwhelming responded with stimulating ideas while Stanley and his Co-Design group simply drew one’s ideas on drawing boards to help all of us visually imagine what the future of the 800-block of Robson and the VAG North Plaza would look like.
There are important things to learn from close engagement with Block 51 in the heart of Downtown Vancouver. For one, by contemplating the principles that can shape the legacy of change in a city ,we can all imagine a different kind of place in the future. Thus, a panel discussion was held to hear from some of the original designers who elaborated on Arthur Erickson’s original vision for Robson Square: Bing Thom, Alan Bell, and Nick Milkovich. Their reflectivity about the process that encouraged the development of Robson Square provided an encouraging foundation to think forwardly while we strive to transform and re-activate this square presently.
In order to make Robson Square happen now, Mr. Thom believes we have to solve ownership over land issues and understand our institutional constraints. Mr. Bell wants us to understand the direction of the city because it will frame the future possibilities of this space. Mr. Milkovich tells us that we need to ask questions, “If you want to know how to fill a place with life, ask the people who use it!”
This evening served to be an important reminder of what we can learn and achieve when we collaborate with one another from the past and from the present. Lets not forget that these ideas from small public engagements can have a big impact on the community large. After all, encouraging cooperation can stimulate ownership over public space of the 800-block of Robson and the VAG North Plaza, which, in the end, allows us to envision a fantastic downtown core.