Posted by: Andrew Pask | March 5, 2011

Bing Thom’s big dig: reimagining Centennial Square

Bing Thom - VAG Concept

Underground performance space at Centennial Square – Concept by Bing Thom

You may have read about architect Bing Thom’s proposal for an underground performance space at the north end of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The idea was announced at a press conference on Friday and comes on the heels of Thom’s earlier commentary on the wisdom of the Art Gallery moving from its present location.

(To recap: Thom has opposed the VAG move because he feels that the Gallery’s current site is the best one for the city’s preeminent cultural institution, and that the Georgia Street location could be expanded to accomodate the need for additional space – something VAG staff say they’ve ruled out. Additionally, Thom isn’t keen on the move because it comes hand-in-hand with a call for a new, purpose-built, piece of iconic architecture… something he feels is out of synch with Vancouver’s architectural sensibilities).

Whether or not the performance space idea gets traction remains to be seen. But the concept is interesting — and would certainly help to energize a space that is currently under-utilized and in need of some vitality.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, the square at the north end of what was then the Court House (officially “Centennial Square” since 1967), was an important gathering space in Vancouver.  Pictures from the era show a neatly manicured landscape, with gently curving pathways… leading to a civic building with a front door that opened and closed.

Court House -  Add MSS 54 by ME Charleston Sept 18 1912

Welcoming the Duke of Connaught to the Court House Grounds – Sept 18, 1912 (CVA)

Much like the south side is now – with the sunny steps facing Robson Street – the north end was also a space for political activity. In the 1940’s there were some particularly controversial protests by the pacifist, communitarian-minded Doukhobors that involved members of the community disrobing en-masse on the steps of the Courthouse.

doukhobors kneeling at courthouse - 1944 - CVA 1184-479

Doukhobors kneeling with their heads down in front of the Courthouse] – May 1944 – CVA 1184-479

Over the years though, successive changes to the surrounding architecture, an increase in autuomotive traffic on Georgia, and various reconfigurations of the landscape itself (including the installation of the Centennial fountain) have led to a space that is lacking the dynamism and energy that it ought to have. The development of Robson Square during the Barrett administration, and the subsequent transformation of the Courthouse into the Art Gallery resulted in further changes. The front doors closed (to protect the art), and additional energy was focused on the south side of the complex.

To be sure, things still happen in the space – including the monthly kick-off of Critical Mass, the annual National Aboriginal Day celebrations, and a semi-regular pot-rally. But it is not an area that readily encourages gathering of its own accord.

Which brings us back to Thom’s proposal. Having worked with the VPSN to complete the Where’s the Square? competition a few years ago, it’s clear that there’s a lot of interest in seeing this space (as well as the whole Robson Square component) energized and redesigned. Perhaps this is the sort of proposal that might help to move this forward. Certainly we were presented with a number during the competition — including one by Hapa Collaborative that ended up as one of two People’s Choice winners.

031 Vancouver Carpet

Vancouver Red Carpet – Hapa Collaborative – Where’s the Square Competition

Of course, just as the Art Gallery’s move suggests big questions – cost, priority, need – so too does Thom’s. But the beauty of his concept – which he produced and tested because he liked the idea – is that it’s a visionary approach to dealing with an important space. As such, it will only serve to enrich the disussion about ‘the Vancouver we want.’

Inside the VAG, the WE:Vancouver installation “examines Vancouver through the extraordinary range of practices, actions and ideas that shape and activate it.” It continues until May 1, 2011.

Meanwhile, outside that closed front door and in earshot the spashing fountain, ideas for a different city are swirling just beneath our feet.


  1. […] attentions have been mainly focused on the closure of the 800-block of Robson, we’re also deeply interested in the future of the north end of the gallery.  Both sites have played an extraordinary role in the city’s public life and we’re excited to […]

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