Tabula Rasa

by Zbigniew

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City of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Duke of Conn P25

“A remarkable historical photograph of the space at its height of public use shows Vancouver society out in full force to welcome a visit by Canada’s new governor general (HRH the Duke of Connaught) in 1912: the court house and surrounding buildings, including the old Hotel Vancouver, are decked out in flags, bunting and swags, people crowd at every opening, and the space itself is full of officials, soldiers, cadets and citizens in their best finery. The photo illustrates how this space once functioned as the city’s main public square. This kind of public assembly is almost inconceivable in this space today ….

“As part of the Robson Square conversion, the main entrance to the court house on the north side was permanently closed in favour of a new one facing Robson Street to the south, thereby radically distorting the square’s public function and downgrading it to a kind of backyard. The grand steps up to the former court house now lead to nowhere.”

Lance Berelowitz, Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination

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As public space goes, it lacks most of the aesthetically pleasing characteristics of its notable counterparts: a vehicle-free/socially-oriented perimeter, a coherent functionality, a pleasing building height to space width ratio, or a fine-grained connection to surrounding streets. The Piazza del Campo it isn’t.

More crucially, it even lacks a proper name, a defined identity. “The Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue and isn’t so much a title as a description of its location.

Originally the Courthouse Plaza, its official designation, long out of use, is Centennial Plaza, so-named in 1966 to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of that stirring event, the unification of the Vancouver Island and the Mainland colonies; the Centennial Fountain still marks the occasion and still does its best to impede public gatherings.

Shortcomings aside, it very much is a public space, the preferred venue for everything from Family Day programming, and City of Bhangra and Jazz Fest performances, to the Olympic Clock, an impromptu dance party during the 2011 Stanley Cup riot, and that noblest form of social expression: dissent, be it 420, Occupy Vancouver, or confrontations with reactionary civic officials.

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The City of Vancouver has presented proposals for a redesign of the plaza, all developed by Nick Milkovich Architects –whoever they are- together with consultants form other firms, and employing “public feedback from consultation sessions” –whatever that means to the current Council.

Do these proposals support or compromise a diversity of activities? Do they enable or constrain the expression of dissent? Let’s consider:

Option 1: “Wet”

Option 1

Option 1 would see the plaza dominated by a reflecting pool/water park. “To add another level of play and excitement (sic) to the feature – the design team imagines the inclusion of scattered misting spouts and small water jets ….” No doubt this design would appeal to law enforcement officials; who needs to employ water cannons when you can clear the area with a flip of a switch? As a venue promoting social activities, “Wet” is all wet.

Option 3: “Plalo Ring”

Option 3

Option 3 would see a multipurpose floating circular ring, supported on masts, and incorporating lighting and sound. While the ring would not constrain the range of use, it shouts ENTERTAINMENT of the increasingly annoying “Viva Vancouver” variety.

Option 2: “Active Edge”

Option 2

Option 2 demarcates the space through a cascading water feature on the Georgia Street side, but otherwise leaves the plaza free, a blank slate to be written by the public. Okay, but how about a podium or soapbox for the steps?

For what it’s worth, the City’s questionnaire on the proposals is open until October 22, 2013.