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Olympic visitors crowd a re-vamped Robson Square.

Robson Square's Olympic draw re-ignites public space debate

When Arthur Erickson died last May, the beloved Vancouver architect’s landmark public plaza was under scaffolding, as it had been…

By Jessica Linzey , in Beyond Vancouverism: Urban design under shadows of glass and concrete , on March 11, 2010 Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Olympic visitors crowd a re-vamped Robson Square.

When Arthur Erickson died last May, the beloved Vancouver architect’s landmark public plaza was under scaffolding, as it had been for years. Like much of the city, Robson Square was getting its Olympics facelift.

And what a facelift it was.

People came in droves for the music and the fireworks, or a turn around the revamped ice rink. Many came simply take in the atmosphere.

It’s difficult to know what Erickson would have made of the attention the crush of visitors to Robson Square drew throughout the Games, but I suspect he’d have been pleased.

For nearly three weeks, the area – which includes the Vancouver Art Gallery at one end and the Provincial Law Courts at the other – heaved with unexpected civic gaiety, and 30 years after it was built, Robson Square finally came to life as the uncontested heart of the city.

The renewed attention was a reminder of what an extraordinary civic centre Erickson had designed, and reignited an ongoing debate about public space in Vancouver.

While our city has tremendous public space in its seawall, parks and beaches, there have been calls for a more traditional kind of gathering place – a grand public square of the sort found in most great cities around the world, but absent here in Vancouver.

The loudest call for such a place has come from the Vancouver Public Space Network, a collective of nearly 2,000 members that has been advocating on public space issues in and around the city since 2006.

One of VPSN’s most successful initiatives to date was last year’s ‘Where’s the Square?’ design competition. It asked Vancouverites to imagine a central square – a place, as the New York Times put it, “for citizens to turn inward and for visitors to feel they have arrived”. In the end, it drew a impressive 54 entrants, with the winners announced a week after Erickson’s death.

Hapa Collaborative makes its case for a central public square.

Interestingly, the People’s Choice Award went to the Hapa Collaborative, which offered what it called the Vancouver Carpet, a “refreshed civic square on the north courthouse plaza…and a restoration of the VAG and former courthouse…”.

In other words, Robson Square.

Hapa’s was a prescient presentation, recognizing Erickson’s vision as a sort of welcome mat, and questioning the wisdom of current plans to move the Art Gallery – a debate that reached a fevered pitch this week, according to The Globe and Mail.

It’s an important conversation we’re having, this one about the heart of our city, and it gets more interesting by the day.

And that may just be the best Olympics legacy we could hope for.

Photos courtesy of Flickr user 3dpete and the VPSN.