Vancouver, British Columbia
Photo Credit: City of Vancouver Archives
Initial Research by: Desiree Theriault
Continued Research by: Samantha Miller
Edited by: Nicole Brekelmans
Case study compiled in 2017
Project: Robson Square
Type of Urban Strategy: Smart Cities
Type of Project: Square / Plaza
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia
Date Designed/Planned: 1973
Construction Completed: 1979
Designer: Arthur Erickson & Cornelia Oberlander
Robson Square, designed by Arthur Erickson with landscape designed by Cornelia Oberlander in the 1970s, was a massive project to create a space solely for people to gather as a public urban space. Located in the heart of Downtown Vancouver, the designers wanted a revitalized public space in the area connecting the Provincial Law Courts, UBC Downtown campus, a major shopping district, and the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Since the revitalization project, Robson Square has been one of the best areas in the city to host free organized activities, group gatherings and a great place for students to gather. The designers were battling with the City of Vancouver in trying to make the space permanently closed to vehicular traffic to keep the area one hundred percent pedestrian-oriented, but now that it is entirely closed, it remains an excellent place for pedestrians to walk, sit, or cycle through.
Robson Square is a civic landmark and public plaza, located in Downtown Vancouver. Besides being a cultural focal point for public art and an ice skating rink, it is the site of the Provincial Law Courts, UBC Robson Square, government office buildings, and public space connecting to the Vancouver Art Gallery and the city’s major shopping precinct.
(Claire Vancouver, 2017)
From 2004 to 2011, the Province worked to revitalize and extend the life of Robson Square. The complex had begun showing signs of ageing and required exterior renewal. The Robson Square Renewal Project was a $41 million, multi-year project to ensure the vibrancy of the landmark space continues well into the future.
(“Robson Square - Ministry of Citizens,” 2017)
Located in the heart of downtown Vancouver, Robson Square is a provincial landmark that includes the Provincial Law Courts, UBC Robson Square, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Asia Pacific Centre. The facility is the Province’s most significant building with 1.2 million square feet extending over three city blocks. Renowned architect Arthur Erickson designed the internationally recognized facility.
(Claire Vancouver, 2017)
An important consideration was the positioning of the public places in relation to the rapid transit, this was where Erickson chose to place the sunken plaza. They also reoriented the Art Gallery away from Georgia Street for better access to intended rapid transit.
(Vancouver Heritage Foundation, n.d.)
PROJECT BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
Vancouver’s first outdoor public skating rink opened in Robson Square in 1982. From 2004 to 2011, the Province worked to revitalize and extend the life of Robson Square. The renewal project was a $40.9 million, multi-year project to ensure the vibrancy of the landmark space continues well into the future.
In 2010, Robson Square hosted the only free organized public activity in Vancouver on New Year’s Eve. More than 1,200 people came out to enjoy live music, skating and New Year’s countdowns. In May 2011, the Province received a prestigious award for Robson Square from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada for “enduring excellence in Canadian architecture” (Claire Vancouver, 2017).
Like many significant public spaces, the history of Robson Square’s origins adds to its physical and symbolic importance. The development of Robson Square dates back to 1973. At the onset, it was a three-block project initiated for the new provincial courthouse, government offices, and new home of the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was intended to create an integrated public complex, originally envisioned as a ‘park in the city’ and ‘oasis in the heart of downtown.’ In place of a conventional, extensive and formal civic open space, the original site was designed to create a wide variety of public spaces that would range in character from formal to casual and accommodate both passive and recreational activities. Designed by a team led by the legendary architect Arthur Erickson, Robson Square was completed between 1979 and 1983.
The physical space is inspired by Erickson’s trademark concrete modernist style but is softened by natural elements such as trees, plantings, and water features. In their 51-61-71 Project Report from March 1974, Erickson’s architectural team wrote, “In principle, the project is seen as a 3-dimensional park spine in the centre of the downtown peninsula.” The natural aspects and landscaping were designed by Cornelia Oberlander, an equally revered landscape architect. The open concept underlying Robson Square allows for natural light and fresh air to enter the site unobstructed. The waterfall feature importantly masks the noise of nearby downtown traffic. This blend of natural and hardscape materials effectively celebrates the Square’s urban surroundings, while providing a comfortable and enjoyable escape from the bustling city.
Despite several topographic variations, the site is made accessible by gradually inclining stairs with integrated ramps, or ‘stramps.’ While it is useful to examine how and why Robson Square took shape, it is equally telling to consider the vision of Robson Square that never came to pass; this alternative history demonstrates the politicized nature of the Square. When originally conceived, the new Law Courts building was intended as a 50-storey tower, which would have made it the tallest skyscraper in the city. However, the defeat of the W.A.C. Bennett government to the NDP-led Dave Barrett brought the swift demise of the tower, just as the first construction phase was set to begin. In 1973, Erickson’s team unveiled their revised plans, which effectively laid the high-rise on its side.
The more modest 7-storey structure housing 35 courtrooms was completed in 1980. In another event of unintended changes, Robson Street was reopened to bus traffic immediately after construction was complete. This occurred despite Erickson’s intention that 800-block Robson would function as a pedestrian-oriented public space, seamlessly connecting civic blocks 51 and 61. In the 1980s, the street was opened to all vehicle traffic, and connected to the broader downtown street network. 800-block Robson has functioned as such ever since. Robson Square officially opened to the public in 1978. However, it was not until 1983, when the Vancouver Art Gallery moved into to its current home in the former courthouse building, that Robson Square was considered complete.
Robson Square was ultimately intended to be a space for people with more undefined programmed elements; however, there are a few spaces that have allowed for specific functions.
-The public space, with unexpected pastoral and intimate areas, is interwoven throughout and heightened by its formal sunken plaza, designed for a variety of public amenities.
-The linkage of different buildings and spaces includes the UBC’s downtown campus, where they host educational programs, conferences and seminars.
-The sunken plaza is used in the winter as a skating rink, however, in the summer months it is a great theatre and activity environment because it is sheltered from the exterior elements
(Vancouver Heritage Foundation, n.d.)
GOAL OF THE PROJECT
The goals of the project were to:
-Convert the contemporary Law Courts building and the Edwardian Rattenbury Courthouse into the Vancouver Art Gallery.
-Anchor and balance the low-profile park-like complex at each end
-To embody a west coast sense of space and relationship.
-Link justice and art into a pedestrian space, over a nearly camouflaged government office building covered by a 280-foot-long pool, flowing down in three cascading waterfalls
-Combine the law courts, town hall and public park into one continuous spiral hybrid program
("ROBSON SQUARE,” 2017)
DESIGN, DEVELOPMENT, AND DECISION MAKING PROCESS
Erickson wanted to re-imagine the old courthouses as the home to the Vancouver Art Gallery, making the urban park a centre for the city. Given the orientation of the site to the rapid transit routes, an essential part of the design was the sunken plaza underneath Robson Street, to ensure accessible access to the rapid transit system. However, when the transit did not come to be, the sunken space was converted to an ice rink.
The design was intended to provide an “introspective view of the city,” as Erickson wanted the square to be Vancouver’s most significant public space. He intended for the three-block space to be closed to traffic, but after the opening in 1983, buses and eventually, vehicles were allowed to go through Robson Street, which severed the space in half and prioritized vehicle traffic over pedestrian enjoyment. In 2016, the Vancouver City Council voted to permanently close the section of Robson Street between Hornby and Howe to vehicles, allowing the public square to be one hundred percent pedestrian-oriented which is what Erickson had intended.
ROLE OF DESIGNERS
Erickson was the designer in charge of the architectural and urban design aspects of the park and its intentions. Cornelia Oberlander provided designs for lush landscaping where she emphasized the use of native species. Oberlander was also responsible for the idea of the cascading waterfalls which provide natural air, cooling, and noise reduction of downtown traffic. Oberlander was able to soften the aesthetic value of concrete with her landscaping.
(Vancouver Heritage Foundation, n.d.)
Robson Square was meant to be a space for the people; however, the lack of seating and lighting limits the number of people that gather in the space. The most use that the square gets is from cyclers and pedestrians walking through. The city was battling an issue of people stealing the moveable chairs and tables, so they are implementing permanent furniture and adding more landscaping and lighting. The site has been beneficial in special events, film sets, and it even has housed a giant Christmas Tree where people like to gather and take photos.
To bring more people to the square, the city approved the operation of food trucks in the space, that now draws thousands of people to the area. The addition of marijuana vendors has negatively affected the space. The square is vital to the City of Vancouver, explaining why they continue to battle issues and try to make the square a place for the people just as Erickson had intended.
(CBC News, 2018)
GENESIS OF THE PROJECT
The Robson Square complex was designed by internationally renowned architect Arthur Erickson in 1973 and incorporates UBC’s main downtown site, the Law Courts, government offices and the Vancouver Art Gallery. A visionary of his time, Erickson conceptualized Robson Square as a skyscraper laid on its side. It was a unique and provocative idea that provided 1.3 million square feet of floor space, encompassing three city blocks.
The full complex has many water pools with three cascading waterfalls flowing through a beautiful urban garden landscape, designed by award-winning Cornelia Oberlander, Landscape Architect. The public spaces and plaza winter ice rink have become a favourite for community gathering places. Robson Square is the recipient of the 2011 Prix du XXe Siecle Award for nationally significant architecture.