Architecture
September 30, 2009

Unconventional spaces

More public art at the Convention Centre. Jill Anholt’s “Line of Work”, unveiled on September 25, was described here in an article by Kevin Griffin in The Sun.

It’s an exceptionally graceful work, commissioned by Worksafe BC and dedicated to  workers and “workplace safety” – which seems rather stern for such an elegant intervention on the west side of the convention centre. 

The ramps leading from Coal Harbour to Canada Place Way have truly created a successful public place –  green roof, stunning views, seamless connections. 

Oh wait, that’s not true: the bikeway and ped path don’t connect at all to the Coal Harbour seawall.   There’s a floatplane terminal in the way:

Yes, I know it’s only there temporarily and that it’s supposed to move to the north end of the concention-centre pier.  But as far as I know there’s no deadline and there’s some dispute over who pays for what.  So it stays.

Please, tear down those walls.

To the east, there’s another dynamic public place, the result of the Canada Place Way extension and a new connection between the convention centres.  

The widened sidewalks, the expressive street furniture and lighting, the slight elevation – altogether a dramatic composition.  Throw in a cruise ship and the result can be breath-taking.

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I first posted on the new park at Nelson and Mainland in April, 2007 – here –  just after it was finished construction.

Lots of comments.  Ron Chin even pulled out the City’s staff report with the park’s design program:

The centre portion of the park is a softly undulating carpet of granite setts, studded with curving pieces of old granite curbs for informal seating under a canopy of ornamental flowering trees. More formal seating is incorporated on all four sides. Artful and subtle lighting will keep the park welcoming and safe after sunset.

The park is rooted in a tradition of small urban spaces that are designed and constructed with the highest quality of materials; it will be a precious little space that is attractive for a sunny lunch break, for a cup of coffee, or for meeting up with a group of friends.

Okaaay.  There’s the test: a precious little space on a sunny day. Well, it was a sunny day on this walking tour.  What’s up at the park?

Not, as it happened, much.

Even in the shade, next to the planters, not a soul:

It’s true there were some people, clustered on the dock next to Starbucks, or taking advantage of the WiFi:

And perhaps the park will seem more inviting as the trees mature.  The louvres next to Nelson are already more attractive:

But on the whole, not what I would consider a successful public space, not for the cost.

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Continuing on the tour, walking east on Nelson into Downtown South.  Almost all the blocks have filled in now, and it all happened in less than two decades.   A few glimpses of the past remain.

 

Astonishing that the Penthouse survives, with its storied history and painted sign, as dated as top hats and white gloves.

Across the street, something slightly different from the usual Downtown South podium of townhouses and stoops.

Level offers what looks to be commercial space above the storefronts.  And another sign of the times: furnished rental apartments, perhaps a temporary use until the condo market revives but also a helpful part of the mix in what is really Vancouver’s new West End – a neighbourhood that accommodates people in transition.  Newly arrived, newly divorced, just passing through or waiting for circumstances to change.  We’ve all been there at one time another.

What helps make such a hard-edged district a littler softer are the street trees, some of which are now the oldest things on the block.  And the landscaping that creates corridors of green for  pedestrians: columns of trees on both sides, with a canopy above, and a rich carpeting of textured plants below.

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Continuing on the tour, now at the 800-block Granville:

A few more weeks, and Granville will be up and running.  But you’ll never see it like this again – before the lamp standards, trolley poles and trees go in.  Remember, it used to look like this:

And now it looks more like the time when Herzog captured it, in the 1950s.  I often wonder why people say that Vancouver has lost its past, having demolished so much, when in truth so much has stayed the same.  Like the Commodore:

My memory of this fabulous dance hall and music venue was the Empress’s Balls of the late 1970s.   So yes, the music changes, but the sprung dance floor goes on to the beat of another generation. 

Like this guy on the right.  I think he captures the style of the moment – white shirt, vest, black jeans,  with a rugged and stylish courier backpack, artfully slung over his back with accompanying helmet, as he texts into his 3G phone.

Will he and his friends make Granville Mall the place to be, to achieve what two generations of planners haven’t yet been able to pull off?  Will a tamed Entertainment District and Allan Jacob’s modifed design for our Great White Way transform this complicated avenue?

Don’t know yet.  Because no matter what the changes to the street itself, one things stays the same: the awful bridge at the southern end, an eight-lane overpass that cuts off the street from the water and takes away any reason to walk down that way.

So many attempts have failed to bring back Granville, for so many reasons.  A mall that isn’t one thing or another, the undergrounding of Pacific Centre, the blank wall of the Urinal, unrealistic expectations and fractured property ownership, the reputation and social conditions.  But we’ve added another 20,000 or so people on either side.  One way or the other, Granville will reinvent itself.  And this time, we may be surprised.

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Andrew Pask of the Vancouver Public Space Network writes:

I’m currently working on a story for the Vancouver Public Space Network’s bi-monthly publication.  The subject is “Vancouverism” – a key term from the city’s urban design lexicon.  

Although there are already ‘formal’ definitions in place – not to mention a Wikipedia entry, we’d like to see if we can expand this a little bit.  What does Vancouverism mean to you?  What is meant by this transformation  of our city into a descriptor like this?  What should the definition of Vancouverism” include?  What, if anything, is in danger of being overlooked or overemphasized?

Here’s what I contributed:

Vancouverism evolved from necessity: the need to make density livable, and to provide transportation choices once it was clear the city would not accommodate ‘Motordom’ – the auto-dominant urban planning that characterized most of the 20th century. 

Vancouverism took the constraints and advantages of our geography, which on one hand constrained us and, on the other, offered abundant access to the waterfront, and then added a very high quality of urban design.  (Not the same thing as great architecture.  The repeated use of generic forms such as the point-and-podium tower creates a certain sameness in the city.) 

We went up rather than out; we mixed uses rather than separated functions; we priorized pedestrians, cyclists and transit users; we required growth to help pay for growth; and we took advantage of the amenities and the views that added value to both real estate and public space.  It is this blend of livable density and high-quality public space that makes Vancouver and its ‘ism’ so remarkable.

Our geography may have set the stage.  But the actors still needed direction – and we were fortunate to have a generation of leaders and designers who made mostly right choices.

Now, just a hunch that some PT readers may take issue with some or all of the above.  But better yet, why not contribute directly to the VPSN’s definition.  Send your comments to Andrew at info@vancouverpublicspace.ca

He’ll publish the best of the responses in the next newsletter.  But he needs comments in by Friday, September 4.

Submit away!

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Well, it’s my favourite.  And it’s a hundred years old.

Forest Hills Gardens bought the garden city movement to America.  Designed by Grosvenor Attenbury in 1909 for the Russell Sage Foundation, it was intended to be a demonstration project for the latest ideas in town planning, housing, open space and building construction. 

Originally targeted to a mix of incomes, including middle- and lower-income residents, it was done so well that today it has some of the most expensive housing in Queens (a borough of New York City) – even for pre-fab apartments.  Sitting aside the Long Island Railway, it was truly a ‘transit-oriented development.’

I was first enchanted by its design – a medieval, Germanic, arts-and-crafts mix set in a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.  What I didn’t know was how extraordinary the construction techniques were – something well told in the Slate slide essay by Witold Rybczynski here.

An extraordinary achievement that regrettably did not become a model, as intended by its sponsor, for the American suburb – save for the very rich.

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I spent last weekend in Leavenworth.  No, not the prison; that’s in Kansas.  This is Leavenworth, Washington – the  mock Bavarian town.

And yes, it’s easy to mock Leavenworth.  It is very faux Bavarian indeed:

Originally a railroad and timber town, Leavenworth chose to go German in 1962 as an economic strategy.  It worked, even if on a summer’s day the primary economic activity looks to be the consumption of ice cream.

But there’s something about Leavenworth that satisfies, that makes it successful for the tourists it attacts.   And why is that? 

Because it’s an urban experience.  Because it meets David Sucher’s three rules:

(1)  Build to the sidewalk property line.

(2) Make the building front ‘permeable’ – no blank walls.

(3) Prohibit parking lots in front of the building.

The sidewalks may be skimpy, but the crowding adds to the effect, rather like Robson Street.  And the over-exuberant decoration constantly stimulates, with never a blank wall or parking lot to dilute the energy.  It goes on for about four shaded blocks – the right length for an urban village, similar (not coincidentally) to the length of a shopping mall.

And one thing more.  Leavenworth has the right combination of highway and commercial streets close by and in parallel – a model that works around the world.  I explored this phenomenon in Price Tags 102, comparing our version (Georgia/Robson) with Paris’s (Champs Elysees / Rue du Faubourg St. Honore):

In the case of Leavenworth, the traffic pours by on Highway 2 (solid red), capturing glimpses of the three-storey streetwall on Front Street (dotted line)  in all its kitschy glory. 

How could you not be curious and want to pull off? – which is easy enough to do at the intersections.

Front Street is narrow enough, with angled parking to slow down the traffic, breaking down the constraints of Motordom.  Here, people jaywalk.

Add in the oom-pah band, the crafts market, the unique boutiques, the flowers, the treed parks and the ice cream – altogether not a bad if totally incongruous experience on the far side of the Cascades.

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Bravo, Roger Bayley!

Roger (principal of Roger Bayley Inc.) is an engineer who works with Merrick Architecture on the Olympic Village project.  He is also the spirit behind the Challenge Series – a work in progress that will ultimately tell the story behind and about South East False Creek.  

The Olympic Village, of course, is still to be finished, as is this story.  And it’s been caught up in the political turbulence and financial volatility of our times.  Nonetheless, to a great extent it will be the project that determines how the world sees us in the coming year – a part of the progressive development of False Creek that is indistinguishable from the story of Vancouver itself.

It is also a project of extraordinary aspirations, not always achieved, intended to provide a model of sustainability that can address the great challenge of our time.  Hence, I think, the title. 

The Challenge Series will ultimately be an eight-part series, published in both web format and print, by a team led by Roger and funded by some of the key players in the development of this city.  He has also called upon those involved in the history of South East False Creek (including myself)  and, most importantly, those engaged in the creative process whose decisions are shaping the reality we see emerging on its shores to tell their own stories.  The result is an extraordinary level of detail, effectively illustrated, that should intrigue both professionals and the general public.

Today, the third chapter arrived – Public Space + Infrastructure.

We explore the question of place and its particular relevance in building sustainable communities. From questions of heritage to solutions coupling stormwater management with play space, from the way the land is treated to the way people interact, this chapter brings forward stories about public areas, infrastructure and heritage. We learn of the phenomenal effort required to ensure the new community’s environmental integrity by cleaning up the toxic residue of its past.

We have lost the opportunity to tell much of what has already happened in our city; so many great figures – Walter Hardwick, Doug Sutcliffe – who were instrumental in creating the South Shore of False Creek, for instance, are gone.  Much of the documentation was never saved.  Memories fade.  The stories of who we are and what we built are eventually lost.

Not, thanks to the Challenge Series, in this case.

UPDATE: Brent Toderian has just done a summary of the Olympic Village’s lessons and learnings.  Vancouver’s Director of Planning wrote this piece for his blog on Planetizen.

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As unreal as Whistler Village can sometimes seem (and isn’t that the point of a resort environment?), there are some valuable urban-design lessons to be learned.  Indeed, Whistler is a carefully considered construct by Eldon Beck, the California landscape architect who in 1978 did the inspired lay-out of the village when it was still a garbage dump at the end of a gravel road.

Beck took the original design – a typical urban grid with major arterials and large parking lots on either side of the retail zone – and, using his knowledge of successful European ski resorts, created a series of linked pedestrian spaces oriented to mountain views.  And, of course, key to the success of this dense urban environment, all the parking was put underground.

One of the most successful spaces is the Village Square, meant to be the place for major gatherings and impromptu meetings.  And it works.  I often wondered why it felt so comfortable – an ideal urban room – and so, thanks to Google Earth, was able to measure its diameter to the metre.

And it’s not the only 50-metre plaza:

Having heard that Beck had personally measured the great piazzas and squares of Europe, I wondered whether 50 metres was all that common.   Back to Google Earth for a quick tour of the continent.

Rome:

Munich:

Paris:

I thought I ‘d check out a space closer to home – perhaps the best urban square in North America, Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square.  Even though the square fills in one of the city’s famous 200-foot-square blocks, the actual space used for performance and display occupies just over 50 metres on the diagonal.

So what’s so special about 50 metres, plus or minus a metre or so?  Obviously, it creates a comfortable sense of enclosure, while both working at the individual scale and still accommodating large crowds. 

It’s urban design scaled for the pedestrian, before the 20th-century commitment to Motordom: urban design scaled for the movement and parking of cars.  As Whistler also demonstrates at the Marketplace:

More 50-metre models welcome….

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