December 11, 2009

Underground Art

Given the less-than-inspiring designs of the Canada Line stations, here are some comparisons of stations elsewhere.

Munich’s Georg-brauchle ring station: 

Barcelona’s Drassane station:

Prague’s Flora station:

Shanghai’s Bund sightseeing tunnel:

And lots more here and here.  (Thanks to Michael Alexander.)

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Here’s what New Yorker architectural critic Paul Goldberger listed as No. 2 in his summary of the Ten Most Positive Architectural Events of 2009:

  • 2009 really was a good year for public space in New York, since it also brought the conversion of Broadway in midtown into a pedestrian mall, thanks to the city’s extraordinary transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Kahn, who seems able to accomplish in a brief time what has frustrated others for a generation.
  • The key here wasn’t just closing a portion of Broadway, it was in recasting the entire street before the closure for a mix of cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, phasing out the cars block by block. New York may yet become a bicycle-friendly city.

    One of our most popular (and positive) lectures in the “Shifting Gears” series on transportation was Janette Sadik-Kahn’s presention.  In this video of her lecture last October 19, find out how she transformed New York.

    UPDATE: More on New York’s public spaces in Lisa Rochon’s column in the Globe and Mail.

    The pedestrianization of Broadway at Times Square is part of a massive initiative that has affected 50 acres throughout New York City. Janette Sadik-Khan, appointed NYC’s Commissioner of the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2007, is driving the change hard and fast to satisfy Bloomberg’s mission to dramatically reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

    “I’ve been a New Yorker for more than 30 years and there’s nothing more satisfying than contributing to a better city,” she says, during our meeting at her Lower Manhattan office. That’s an interesting piece of motherhood, but here’s what else she says that actually astounds me: “Eight-five per cent of the public space in New York is taken up by roads. Roads are our most valuable space.”

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    December 8, 2009

    Toronto is doing something that I argued for, with little effect, when on Council: a tax on billboards.  From the Globe:

    After days of heated debate, city council passed a sweeping new bylaw regulating billboards Monday, accompanied by a per sign tax expected to bring in close to $11-million once it’s fully implemented.

    The new rules will restrict the required distance between billboards, as well as the type of electronic or animated signs permitted in certain parts of the city. …

    The changes are a victory for community organizations that have lobbied for a billboard tax for years, arguing that those profiting off the city’s public space should give a little back. Their original desire to have the money earmarked for public art has been postponed until the city hashes out its budget in the coming months. Several councillors suggested dedicating several million dollars to public art initiatives while the city is struggling to deal with a $500-million budgetary hole wouldn’t be wise.

    But Devon Ostrom, head of Beautiful City – one of the groups leading the billboard tax push – is confident the budget committee will come around.

    “We’re one step towards to having arts properly funded in this city and we are a huge leap forward in proper enforcement of the city’s bylaws,” he said.

    “Overall it’s a huge, thunderous victory for people who want to see a great city.  …”

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    Woodward’s is big, it’s complex.  No doubt, it’s transformative.

    First impression: 3 pm, Saturday December 5 – in the atrium.

    It was a wow moment – two basketball players shooting hoops on a circluar court in the centre of this soaring space.  On either side, London Drugs and Nesters.  Above, artist Stan Douglas’s depiction of the Gastown Riot of 1971 – a giant photo on glass, staged but seemingly real, that is lit in the same way as the atrium.  It extends the space, and sets the mood.

    The Woodward’s development will (no, is) transforming the Downtown East Side.  The change is already being felt, even if the physical transformation of the adjacent blocks is only just beginning.  To stand at the southwest corner of Abbott and Hastings – one of the most intimidating corners in the city, a major drug exchange – and look across to the newly opened London Drugs still comes as a shock.   How did this happen?

    Woodward’s is a classic NIC – an example of the “Nixon in China” phenomenon, where the person or political party least expected to be an agent of change is the only one that can pull it off. 

    Imagine if this program for Woodward’s had been promoted by the NPA  rather than COPE – specifically Jim Green.  Not much of an exaggeration to say there would have been blood in the streets, as those fighting gentrification in the Downtown East Side would have mounted a major campaign to stop it.  And yet, because the civic Left could not be outflanked, because of the skill with which Green pursued his agenda and because of the effectiveness of the public process, the project is largely being embraced as a benefit to the community in which it was once an anchor, and may become so again.

    But this is just the beginning.  Across Hastings, the blank-eyed storefronts are starting to awake.  By the Olympics, this block will look and feel so different, it may well be the story conveyed to the rest of the world – not the indictment of neglect that some were expecting, and even counting on.

    UPDATE: Just ran into Mark Townsend of the Portland Hotel Society in the atrium (and isn’t that the point: just running into people.)  PHS will be handling the security for this public space – a smart idea, given the diversity of the community being served. 

    As he pointed out, the atrium has been designed to facilitate (if not require) everyone using all the different components of Woodward’s to flow through this space.  Whether you’re a student in SFU Contemporary Arts, a shopper, a banker, a theare-goer, a condo owner, a low-income tenant, a family, a basketball player, a member of an NGO, or just someone taking a shortcut, the atrium welcomes you.   (And Mark was in the process of making sure there would be a storefront for a service agency too, in addition to all the other uses.)

    Construction hasn’t even finished yet, and it’s clear that the Woodward’s Atrium has the potential to be one of Vancouver’s most diverse and stimulating spaces.

    UPDATE: I’ve been trying to figure out what the Woodward’s Atrium reminds me of.  I thought, first, that it resembled the central court of some 1970s community college back east, a place where they build enclosed urban rooms to deal with the winter, where the materials are strong and basic – brick, concrete, tile. 

    And then it struck me: it’s more like a downtown Montreal Metro stop, where the underground city comes to the surface and the towers rise above, where retail stores have their primary entrances on the inside, not on the street, and where these atriums serve as performance and exhibition spaces. 

    This is not a criticism, even though Vancouver weather doesn’t require enclosed malls – and we’ve not been particularly successful at creating them (see Pacific, Royal and Scotia Centres).  For the reasons mentioned above, I think this will still be a very successful space, particularly when it’s used for performances (which is what the bastketball court spontaneously allows for).  But there is a bit too much of the blank brick wall to my taste, particularly in the breezeway to Cordova Street.  A fine opportunity for some more public art,

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    Mike Klassen, the acerbic blogger at, was invited out to Surrey last week to speak at a public meeting on the future of a community known as St. Helen’s Park .  ( He blogged on the subject here, also providing a link to the grassroots community group looking to resist larger ‘megahomes’ – 

    Before he went, Mike did a little tour on Google using Streetview to get a sense of the community.  He also created a rather brilliant little slideshow using images from the streets.

    Mike lives in a classic streetcar neighbourhood off Fraser Street on the East Side of Vancouver, and is an articulate fan of the kind of intermediate urbanism that so characterized the development of this city before Motordom took over.

    St. Helen’s Park, on the other hand, is a classic 50’s subdivision of the kind that pioneered post-war sprawl south of the Fraser.  

    As I traveled around SHP the first thing I noted was there are no sidewalks. Most of Surrey’s older residential communities don’t have them. Cars were always present and gas was cheap, after all. Who needed to walk? Fortunately, city planners today are making walking more of a priority.

    There were many other things that struck me.

    • Everything was low, low density. One storey homes + basement. Probably few, or no suites;
    • Local shopping was practically non-existent;
    • Homes were set so far back from the street that visibility was a problem, which invites crime;
    • Streets were tidy, but dull. Little effort was made to improve the curb appeal of streets;
    • There are no curbs at all;
    • Apartment buildings on the outer edge of the community were old and tiny in comparison to the lot sizes;
    • Streets were narrow and dangerous for walking – I bet most kids around here either drive or bus to school;
    • There are no parks or public space inside of SHP’s boundaries.

    Not a bad summary of the challenges facing these aging suburbs.  But what Mike found out, of course, was that the people who live there, aging in place, rather like it that way.  Sidewalks?  No thanks.

    Mike (and the leaders of St. Helen’s Park) might want to pick up the Summer-Fall issue of spacing magazine out of Toronto that consistently wins awards for its coverage of the urban landscape.  This issue is devoted to “The Return of Suburbia” – and while regrettably the stories are not on line, it’s worth finding a copy to read Dylan Reid’s piece on “Suburban Evolution.” 

    In it, he discusses the character of the inner suburbs of Toronto which, having lost of the bloom of youth, are confronting distinctly urban issues.  But thanks to the strong planning of past Metro governments, he argues, they are twice as dense as the newer outer suburbs and can build on the fabric of towers and transit to evolve into something more urban.  Unfortunately, this is not going to be sufficient for the later suburbs, often described as the ‘905 Belt.’

    “Much of the inner suburbs, and most of the outer suburbs, are made up of  low-density housing subdivisions with indirect, dead-end road patterns deliberately designed to not connect well with neighbouring arterial roads.  They can’t become traditionally urban …”

    Fortunately, Dylan has a suggestion:

    … a first step is to make subdivisions more walkable.  But the obvious solutuion, to put in sidewalks where they are missing, gets a lot of resistance.  When I’ve talked to people who live on these kinds of streets, they’ve told me they don’t want sidewalks because the street feels shared at the moment, a sheltered space where people can walk, kids can bike, and drivers are aware of them.

    Rather than putting in sidewalks, such streets could build on this sentiment by being formalized as “shared streets” … 

    The basic steps for creating residential shared streets are simple: narrow the entry points and sign them so that cars know they are in a special zone, and implement a super-slow speed limit (20 kilometres an hour)…  A Canadian twist could be to specifically allow street hockey to be played at all times of the day,

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    Here’s a review of Robson Square by Jake Tobin Garrett in Beyond Robson –  a byline I’ve not seen before. 

    Yesterday, I went back to Robson Square to check out the first phase of its reopening–the underground ice rink, which hasn’t been there for many years.

    It was an Olympic dreamworld down there, with LED lights in our official pastel green and blue colours, a jazz band performing at one end, and the Olympic logo plastered around competing for space with the large GE logos stamped onto the surface of the ice and set to remain for a few months (it is the GE plaza after all).

    It was the first time I had seen people taking the time to come off the consumer flow of Robson to walk down the stairs and check out what was happening beneath the street.

    Could this be the rebirth of our public square?

    More here.

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    November 2, 2009

    Just got an IPhone.   And quickly realized that it is not in fact a phone.  It is a computer that occasionally makes phone calls.    

    Best thing so far: Maps, and that clever little blue ball that tells you where you are.  My phone, you see, is a GPS unit.   With a few clicks, I can put in a destination and determine the best route to get there.

    Here’s the brilliant part: I can, by pressing a bus logo, find out when the next bus is coming, where to catch it and how long the trip will take.   This puts transit in a competitive position with all other forms of transportation.  This tells me what I need to know, when I need to know it, wherever I am.

    This is spectacularly wonderful. 

    I will, henceforth, try not to be so geeky.  And will turn over the rest of this post to Andrew Blum, New York writer, who went through similar transports with his phone but came up with a something far more insightful, as he wrote in this piece for Wired UK:

    The bandwidth of urban experience has increased. The ancient ways are still there: the way a place looks, the neighbours we wave at and the hands we shake. But now, there is an electronic conversation overlaid on top of all that: tweets and status updates, neighbourhood online message boards, detailed mobile electronic maps, and nascent applications that broadcast your location to your friends. This is far more interesting than what we were promised a decade ago: the proverbial coupon blinking on your mobile as you walk past Starbucks. (I have yet to experience this.)

    Anthony Townsend, an urban planner and forecaster at Silicon Valley’s Institute for the Future, calls this phenomenon “blended urban reality”. It is neither cyberspace nor an urban landscape blanketed with blinking television screens, but the regular old city, albeit socially fused with real-time electronic interactions. And it goes way beyond maps provided by satnavs. The new iPhone, for example, with its GPS and compass, tells you not only where you are but which way you’re facing, thereby taking us a step closer to a real-time overlay of information.

    But here’s the fascinating thing: Townsend sees it as no accident that this is happening concurrently with the rise of megacities. “It makes them manageable,” he says. “Cities may be much bigger, but the social graph is the same size.”

    More here.

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    Green Street Vancouver has just come out.

    It’s a beautiful book, mostly photographs, commissioned by the City of Vancouver to give away.  It’s easily read – 75 pages, with only the occasional page of text to interrupt the flow of images, mainly flowers, grown by volunteers who plant and maintain the boulevards, traffic circles and corner bulges – over 300 in all. 

    St. George and Fifth

    Concentrated in the streetcar suburbs – Mt. Pleasant, Fairview Heights, Kits, Dunbar – where traffic calming led the way, and where people then adopted the dirt.

    There are perhaps too many pictures of flowers in this book and not enough of people, or of the streets on which the flowers bloom.  The book is perfect for guests of the city, easily skimmed in a few minutes, with the message implied, but clear.  Where gardens bloom, so does community.

    The City’s Green Streets home page is here.    And pics of the gardens are here.  But no mention of the book Green Streets Vancouver or where to get it.  I don’t know; I got it as a gift.

    Yukon and 15th

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    In all the coverage of the Olympic transportation plan, there was an interesting omission: no mention of the removal of the temporary bike lane on the Burrard Bridge.

    When the trial was announced, the city’s engineer had affirmed that the Jersey barriers would have to go prior to the Games.   Without announcement, apparently the lane is staying.

    There’s a lesson here.

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    A wrap-up of the sculpture and installations seen on the ‘Bikennale’ – a two-wheeled tour of the Vancouver Biennale.

    To start: The Stop

    Michael Zheng’s installation, located in Charleson Park along False Creek, has already started a controversy – mainly because of its location.  More here.

    Over at Pacific Central Station, a perfectly located piece – Barbora – by Lithuanian artist Vladas Vildžiunas.  Looking east, framed by the neo-classical portico of the station; looking west, framed by the trees of Thornton Park.

     Along the seawall at Sunset Beach, in among the logs, there is 217.5 X 13 by Bernar Venet. 

    At the triangle of green where Davie meets Denman, Yue Minjun’s hugely popular A-Mazing Laughter:

    “Yue Minjun was a leading figure in what became to be known in the 1990’s as Cynical Realism, an artistic movement that emerged in China after the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen and the suppression of artistic expression.  Humor, cynicism, repetition and an emphasis on the individual are common characteristics of this artistic movement.”  More here.

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