A Skyscraper Tipped on Its Side
W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit provincial government wanted to build B.C.’s tallest building at this site. The proposed “British Columbia Centre” would have included a fifty-five storey (208-metre) office tower, which would have dominated the downtown skyline and demolished the current Vancouver Art Gallery. When Bennett lost to the New Democrats in 1972, the plan was scrapped in response to fears about the dark shadow the building would cast, and a new design was commissioned. World-renowned architect Arthur Erickson was brought in as the new designer and he subverted the form by tipping the proposed B.C. Centre on its side. According to his biographer, “Arthur came in and said ‘This won’t be a corporate monument. Let’s turn it on its side and let people walk all over it.’ And he anchored it in such a way with the courts — the law — at one end and the museum — the arts — at the other. The foundations of society. And underneath it all, the government offices quietly supporting their people. It’s almost a spiritual progression.”
What was Erickson’s vision?
Erickson’s new scheme encompassing three city blocks of space for government offices and the new courthouse was completed between 1979 and 1983. The distinctive design featured a glass canopy of almost an acre in size covering the lobby and concourse of the courthouse. Seen as an urban park for the centre of the city, Erickson’s design re-imagined the old courthouse as the home to the Vancouver Art Gallery. An integral part of the scheme was the sunken plaza under Robson Street which was to serve as the access to the rapid transit system – this explains the reorientation of the Art Gallery away from Georgia Street. When transit didn’t materialize, the space was converted into an ice rink.
Erickson wanted Robson Square to become Vancouver’s largest public space and its design was intended to offer “an introspective view of the city.” He also planned for the entire three-block area to be closed to traffic. However, shortly after it opened in 1983, buses, and eventually passenger and commercial vehicles were allowed to run on Robson street. “The street severed the idea of Arthur’s central public space in half, prioritizing motorized movement through the square over place-making for people,” says Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former chief planner. In 2016, Vancouver City Council voted to permanently close the section of Robson Street between Hornby and Howe to vehicles, creating the public square in the heart of the city that Erickson originally intended.
Typical of Erickson’s designs, Robson Square is built primarily out of concrete, but softened by its environmental design. The lush landscaping by Cornelia Oberlander emphasized native species and the three cascading waterfalls throughout the complex provide natural air conditioning and mask the noise of downtown traffic. The complex has received several design awards. In 2011 the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) awarded it the Prix du XXe siècle Award, describing the concept of a “linear urban park, importing nature into the city”, as “a bold, contemplative work of urban design.”
What’s happening at Robson Square Today?
In addition to linking the Provincial Law Courts and the Vancouver Art Gallery, Robson Square includes UBC’s downtown campus which hosts educational programs, conferences and public seminars. During the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, the space was a gathering place for free entertainment and celebrations, hosting the international media centre and a zip line. The sunken plaza has become a hub for Vancouver’s street dance community due to its proximity to rapid transit and free, reflective, sheltered zones which protect dancers from the elements. “Even if you’re not a dancer, it’s amazing to just sit on the steps and see the conglomeration of different dances and artists in that space, each invested in their craft,” says street and contemporary dancer Antonio Somera. The Square provides the only public outdoor skating rink in Vancouver, which is free to use. In the summer months, the square hosts salsa dancing, festivals and even the occasional pop-up wedding.
John Robson – Robsonstrasse- Robson Street
Robson Street was named after John Robson who was the Premier of B.C. from 1889-1892. It began its commercial history early on with retail shops and restaurants. It also became known as Robsonstrasse which was “a reflection of the European shopkeepers who operated the many small delicatessens, patisseries, and chic boutiques that populated the street.” (Robson Street Business Association). Take a look at the heritage buildings around the old Court House and what Robson Street used to look like.
- Canadian Architect. “Robson Square.” May 1, 2011.
- B.C. Government Website. “Robson Square.”
- Harold Kalman and Robin Ward. “Robson Square,” in Exploring Vancouver: The Architectural Guide. Douglas & McIntyre, 2012: pp. 154-155
Nearby Places That Matter
On June 20th, 2014, we presented Robson Square with 2 plaques and stands sponsored by the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services. See photos.