Opinion: New Vancouver Art Gallery plaza design creates event-friendly space
In just nine days time, the controversial yet boisterous 4/20 event is set to return to downtown Vancouver, but for the first time in nearly 20 years it will not be held at the North Plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery city block on West Georgia Street.
This year’s cacophony has been moved south to Sunset Beach in the West End over capacity and crowd control issues. It blossomed from a 7,000-person event in 2007 to 30,000 people in 2015, with dense crowds spilling out of the plaza and shutting down key arterial roads of Georgia, Howe, and Hornby streets during the late-afternoon/evening rush hour.
Major events are rarely held in downtown Vancouver streets during the weekday peak periods, but that was the case with 4/20 last year, forcing traffic in downtown to come to a standstill.
The City of Vancouver’s new chosen design for the plaza seemingly aims to prevent this from happening. Supplementary artistic renderings provide a better look at what the chosen design for the new North Plaza on West Georgia Street at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The European, piazza-like open space design was made public last fall by the municipal government for the development application’s public consultation phase.
The designers have listed “edge enclosure” as one of the key design principles, which is reflected by the master plan’s positioning of trees, large wooden benches, and a pavilion structure along the space’s roadway perimeters.
Of course, these design elements more importantly serve to enhance the usage of the space and attract pedestrians year-round.
The large fountain at the centre of the plaza will also be removed and the entire space will be flattened and covered with a pattern of custom precast pavers, including granite, to provide the plaza with the appearance of a web of trapezoids.
Bark mulch that covers much of the plaza today will be a thing of the past as a durable hard surface is needed to withstand heavy foot traffic and event staging and equipment. Another grass surface would quickly turn into a mud pit.
The areas next to the Vancouver Art Gallery building on Howe and Hornby streets will also be renewed with an extension of the pink concrete paving, which will continue to wrap the sidewalk along West Georgia Street to establish a proper identity for the three-block-long precinct.
Events and festivals will greatly benefit from the new open and flexible space design, in addition to event infrastructure including power connections at several locations and tall light poles on either side of the plaza. Any seating within the core space will be moveable to allow for larger events.
Some of the possible event configurations for the new plaza space.
In each scenario, the size of the event configuration is curbed by the bosque of trees on the west side of the plaza along Hornby Street.
The plan calls for extending the planting of the two rows of maple trees that already line Hornby Street from Robson Square, and when it enters the plaza area the rows will be increased from two to four trees to establish the bosque area.
“Openings are created in the pattern by removing interior trees, allowing for more light to enter the bosque,” reads the description by the architects. “The bosque is intended to create a room within a room, where the large scale of the plaza is brought down to a more human scale. The canopy of the trees will create shelter, shade and provide seasonal beauty to the space.”
But is the design attempting to accomplish too much within a relatively small and tight space?
Solely from an event functionality performance point of view, the density of the trees for the bosque takes away as much as 20% of the plaza’s useable space.
The Art Gallery’s North Plaza area is just 4,800 square metres (52,000 square feet) in size, but this is substantially less when the bosque, perimeter seating areas, and pavilion structure are taken into factor as unmovable obstacles.
In contrast, Jack Poole Plaza has an area of 15,100 square metres (163,000 square feet), and its functionality as a large event space is also somewhat restricted by the installation of the Olympic Cauldron on the south end of the plaza. Furthermore, the capacity of the plaza is limited by weight restrictions as the public space sits on top of the vast underground exhibition halls of the Vancouver Convention Centre.
At 4,600 square metres (50,000 square feet), downtown Toronto’s Dundas Square’s size is similar to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s North Plaza. While some could argue that the space is bland and utilitarian, the main focus the designers had in mind was the space’s ability and flexibility to host events.
Dundas Square is on a slight incline towards its Yonge Street end and a moveable plinth on the eastern end of the plaza acts as a stage for concerts and other performances.
Stone paving covers all of Dundas Square, with two rows of 10 fountains embedded in the pavement designed for summertime water play near the southern perimeter. Along the north perimeter framed by Dundas Street, the plaza also has a pavilion-like canopy structure.
However, unlike the Vancouver Art Gallery’s North Plaza, there are few physical and visual barriers at Dundas Square that restrict events from spilling over onto the adjacent roadways when desired, such as weekend festivals and nighttime events.
The trees along Hornby and West Georiga streets will essentially box-in the plaza space once the trees are fully grown, especially during the late-spring and summer months when the trees are fully leafed – when Vancouver’s event and festival season picks up.
Nevertheless, the proposed plans for the high-profile North Plaza are a major improvement over the current condition and provide the Central Business District with a new vibrant and active heart.
The entire precinct stretching to Robson Square could be further enhanced with the possible permanent closure of the 800 block of Robson Street, from Howe to Hornby streets, as a fully-pedestrianized plaza area. Large events and festivals could be held on both sides of the city block at the North Plaza and Robson Street.