Bing Thom once had a dream to enhance Arthur Erickson’s legacy and comprehensive vision of Robson Square as a vibrant hub for the city centre.
About five years ago, Thom and his namesake firm designed an architectural concept that adds a world-class art museum underneath Robson Square, demarcated by a new glass-enclosed atrium grand entrance on the west side of the plaza at street level — near the southwest corner of the intersection of Robson Street and Hornby Street.
- See also:
The existing landscaped knoll that occupies this footprint would be replaced and reinterpreted by the undulating rooftop forms of the atrium, with the roof featuring publicly-accessible staircases that improve the public realm’s connectivity to the upper park-like levels of the Law Courts.
This stunning atrium entrance would have doubled as both the entrance to the museum and the University of British Columbia’s existing Robson Square satellite campus. It would change the entire dynamic of Robson Square by creating a natural focal and entry point for people to enter the subterranean spaces. The sunken plaza and covered outdoor ice rink would remain.
Current condition of the knoll at Robson Square:
Envisioned condition of the removed knoll at Robson Square for the museum and UBC entrance:
The museum itself would feature a total floor area of about 65,000 sq. ft. over multiple underground levels, including several galleries, and retail, restaurant, storage, and administration spaces.
But this was much more than just about an exercise in placemaking, as there was also real momentum to turn this into a world-class attraction focusing on Chinese art and culture through partnerships with The Palace Museum at the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (VAM) in London.
However, the dream began to unravel in 2016 with the sudden passing of Bing Thom, and in 2017 when Martin Roth, the director of the (VAM), died from cancer. The project, as a result of these unfortunate circumstances, was effectively shelved.
Thom was one of Vancouver’s most renowned architects, with his local works including UBC Chan Centre for Performing Arts, Surrey City Centre Library, Central City Surrey, Guildford Aquatic Centre, Aberdeen Centre, and the under-construction The Butterfly tower in downtown Vancouver. He also has high-profile international projects, such as the recently-built Xiqu Centre Opera House on Hong Kong’s West Kowloon waterfront and the Arena Stage Theatre in Washington DC. His firm lives on under the banner of Revery Architecture.
Five years later, the project proponents who collaborated with Thom and Roth are hoping some shape and form of this proposal for a new cultural and arts institution, as envisioned by the architect, can still be realized.
The idea for a museum began with Yuen Pau Woo, Robert H.N. Ho, and Ron Stern, who brokered the relationship with The Palace Museum and raised the required funding for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s (VAG) highly successful The Forbidden City exhibition in 2014.
In an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized, Woo says they were lucky to find a partner in Thom, who worked with Erickson early in his career. The concept of Robson Square and the Law Courts — a “linear skyscraper” — was amongst Thom’s first projects.
“Bing himself came to recognize that Robson Square was not fulfilling the purpose Erickson had, as it had become under-utilized and under-appreciated. He believed something had to be done to recapture the original vision and value of that property,” said Woo, who was the head of The Vancouver Society for Promotion of Chinese Art and Culture (China Global), which is the entity established for the museum project, and the president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. In 2016, he was appointed as a Canadian senator.
“That is why Bing was so passionate about our project, and why he offered his services and designed the concept for us.”
Woo said the team he had assembled wanted to address a glaring gap in Vancouver’s evolution. Despite the fact that Vancouver is “quite possibly the most Asian city outside of Asia,” it is not a centre of Asian art and culture. He points to other urban centres that have major Asian art institutions, such as New York City, Chicago, Berlin, London, San Francisco, and even Kansas City, but “these cities don’t compare to Vancouver when it comes to the breadth and depth of human connections that our city has with the Asian World.”
“Something is very wrong with this picture,” Woo emphasized.
Through Roth, Woo says they had reached an agreement for VAM to become an institutional partner that would offer its collections for display at the new Vancouver museum on a short-term basis. VAM is in possession of a large collection of Asian-related artefacts, such as a whole gallery of Buddhist sculptures established through the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation.
Another major partnership, he said, was with The Palace Museum.
Woo said an agreement had been established to create a satellite location for The Palace Museum in Vancouver at their proposed Robson Square attraction. This was a very big deal.
“They had said to us they would essentially provide a pipeline of objects that would be rotated on a regular basis to display in our museum as one of the very few overseas satellites of The Palace Museum,” he said.
Both institutional collection partnerships would be supplemented by the museum’s access to private collections, given that the region has many high net worth individuals who either have collections in their homes or other places that are not publicly accessible.
Ted Lipman, who was at the time the CEO of the Hong Kong-based Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, and a former Canadian ambassador, was brought in as an advisor. Although the foundation has an international reach and is known for funding museums and galleries that exhibit and promote Chinese art and culture, this was a personal project for Ho, separate from his foundation.
He says not only did China Global fund the creation of Thom’s architectural concept, it also commissioned the feasibility study conducted by the VAM, which had very favourable findings.
“They came quite positively in the sense that they felt the location was quite well suited to becoming an art gallery. It was quite upbeat on the potential for this project,” said Lipman.
Lipman added that Roth’s retirement plans from the VAM entailed moving to British Columbia. He had already acquired a home on the Sunshine Coast, and had even been invited to teach at the University of British Columbia.
“Roth told me he felt the VAG’s current location was the best location of any art gallery he had ever seen, and it was in that light he got to know more about our project,” said Lipman.
The estimated construction cost for the new museum was estimated at between $75 million and $100 million, and financial commitments were secured to cover most of the cost. But the entire idea was contingent on the provincial government contributing the underground space at Robson Square used by the Law Courts, where judges currently have offices in that space.
Woo said the provincial government was unable to free up and repurpose the space.
“We understand there was some resistance from the judges and the Law Courts,” he said. “Even the judges can see they occupy very prime space, and it’s not very clear that it is the best use of this centrally-located public land for the cost that is involved.”
It is no secret that the provincial government has also been planning to squeeze in more functional office space within the Law Courts complex. The provincial government has been looking to add more office space for the judicial system, and recently it made a decision to not renew the long-term lease to the not-for-profit society that operates the Law Courts Inn restaurant within a 6,600-sq-ft space overlooking the complex’s upper reflecting pool.
“There is a need for government office space in downtown Vancouver, and it is increasingly challenging to find viable space in this market,” said Anne Kang, the BC Minister of Citizens’ Services, in a statement to Daily Hive Urbanized in July on the matter of the Law Courts Inn.
“Government needs to be fiscally prudent and balance the costs of renting office space with the revenue we receive for leases to third-party organizations. Robson Square is an iconic building and any changes made to it are undertaken with the original vision of Arthur Erickson, the building’s architect, in mind.”
Other factors, says Lipman, range from the change in provincial government, and the recent minority status of the federal government, which had previously expressed interest on their project.
However, both men believe the conditions are now ripe for this project to emerge into the public discourse, perhaps for consideration by the VAG, if they were to remain at their current location at the heritage courthouse building at Robson Square.
They pointed to the VAG’s current troubles with fundraising for their new purpose-built home at the city-owned Larwill Park site, currently a surface parking lot next to Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The cost of this new VAG facility was previously pegged at $350 million, based on a 2020 completion. As of February 2020, a total of $136.5 million has been raised, including $86.5 million from the private sector and $50 million from the provincial government. The economic climate for additional funding from governments and the private sector is likely highly limited for the foreseeable future.
A less-ambitious project of improving the existing heritage courthouse building and expanding at the location — such as using the proposed footprint of the Chinese art museum under Robson Square, and/or repurposing the VAG’s existing underground storage space beneath the West Georgia Street plaza — would cost considerably less, and could potentially be achieved within or closer to the amount that has been fundraised to date.
Woo says he wants fresh dialogue on the broad principles highlighted by their project, including the absence of a major Asian art institution, the underutilization of Robson Square, and the broader question of a cultural precinct by combining the heritage courthouse and Robson Square.
“A lot of thought and considerable amount of resources have been devoted to this project… this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky dream. Much has been done to develop this concept and prove its feasibility,” adds Lipman.
“While the Chinese museum concept as it was originally envisioned may not be feasible in the future, certainly the concept of the building as an expansion of the current VAG in its current location, allowing for Asian and other kinds of art to have a better venue, is certainly worth thinking about.”
If any scope of this idea is realized, it would be Thom’s final architectural legacy.
Thom was known to have an affinity for the precinct he helped create, and it is not the first time he conceptualized alternate cultural uses for the precinct. In 2011, when the VAG’s intentions of relocating to a new facility was already well-established, Thom and Stern created a much-publicized concept for turning the VAG’s underground storage space under the West Georgia Street Plaza into a 1,950-seat concert hall complex.
With the concert hall concept, Thom envisioned a mix of new uses for the heritage courthouse building, which would have a lobby remaining open to the public at all times, with a 450-seat theatre, restaurants, retail, and other spaces for culture and the arts, such as smaller galleries.
Currently, the provincial government has plans to create a new Chinese-Canadian museum that focuses on the past, by highlighting the history of early Chinese immigrants. Earlier this year, $10 million was committed by the provincial government to help establish this history museum, with $2 million to complete the planning and design, and $8 million for an endowment to provide ongoing support. The museum will be located in Vancouver’s Chinatown, but it will also have multiple hubs and spokes for historical locations across BC, and an online portal and digital experiences.
Woo says while the provincial government’s plan acknowledges the past, his group’s concept celebrates the current experience of Chinese-Canadians and the future.