In the heart of Vancouver’s former ceremonial boulevard, sat a large, dilapidated space. The usage evolution – from forecourt to Provincial Court Building to the formerly named Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza – had rendered the site a palimpsest of monuments, trees, and an assortment of paving and seating elements. Despite its run-down state, the plaza’s size and central downtown location meant it was nonetheless frequented for large planned events, commuting, and meeting. The muddled placemaking gave way to a lacklustre setting, one that was sorely misaligned with its vibrant occupants. To us, democratizing public space for various displays of civic expression is the embodiment of a successful public realm. We are proud of the way šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square has transformed into a bustling epicentre of political protests, summer socials, tours, cultural markets, festivals, and some of the best downtown people watching Vancouver has to offer.
From the ancient acropolis to the 21st Century cosmopolis, the primary characteristic of great plazas has remained constant: vibrant public activity. The rigorous research concluded that to improve functionality for specific programmatic demands, the plaza needed to have a clear, open centre. Through meaningful and rigorous public consultation, we received overwhelming support to remove the large fountain and the melange of existing trees, making room for a unifying design strategy with key infrastructure at the peripheries. An important ceremony recently saw the plaza renamed šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square in honour of collaborative efforts between First Nations and the City.
Our resulting design includes flexible functionality with local flair, built into each of the landscape elements to evoke a sense of place, intention, and simplicity. Trees, seating, lighting, and a feature pavilion inhabit the edges and frame the large openness. Power and water connections hide within these elements to allow for activation of food trucks, event support, and maintenance. An uninterrupted plane of pink and grey trapezoidal pavers spills across the ground plane, providing a lively, jovial pattern while negotiating natural site slopes and engineering event loads. The pattern – locally quarried pink salt and pepper granite found on prominent Vancouver buildings – mixes with precast concrete evoking stories of salmon swimming upstream, or people dancing on a hot summer night. The furnishings are large yellow cedar benches made from recycled telephone poles and are completely moveable via pallet jack to accommodate event needs.
Bright red café style tables and chairs contrast the grey, and allow for long lunches, resting, or reading in the sunshine. šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square acts as an anchor for Robson Square – the iconic mid-century design by Arthur Erickson and Cornelia Oberlander – which hugs the gallery on the opposite side. Robson Square’s signature concrete slab pavers extend into the plaza, acting as a border to the space. A double row of maples along Hornby street creates a lovely pedestrian allée. In tandem, the spaces comprise the living room of the city: a generous plaza ripe with year-round activity, abuzz with social energy in the heart of successfully transformed downtown.
Landscape Architecture: HAPA Collaborative
Other designers involved in the design of landscape (architects and landscape architects): Nick Milkovich Architects, Studio Parsons, Matthew Soules Architecture
Project location: 850 West Georgia Street, Vancouver BC Canada
Design year: 2013
Year Built: 2017