There’s big news afoot for the city’s would-be, should-be central plaza, the expanse around the Vancouver Art Gallery known officially as 800 Robson and casually as Robson Square. It’s about to get redesigned. At last.

The fact that this public space at the heart of the city doesn’t even really have its own name – just a street address that most residents probably don’t know – is telling in itself. It’s a massive civic commons without a clear identity. Housing the art gallery, UBC Robson Square, the Provincial Law Courts and a skating rink, this square has for years been both underestimated and underused relative to its enormous potential for bringing people together. A big part of the problem, methinks, has had to do with its over-designed vertical discombobulation, leading to incoherence. (Yep, I’m a bit biased against the outsized modernist capital projects of the 60s and 70s. You’ve been warned.)

So it’s really good news that the city is now doing something to make the plaza more inviting as a collective space. I don’t get the sense that there will be any change to the verticality designed by Arthur Erickson on the south side, but it seems that the north end will be made more attractive as a place to walk and sit. Personally I’d have preferred more focus on green space, but evidently that wasn’t what Vancouverites lobbied for in a community survey conducted this year. You can have a look at the proposals (currently under consultation) displayed as renderings here.

The moving picture

Here’s my question. Amid all the noise about the design of the new plaza, what’s the future of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s building?

Stramp (steps + ramp) to the Vancouver Art Gallery, with the Hotel Vancouver rising behind/Naomi Reichstein photo
Stramp (steps + ramp) to the Vancouver Art Gallery, with the Hotel Vancouver rising behind/Naomi Reichstein photo

For many years, the VAG campaigned for a new building, on the premise that the existing one, originally built as a courthouse, was insufficient for serving its goals to the extent that it wished. For the site of the prospective new gallery, the city has agreed to lease the VAG the large parking lot across from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (called Larwill Park since it was once a sports field, fairground and parade ground, but who knew until now?). The city’s condition: that the VAG meet the fundraising objectives of $350 million needed for completing the project, including $50 million from the provincial government and $100 million from the feds. In advance of receiving such funding, the gallery has gone ahead and commissioned a headily ambitious stacked-box design from Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with Perkins + Will.

Let’s leave aside for now the question of whether the federal or the provincial government will ever be willing to kick in such amounts (so far, not). Of course that’s pivotal, but actually my question today is a much simpler one: what’s the plan for the current art gallery building if and when the VAG vacates it?

It’s an issue that’s been lost in all the talk about 800 Robson’s redesign and the VAG’s move.

Landmark elephant in the room

I have to believe that I’m not the only one who cares. Why does it matter? Well, for one thing, this courthouse-turned-museum is one of the city’s most important public buildings and one of the very few Beaux Arts landmarks in a downtown dominated by a particularly uniform pattern of rectilinear commercial modernism. Yet more than that, this building anchors the plaza at the city’s core, Vancouver’s architectural centrepiece, the visual destination toward which people want to gravitate and without whose presence few other structures at or around 800 Robson would have significance.

Not that I think the VAG is moving any time soon. The fundraising levels that it must meet have so far been out of reach given the limitations of government grants and private bequests in a climate weak in philanthropy. So the move may never happen, and my question may end up moot.

The Bird of Spring by Inuit artist Abraham Stungat, on the steps leading to UBC Robson Square from the Vancouver Art Gallery/Naomi Reichstein photo
The Bird of Spring by Inuit artist Abraham Etungat, on the steps leading to UBC Robson Square from the Vancouver Art Gallery/Naomi Reichstein photo

Yet if the VAG does move, then what of the building? Leaving bridges uncrossed until we come to them is a risky approach to important monuments. It could spell plans left unmade, work left undone and years of space potentially left empty or used sub-optimally.

Ideas, anyone?

The peculiar lack of public talk about the building’s future leaves me speculating. On the one hand, the last thing Vancouver needs is a takeover by a corporate leaseholder that would shut this space off from public use. On the other, the closure of institutions from the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts to independent movie theatres such as the Ridge and the Hollywood has shown clearly that our arts sector lacks the economic muscle to take over the use of large-scale space.

What about small retail, combined with smaller-scale cultural use? In principle I love this, and I could see the building transformed into a marketplace like New York’s Grand Central, serving local businesses and open to the public, with the caveat that without the advantage of literally millions of people passing through every day thanks to train traffic, such a facility would face stiff competition from the Pacific Centre mall across the street. It’s also cautionary that another splendid Beaux Arts structure downtown, the brick CPR terminal now serving as SkyTrain’s Waterfront station, is underused where retail is concerned.

Talk to me. What would you like to see happen with this building if the VAG goes?