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It’s a sunny afternoon in late May and I’m awash in the deep thrum of imposing machines several storeys high. Bursts of steam pop tiny white plastic beads like corn, while other machines press the popped kernels into the form of planter boxes, insulation sheets, and landscaping fill. There’s a sweet oily smell in the air: pentane, a hydrocarbon and blowing agent.
I should really stop calling the stuff Styrofoam, reminds Bob Teperto, the silver-haired general manager at Mansonville Plastics, the Langley company whose beleaguered product-albeit easily and completely recyclable, in theory-still all too often ends up in landfills and floating oceanic garbage islands. “Styrofoam is a trade name of Dow Chemical,” Teperto tells me as we tour a long line of cacophonous machines gorging on the rice-like grains. “There’s a difference. Our product is CFC- and HCFC-free and offers no harsh chemicals.”
Teperto has agreed to the tour for “positive spin-the guys that are in architecture and engineering school today, they’re our customers of tomorrow. We need to show them what can be done with our product.” What they can do, it turns out, is make art. Mansonville Plastics is donating the materials for an ambitious experiment in urban design that will disrupt the 700 block of Granville Street. On July 13, a Saturday all involved hope will be sunny, local designers, academics, advocates, and students will see an intervention months in the planning hit the ground as random Vancouverites converge for conversation, food, rest, and play in an interactive, plastic block-enhanced environment of their design. Then, just 10 hours later, this ephemeral public square will disappear like an ice sculpture after a summer banquet.
“I think the event should be looked at as having a longer resonance than the actual installation itself,” Bill Pechet tells me in a large studio space at the Museum of Vancouver, which has birthed this Upcycled Urbanism project. I’ve confessed I’m underwhelmed by its fleeting existence. The thin, silver-bearded, nostalgic architect, a lecturer at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, runs a private design practice in the city and was on the team that installed the vertical lighting and street seating along Granville ahead of the 2010 Olympics. He’s excited to get another crack at changing Granville Street, a baby step toward a more radical dream: “If Vancouver really wants a public square, they have to close the seawall, because who, on a nice day, doesn’t gravitate toward the edges?” he says. “At times there are thousands of people on it. The view and splendour of our natural environment is like a sponge that draws people out of the centre and puts them onto this ribbon, this noodle of public space.”
It’s a perfectly reasonable proposition, he tells my frown. If the Piazza San Marco comes to mind as an iconic public square, that’s because it’s one of the few large open spaces in Venice, he says. Vancouver, on the other hand, offers dozens of natural and constructed alternatives to its modernist Robson Square plaza, the de facto gathering spot for large celebrations and demonstrations. But since shutting the seawall would surely be a terribly unpopular notion, Pechet thinks designing a more fun and inclusive downtown core could work just as well to gather our city’s dispersed, lonely masses.
Participatory project workshops like this one have been going since March. “It’s a process that allows people to become ingrained into the act of making,” he says. We part ways as the room fills with chattering young city enthusiasts. Once assembled, they congratulate the students whose designs were chosen as the project’s two basic building blocks. Then they attack a truckload of the interlocking I-beams and clovers-full-scale prototypes of the pieces to land on Granville Street in July, courtesy of Mansonville-in a design exercise that alternates between quiet periods of sitting at tables and sketching out ideas, and noisier bouts of building and horseplay. At times foam blocks fly through the air. A few break, some under stress tests, others quite accidentally, prompting notes on increasing the density of the final product. One group builds bench seating, another makes an archway, the one with the flying blocks plays a game.
Stepping around fallen foam and huddled humans, I find local author Charles Montgomery, who last year was an urban experimentalist at the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a pop-up public space think tank on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The long-time journalist is now a curatorial associate at the MOV, in charge of dialogue on projects such as Upcycled Urbanism. Dialogue is key. “Those of us who care about public space usually do so because we’re thinking about relationships with the other people who move through those spaces,” he says. “Architectural forms and street forms actually have an effect on how quickly each of us move through the city.” He raises his voice as polystyrene blocks hit the floor with dull, hollow thuds. “The slower we move down a streetscape, the more likely we are to engage with other people.”
Montgomery can’t predict precisely what will hit the street on July 13. Presumably something to look at and interact with. As much music and dancing as noise bylaws permit. Temporary benches at which to consume dishes from nearby food trucks. Above all, it will be a new chapter for Vancouver’s hidden museum: a focus away from the past and toward the future of a city to be studied and played with and shaped to our liking.