The Future of Robson Square

“Arthur said…he said architecture is not so much a process of creativity as of discovery.”

I‘m sitting in a square white room whose walls are dressed with drawings, a series of notions for a new plaza to surround the Vancouver Art Gallery sometime in the next two years. My companion-the one speaking-is Nick Milkovich. He’s a genial fellow, hardly the egomaniac that architects who master-plan cities and design skyscrapers (as he does) are made out to be. The Arthur in question is by many measures Canada’s preeminent architect, and Milkovich’s mentor.

Arthur Erickson died four years ago. A jet-set life that included the industry’s highest awards and the favour of princes and prime ministers had its quiet descent in 2009. In its twilight, Erickson would come in to an office at Milkovich’s Mount Pleasant firm, where he was a kind of freelancer and consultant. The relationship goes back even further. The day after Milkovich graduated with a BA from UBC, back in 1968, he went to work for Erickson, and it wasn’t until 1991 that he broke off to start his own firm. “I remember how strange that was,” he says now, “on that first day of November, to answer the phone with my own name.”

Leading up to Erickson’s death, many projects for which Milkovich held the reins would be boosted by association with the great architect. As Erickson headed into his 80s, “He would participate as much as he was willing or capable. It was all his life, the work. It just continued on until it softly…faded away.”

People liked to use his name, Milkovich says. “They kept saying of certain buildings, ‘Arthur Erickson’s Last Design.’ ” When a complex of houses in West Vancouver called Evelyn Drive went on the market, some wanted to call it “An Erickson project” but Milkovich had the language changed to “inspired by” as a reality check. The last project Erickson strongly influenced, Milkovich says, was the swerving Erickson on the edge of False Creek, completed in 2010. Other buildings, such as a pair of towers at the Olympic Village and the forthcoming Trump Tower, are regularly trumpeted in the media as Erickson designs but the man’s creative prowess had by then receded, his name reduced to a powerful brand to be leveraged. Continue reading…

Erickson remains a long shadow in this room. In 1973, he designed the three city blocks that make up Robson Square-he hoped it would be our Trafalgar Square or Plaza Mayor but the complex never seemed to quite realize its potential. I remember speaking with Erickson on the subject a few years before his death, and he simply grumbled, “It’s a failure-absolutely.”

Robson Square was meant to be fuelled by a metro station beneath Hornby Street, but when that was botched, the underground area was left largely vacant. As Milkovich says, “I don’t know that it was ever properly programmed the way other plazas around the world are.” He points to photos from across North America, where civic plazas always have some beer garden or concert or outdoor dancing in the mix. Then he pulls out a black-and-white photo showing the north end of the VAG circa horse-and-buggy: the building is aflutter with flags on the occasion of a royal visit-the crowd spills over into the streets, and the space looks twice as large as it does today. “We only see this kind of activity at Robson Square now,” he says, “on 4/20.”

Milkovich’s job, then, is a deeply personal one: to redeem the work of the father. The crumbling fountain at Georgia is being evaluated, since it dominates and obscures massive gatherings (and would be onerously expensive to repair); certainly greenery will remain a key element. Above all, Milkovich wants to keep things simple and open so that the square can do what it’s meant to: serve as our greatest stage and place of assembly-a proper agora.

He’s not going to do it alone. He’s teamed with the Hapa Collaborative (a landscape design firm run by Joe Fry), Lance Berelowitz (of the Urban Forum Associates), and Matthew Soules, a young outside-the-box architect. The group, commissioned by the city, is working with a modest $3.2 million budget. Construction, which starts in July 2014 and will last up to eight months, was preceded by open houses in October where three potential designs were offered up to the public.

“If there’s one part of Arthur that’s carried on in my work today,” says Milkovich, “it’s the process. The way I work. You know, everyone imagined that Arthur Erickson was this overbearing man, but the truth is that clients often found him remarkably easy to work with. When I worked for him, I can tell you that he never dictated answers to us; he would only ask questions and we would arrive at an answer together. That’s the approach I’m taking with Robson Square.”

We study the walls covered with quick and aggressive drawings, the residue of sudden suggestions, fleeting excitements-multiple visions of what our city’s heart might yet become.