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Community Buildings — Building Community

Oct 12, 2009

By Naomi Buell, Marketing Assistant at VIA Architecture

While recently reading an article on Iconic Architecture, I came to realize how truly important it is to have “the right building for the right place.” Although new to the field of architecture, I have seen how buildings can create community or just as easily discourage it. I grew up in buildings which always had large grassy areas or courtyards for all the children to play in. I was always close to parks, waterparks, seawalls and fresh food markets. This is how I thought the world was for all children; I had trees from which to launch snowballs, safe bike routes and easy access to view the yearly symphony of fire fireworks display. I was but an aquabus away from the pool and a short walk from the beach. I could see the large grassy hill which I had slid down many times on my toboggan, the world indeed was my oyster. I suppose I should personally thank whoever it was that designed Granville Island and the False Creek Area surrounding it, for they created my backyard.

An Image of Granville island which shows the water park, ponds, parks and beautiful greenery (it’s even nice on an overcast day)

However, it would seem that for some, this is not an ordinary upbringing. For many, parks are something you have to drive to and grass is not simply a stones throw away. The site of a concrete building may be their landscape where one might play on swings in a gated area. Situations like these give the impression that architecture is no longer about the people.

In the article I read which inspired this post, (Moving Beyond the “Smackdown” Towards an Architecture of Place) it seemed that rather then being about the people, Iconic Architecture is often more about making a statement or getting the recognition of peers. It is about thinking outside of the box to create something so unique that magazines will write about it for years to come. Unfortunately, the functionality of some of these buildings gets lost in the plans to make a monumental structure an area has seen. It would appear that while thinking outside of the box, they have made a structure as hospitable as just that, a cardboard box. As William H Whyte said “It’s hard to create a space that will not attract people, what is remarkable, is how often this has been accomplished.” Having little technical knowledge about architecture, I am unable to comment on some of the examples given by the article’s author Fred Kent.

The Bilbao Museum, which launched the iconic architecture trend, with its inhospitable plaza in the foreground

However as a born and raised Vancouverite, I do feel qualified to note one such structure that, while poetic and idealistic in thought, does not create a gathering space. Robson Square, a civic space comprised of the law courts, an art gallery and government offices, was completed in 1983 by Arthur Erickson. Erickson biographer Nicholas Olsberg describes the basis for Erickson’s design as an almost spiritual progression “with the courts — the law — at one end and the museum — the arts — at the other. The foundations of society. And underneath it all, the government offices quietly supporting their people.” While there have been many demonstrations on the steps of the Art Gallery as well as street performers and heated chess competitions, there is a lack of people gathering anywhere else. While there once was an outdoor ice rink, which attracted many families even that has become a melted memory of winters passed.

Perhaps it is the lack of light or greenery and landscaping that makes this area unappealing or maybe all it needs is a few picnic tables to increase the usability of the space. Whatever the reason for this empty space, it is a shame that it goes relatively unused. It would seem that only the art gallery stairs, which comprise a very small portion of the overall space, is the only structure being used. Is this symbolic of people flocking to the arts rather then the foundations of society? I say this with a hint of sarcasm as I believe it is more the proximity of the stairs that lead to their popularity but it is somewhat noteworthy nonetheless.

Architecture creates a city, it creates communities and it has a ripple effect that goes far beyond the beams and walls that hold it together. It has the power to bring people together, to encourage the laughter of children and to create a liveable city. While awards and recognition are always well received, it should be about the people, about the place and about the future that it will create.

Image Sources: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3,