Bad Public Spaces In Vancouver- How Architecture Ruins Communication

There is little to no space for public engagement through which communication can flourish in the city of Vancouver, because the architectural agenda focuses on how to get people from one point of consumption to the next. Sidewalk spaces are diminishing, entire communities are being overtaken by viaducts and the move towards car based structures of cities is pushing people out of the city space and building parkades instead. Even places of education which hinge upon the importance of the transfer of ideas in an open space, lacks areas in which this can occur, such as the Simon Fraser University Burnaby campus. This lack of areas that inspire and facilitate communication, negatively impacts the ability of people to gather within a public sphere and therefor hinders citizens engagement within the city space and between each other.

Quality of life is inherently linked to urban design, in which decreases in the uprising of buildings that form around the modernist structure and are seen throughout city spaces such as within Vancouver. Scholar Strimati, describes modernist architecture to be based upon “functionality and efficiency”. The structure of the SFU Burnaby campus utilizes this modernist ideal within the mass amount of concrete used to cover the space, that enacts to be there because it is functional. The problem with this modernist means of construction is that the transfixion upon usability, reliability and functionality leaves out the importance of questioning whether the space is both a space to care about and one that reflects the culture of those who dwell within it.

The SFU Burnaby Campus acts in part as an exemplifier of the ways in which poor architecture negatively impacts social lives. The campus evacuates from all civilization at the ripe time of 6pm when the majority of classes end and students eagerly leave the campus that lacks any areas for the students to gather post lecture or any outdoor lighting for students to dwell in the winter hours when the sun sets at nearly 5pm. The campus defines those who use it seemingly as prisoners and perhaps students at best, but not as citizens. So when the students fulfill the spaces functionality by finishing sitting in lecture, they do not further utilize the space for social interactions or communication of ideas. This is highly problematic as the space hinders the transfer of ideas by not treating the students as citizens, which should be a vital priority in the space of an university.
Kunstler states the importance of the plaza as a gathering space for social life through its link to civic engagement. SFU’s outdoor plaza lays vacant unless otherwise being utilized for an event. The large space doesn’t provide any incentive pleasure as a space to gather. The singular mark of beauty being the water fountain, only runs for two months of the academic year due to fear of the water freezing over. Kunstler states the importance of public plaza’s being lively due to a permeable membrane of ins and outs that activates the centre. On one side of the SFU plaza is the library, which pursues a rule of complete silence on every level other than the first. On the other side of the plaza is the Highland pub, SFU’s only space that acts as a public sphere. The pub was closed down for the majority of the previous semester and upon reopening only has hours on Thursday evenings. These factors do not exemplify a permeable membrane that livens the square but rather defines SFU as a place of isolated solitude.

This solitude is escapable for most, except for the first year students which are encouraged to live in the campus dorms. These students have no area to meet as the university square and pub don’t act successfully within their duty as a public sphere. The residences so called “common rooms” comprise of a singular couch and table and are locked to all other residences in the building other than those who reside on the floor. This limits the community of university students to the same 20 people, as if university equates to the opinions of only those on the floor you live on and the professors of the classes you take. This is exemplifies the ways in which poor architecture leads to dismal amounts of civic awareness and engagement.

Poor architecture affecting lack of civic engagement is not only within Burnaby but leaks into the urban Vancouver space as the city itself leans towards a car based structure and enhancement of capitalist agenda. The city emphasized the importance of cars to such an extent that Hoogans Alley was replaced with the Georgia street viaduct destroying the lively community and culture of the people that lived there. Sidewalks in the city are growing smaller as roads are becoming larger, placing an importance on the cars and the shops, but not upon the citizens themselves. Cars provide an isolation of individuals, whereas European cities such as Paris or Amsterdam are structured to encourage street culture that is created from people walking and engaging with one another through communication and the politics of looking. This differs greatly from the social separation of individuals that hinders communication through the walls of cars.

Author Strimiti describes postmodernist architecture to focus on fictionality and playfulness. The Ontario School for Art and Design falls into this category and vastly contrasts the architecture of SFU Burnaby campus in a comparison of these two educational institutions. The Ontario School provides a sense of happiness in its light playfulness that encourages new ideas. This aspect is sorely lacking in the institutions in Vancouver. The school seems to inform a creative identity to the students who use it, and encourage students to push boundaries and ideas in the same way that the buildings structure does. This Ontario school is successful in communicating inspiration for like minded projects that the students who attend it will no doubt create.
Vancouver has a few spaces that utilize these postmodernist ideas, such as the alleyway painted pink and yellow between Granville and Seymour. This alleyway facilitates play and is often filled with kids playing basketball, blowing bubbles and taking photos. It is spaces like this that brighten daily lives and remind citizens of their commonality between each other as people that can emote happiness.

The potential for architecture to inform positive associations of identity, facilitate and encourage communication and exemplify the context in which we are living is great, but unfortunately has been missed time and time again by architects creating modernist buildings for functionality. The SFU Burnaby campus in contrast to the Ontario School of Design is a difference in informing identity and encouraging dissemination of ideas. A focus on creating plazas to gather and a move towards architecture made for pleasure, rather than only functionality, will create a society that wants to linger within urban spaces and share ideas with one another.

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