01 March 2009

Breaking Ground

shifting city spaces
Joey Giaimo
Current construction activity in Vancouver is redefining spaces in the city as well as relationships between its inhabitants and visitors. The Canada Line is an extension to Vancouver’s rapid transit system, providing a north-south link from the downtown peninsula to central Richmond, with 16 new stations and connections to other existing lines, the SeaBus terminal at Waterfront Station and the Vancouver Airport.

The new City Centre Station will be located underneath Granville Street, between Robson and West Georgia streets. One of the first blocks to be affected by the line’s construction, it is part of a major retail and club district, bound on one side by the monolithic Sears store and on the other sides by small retail buildings and office towers.

Site Observations
This block is being prepped for a very large hole to accommodate the underground station. As a result, traffic has been stopped and fixed street elements have been removed. As the construction crew excavates below grade, fencing has enclosed the portion of the site adjacent to the Sears building. The remainder of the block is open to pedestrians, prompting creative appropriation of public space.

Partially severed from the retail strip, the block’s role as an urban connector to adjacent blocks has been reduced. Construction fencing along the Sears building has compressed the majority of pedestrian movement to the opposite side of the block, creating moments of intense density. This density has also prompted alternative movement patterns as cyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers, walkers and joggers now use the whole street with liberty, in an act of involuntary and temporary appropriation.

As part of the surface clearing, trees that lined the sidewalks’ edges have been cut down leaving behind neon orange spray painted stumps to deter potential pedestrian casualties. These stumps mark an absence of verticality – like a phantom limb – tracing the outline of what once was.

The loss of the trees has framed the block in a new and unexpected way, opening up vistas and exposing the road surface to direct light. It heightens attention to any remaining vertical elements, including the decapitated streetlights and smaller ornamental lights whose main role was to provide sidewalk lighting below the trees’ extended branches.

Appropriating Public Space
Unplanned appropriations are becoming scarce. Increasingly there is little in the Canadian urban context that promotes difference or interaction with the physical form of the public realm. In Vancouver, agitators have been replaced by adjudicators who build the city with expedient consistency. Through rigorous and decisive planning methods, the potential to re-conceive public space has almost expired.

The ubiquitous point tower’s exterior spaces (the singular typology currently filling any and all remaining tracts of land in downtown Vancouver) have left little room for public engagement or interpretation. Possible easements have been contained and marked (with varying degrees of discretion) as private property, resisting any activity other than those explicitly designed for and used by the paying residents.

Traditional examples of appropriation can be found in Vancouver — sidewalks are often re-adapted by Chinatown retailers, entrepreneurial street vendors and restaurateurs. But even these appropriations are mostly planned, under permit and limited to transactions of commodity or consumption. In this context, appropriation has become paradigmatic and privatized.

To promote a rich urban culture there must be room for the unknown, the inconvenient and the impractical. There must be serendipitous moments where the city’s inhabitants are able to interact with physical form whose function or purpose is not deliberate and prescribed.

Construction and Chemical Composition
Like the handhelds, big GlowSticks are hollow translucent plastic tubes with ten inches of concrete in the base. Six feet high, an 18” diameter base, they weigh about ten pounds. Although awkward, they are relatively easy to handle since they are bottom heavy. This lightness allows for handling by a single person.

The translucent plastic tubes contain a mixture of chemical elements in a chemiluminescent reaction that emits light. When a hydrogen peroxide solution, phenyl oxalate ester solution and a fluorescent dye combine, new compounds are formed with a substantial release of energy. As this energy subsides, it is released as light. A range of dyes produce different colours.

In the handheld version the reaction is triggered when the plastic shell is bent, cracking an internal glass vial containing the hydrogen peroxide solution. Large GlowSticks arrive on site ‘pre-cracked.’ The tube is filled with phenyl oxalate ester and the dye. Hydrogen peroxide solution is added just before shipping to the site, triggering the reaction.

Influenced by closures and surface scraping in this downtown block, this proposal promotes a different kind of urban relationship. A field of GlowSticks, an overblown version of the handheld kind, intervenes in the construction project to add a new layer of difference, spectacle and event, promoting a sensorial experience unlike any other space in the city.

The GlowSticks not only soften the disruptive effects of the building of the station but provide new unexpected moments of social and cultural construction. The enclosed block presents an opportunity to test a different attitude in the public realm. The flat asphalt surface acts as its testing ground and allows a simple and peculiar object the opportunity to appropriate a substantial and prominent space through its multiplication.

GlowSticks’ programmatic opportunities
By moving the sticks, pedestrians can make private spaces of reprieve from the city, or they can weave through and around them in their own patterns. Retailers can use them as a buffer from the construction, and to mark their coffee shop patios and sidewalk vending.

Like orange construction barrels and cones, construction workers would use the GlowSticks as safety and hazard markers and to enclose the construction area. Arrangements could be continually reworked to accommodate construction, creating denser, purposeful arrangements, and new interpretive opportunities. The sticks’ lack of fixity promotes limitless opportunities for engagement. They can be dragged, picked up, knocked over, moved around and carried away. They are urban fixtures which refuse to be static. The GlowStick is an element with no singular purpose or program. Its lack of reasoning is precisely its point. It relies on the urban participant to give it its purpose. These gestures are engagements within the public realm that are largely nonexistent.

The impact of the GlowSticks is unknown. Will they be used for violent means? Will they be taken away? Will the area’s club and bar patrons use them as a means to continue their festivities on the streets? Will they be ignored?

Paradoxically, their success will rely on bureaucratic support to create the serendipitous moments which the city craves and architects have been indicted of not supplying. The architectural response is that often the strictures imposed by bureaucracy are so prescriptive that there is little room for spontaneity. This GlowStick proposal presents the municipality with the opportunity to plan the unplanned, to insert this ‘serendipity’ on a slot of land that they both own and control.

The sticks glow brightly in daylight and warm temperatures. Evening temperatures cool the sticks, slow down the reaction and emit a softer glow. This night mode regenerates the GlowSticks and prepares them for the following day where, in daylit warmth they will resume their brightness. Even simply placing the sticks upon the block’s cleared surface allows them to perpetually metamorphose on their own. Although large sticks glow much longer than the small ones, their light will eventually diminish and be replaced with replenished sticks, producing different intensities throughout their duration on site.

Observation and speculative intervention questions how public space is understood, perceived and presented, and reveals how the structure of the city rigorously dictates the use of its spaces. The disruption of construction procedures and subsequent GlowStick intervention present opportunities for new and different adaptive spatial practices in a city in dire need of difference.
Giaimo, Joey. 'Breaking Ground | shifting city spaces' On Site review, no. 16 Winter 2006
©Joey Giaimo and On Site review

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