The User Experience of Architecture: Vancouver’s Robson Square

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Maybe I’m a strange creature, but there’s a building in this world (and unfortunately located in this fair city of Vancouver) that has the power to change my route purely based on its aesthetic design, especially on any cold or dismal days.  I realized this the other day as I was rushing back to the office and crossed one block over–out of my way and adding precious time to the journey, mind you–just to avoid it.  It dawned on me that I have even resorted to saying goodbye to coworkers at the intersection preceding it just so that I don’t have to walk next to this cold, dank building.  This despite the fact that we are having a good conversation and ultimately walking toward the same transit station.  I swear, the building has its own microclimate and just being in its vicinity brings the temperature down a few degrees, and submerges you in a Dickensian gloom.

The building, you ask?  Funnily enough, it’s designed by world-renowned Canadian architect, Arthur Erickson.  It’s actually a late 70s, 1.3 million sq. foot complex of buildings (well, I personally call it the concrete monolith) comprised of the provincial law courts, Robson Square, and the Vancouver Art Gallery.  It hulks over 2+ blocks on one side, and takes up another block on the other axis.  It’s the back end (Howe Street side) of the Law Courts that I particularly detest, though the cellar-evoking Robson Square ice rink area is no favorite either.

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(Note the lack of people in all of the photos below — I snapped one set of photos at lunch time, and another set at rush hour.  The building is located in the heart of downtown Vancouver.)

In thinking about this, a dusty memory floated back to me.  Back in my undergrad, I took a drawing class and our instructor took us on a field trip to the SAM.  Notwithstanding a bit of drama involving the school bus, a broken water pipe and our instructor yelling at us to RUN!, there was also another memorable part to this excursion.   I saw a postmodern painting of grey power lines that absolutely repulsed me.  When the instructor asked us what we thought about it, I couldn’t restrain myself and blurted out, “I hate it!”  Surprisingly to me at that time, I was not greeted with a lecture about all the merits of postmodern communist art, but instead invited to explain why. Everyone’s a critic, but not everyone has a yardstick to measure their critique by.

So…I’d offer my 30-minute solution (more like 3-second solution) to this building which would be to demolish it.  However, since that’s not feasible, I thought I’d conjure up the spirit of that long-ago art experience to better sift through my feelings about it (and its possible failings).

Firstly, I searched for some common ways of evaluating a building’s design.  I didn’t turn anything up, but I’m hoping some architects can weigh in – perhaps I wasn’t using the correct architectural terminology, you know, their equivalent of a heuristic review.

As I thought about it a bit more, it seemed to me that all forms of architecture are really another kind of UI (the interaction between a person and a constructed space?), particularly public buildings/landscapes.  As such, I would think that it’s critical to achieve that golden triumvirate of useful (it fulfills all the needs/pain points), usable (people are able to successfully use and adopt it) and desirable (people like it and want to use it).  I know that we in the User Experience world liberally borrow from ideas from books like A Pattern Language and Chambers For a Memory Palace, so why not review some User Interface heuristics/guidelines and see how they might be retooled to apply to a building? 

Of course, this highlighted the fact that a heuristics analysis largely focuses on the usability of a product, and that evaluating useful and desirable is not nearly so cut and dry. Most public-use buildings are designed to be fairly functional (doors, windows, elevators, bathrooms, signage), but it’s the useful and especially the desirable part where things tend to go awry.  It’s this very human element, the visceral reactions and feelings, that are rather difficult to pin down, evaluate and measure.

That said, here are some slightly tweaked usability heuristics that seemed most relevant for architecture.

1. Visibility : The public building’s form (or supporting elements, such as signage) should communicate its purpose and meaning, and if applicable, support openness and transparency (i.e. what is going on inside).
–>This building’s form, especially viewed from the rear, is about as anti-“open” and anti-“transparent” that you can be.  The courts take up two blocks.  One entire block is comprised of cascading concrete: the upper level of concrete (mercifully covered by some greenery) tumbles down into partially obstructed ground-level office windows, complete with the glare of fluorescent lighting and depressing vertical mini blinds.  This is then surrounded by a concrete wall and bars that form a veritable “moat” around its perimeter.  This is capped by a concrete sidewalk, which is then flanked by a strange mini-road that eventually leads to an underground garage, then another row of concrete sidewalk, and then finally the street.  The dueling sidewalks with the strange bumpouts are what gets me–why?!  I am not sure if the overall design intention was to evoke a jail cell and didactically invite the public to dwell upon their morality while basking in concrete glory of the court system–if that was the goal, then Ericksen was a brilliantly subversive.

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As mentioned, this repeats for an entire block, and the only signage on this side of the street occurs at one corner’s intersection.  The signage is partially obscured by an overhang.

The other block is slightly more open, insofar as the wall/bars/moat effect isn’t there, and instead replaced by a repeating motif of formidably sized, unmarked steel blue doors.  Unfortunately, this building is taller than the other one and gradates upward so that mere pedestrian is perpetually covered by a shadow, even on bright, sunny days.  This would be nice shade in Dubai or Las Vegas, but perhaps not as welcome in Vancouver.  Again, yet another strange mini-road that leads down to the parking garage, with a large concrete surround.

2. Wayfinding: The building should help the public orient themselves and successfully navigate from place to place. (similar to Recognition rather than Recall)
–>As far as I can tell, wayfinding is only supported on the opposite block, even there it’s scarce in supply.  This building treats this street (Howe St), as if it’s a back alley and its pedestrians as lowly behind-the-scenes servants or something.

3. Match the building with the world around it: The building should provide the affordances to allow the public to know its purpose, as well as be harmonious and respectful to the environment and context surrounding it.
–>Save the possible nod to jail cells with the choice of metal bars, and the fact that many government buildings have a similar 60s-70s concrete institutional feel, there is little to convey what this building’s purpose is, unless you are at the corner of Howe and Smithe and squint into the corner where there is some minimal signage.

4. Control & Freedom: Public and private spaces should be clearly designated.  Public spaces should be welcoming and allow for easy access, exit and entry.  It should be clear which spaces are private. (I would lump Error Prevention and Error Recovery in here).
–>Surprisingly enough, the law courts are adjacent to what I suppose you could call a park or plaza, Robson Square (Google maps gives it a park icon/coloring).  This is not very visible or apparent just by looking at it. The only indication that this is a public-access area known as Robson Square is some beat-up (naturally concrete!) trash cans. 

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Interestingly enough, Robson Square is in the final stages of wrapping up some renovations and improving signage/encouraging greater public use does not really seem to have been remedied.   Otherwise, the only other indication of its function are signs that call it “UBC Robson Square,” (UBC = Univeristy of British Columia’s downtown campus).  I actually find it quite humorous that their large signs feature the bleak concrete steps devoid of any students or people.

5. Consistency and Standards: The public should not have to wonder if a complex of buildings are related in purpose or not.  Each purpose should be clearly demarcated, design patterns should be standardized and signage should be consistent.
–>Unless you were an architect groupie, very observant pedestrian, or someone who often frequents the UBC Robson Square campus, Vancouver Art Gallery, or courts, you likely would not realize that these buildings were tied together in any way.  In fact, the entire complex is supposed to be known as Robson Square, apparently “a landmark civic center and public plaza.”

6. Flexibility and efficiency of use: The building should cater to both “inexperienced” (general public) users as well as “experienced” users (frequent users like lawyers, judges, support staff).
–>I suspect that this side of the building caters to the “experienced” user, with access to the underground garages being the one and only feature/benefit.  Interestingly enough, there is no signage to let the casual user know that this is indeed a garage entrance or exit.  At one corner there is a small sign indicating that there is a parking garage, but come on, there appears to be three separate entrances/exits.  Also, a number of times, I have seem pedestrians surprised and almost run over by cars that seemingly come out of nowhere.

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7. Aesthetic design: The building and its premises should not contain artifacts that are irrelevant or rarely needed. 
–>I wonder why the emphasis on the underground garage?  Is this some sort of testament to the amount of vehicles coming and going out of this area? It seems that all poor souls who dare walk down this section of Howe Street are to be treated like delivery trucks.

Thank you, but I think I’d rather get to my destination a few minutes later.

Want to virtually see it for yourself?  Check it out on Google Streetview.

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