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Towering Over Main Street

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Towering over Main Street
More and more of the world’s great cities are having concrete poured over their hearts. And, as John Barber explains, this has meant a lot of congenial public space disappearing into unfriendly private hands.

ONE SUMMER in the mid seventies, Toronto architect Barry Sampson joined a demonstration outside the office of a large Canadian mining corporation. The small group marched on the public sidewalk at the corner of King and Bay streets, the very heart of corporate Canada. Across the street a crowd of traders from the Toronto Stock Exchange had gathered to heckle the demonstrators. Immediately above them soared the 57-storey, glass-clad slab tower that housed the offending corporation — one of three bank-built skyscrapers that dominate the intersection, each with a spacious plaza at its base.

'The apron at the base of the tower extended all the way out to the curb and we were walking along its edge,' recalls Sampson. ‘But every time we turned to circle around three policemen muscled us back toward the curb. Apparently we had crossed an invisible line that marked the private property of the bank. We had a choice between colliding with the police or with each other. It made things rather difficult’

The plaza at the base of the tower is an architectural form that has entered the lexicon of American clichés as a ‘people place’. Usually, these spaces are so poorly conceived and starkly executed that they repel rather than attract public activity. ('As a rule of thumb,’ says Sampson, ‘the more prams and balloons you see in the architectural drawings, the less likely you are to see them in the actual space.) But the salient feature of such apparently generous spaces is not merely their barrenness. Rather, as Sampson’s experience proves, it is their exclusivity. Clearly, 'people places’ are for certain people only.

That few square feet in downtown Toronto is only one of an almost limitless number of otherwise - public places in North American cities that have suffered similar corporate makeovers. Where once they harboured a vital mix of people and uses in a rich. genuinely urbane milieu, many cities today have degenerated into an agglomeration of hermetic highrises devoted to the single purpose of workaday profit-making, set amid the windswept barrens of phony people places, car parks or vacant lots; and ringed all around by fragmented. numbingly sterile suburbs.

Between the office downtown and the bedroom on the outskirts, the traditional public functions of North American cities have been compressed into virtual nonexistence. In particular, many streets that were once the open, thriving common ground of all citizens have been given over to internalized suburban shopping malls or transformed into streets with more unusable, pseudo-public barrens. But except for a few residual ghettos for the poor that remained alongside the ‘projects’, the city was almost completely given over to high-density office buildings and apartment towers in surroundings carefully programmed to prevent any of the messy public activity they replaced.

Today, city planners in all but the most successfully transformed cities are scrambling to repair the damage. What remain of downtown neighbourhoods are being preserved, new mixed-use projects are being encouraged and some attempt is being made to intensify the suburbs, where densities run as low as three dwelling units per acre. Unfortunately, the capital mobilized on behalf of these good intentions is not always equal to the prescribed task.

Two waterfront commercial projects recently built in Boston and Baltimore are often cited as successful examples. Created by Jim Rouse, a man who made his fortune building the suburban shopping centres that helped depress so many cities originally, they are essentially suburban forms transposed, sporting the trappings but not the substance of urbanity. Fast-food franchises make up almost 80 per cent of their tenants and there is certainly nobody waving placards within their carefully programmed ‘festive’ precincts.

Toronto’s Eaton Centre represents a more conscientious but equally questionable example of a suburban shopping centre come to the rescue of a faltering city. A massive, glass-roofed tube, flanked by stores on both sides and ‘anchored’ at either end by twin office towers, it was designed in conscious emulation of a street

But instead of breathing life into the existing city, it merely usurped the function of the real street it ran beside, creating what architect Bruce Kuwabara describes as a ‘black hole effect’ throughout an otherwise vital downtown. The section of Yonge Street immediately beside the centre has been consigned to blowing newspapers and passing cars. The centre improves on Yonge Street in the protection it offers from an often harsh climate. But, of course, the derelicts who are plentiful in the neighbourhood and who could most benefit from shelter, are kept out of the Eaton Centre’s ’public’ court. Instead, they frequent the heated stairwell of a nearby underground parking lot, and the public activity of what has been dubbed Toronto’s cathedral of consumerism’ is conditioned totally by the discipline of shopping.

Because the distinction between public and private space has been paid so little heed by modern planning, the erosion of public space continues even in publicly-financed projects. Winnipeg. Manitoba. is perhaps the only city in the world best known for its major intersection. Portage and Main, but now Winnipeggers are forbidden from treading it: a new scheme to ease motor traffic congestion forces them to cross underground along with the sewer mains.

On a vastly different scale, architect Arthur Erickson’s treatment of Robson Square in Vancouver intended as the prime focus for downtown life in that city — sacrifices so much for dramatic effect as to be both unrecognizable and unusable as a public space. Erickson, the epitome of what Vancouver architect Donald Gutstein describes as ‘the architect as corporate artist,’ has recently been called upon to wreak his magic in an almost billion-dollar renewal project for downtown Los Angeles. Typical of such projects, the city has provided Erickson’s developer with a huge tract of prime city land for its own use, in return for the creation of a fixed quota of public land with the appropriate amenities. In his plans Erickson seems to have restrained the creative hand that so muddled Robson Square, and has instead opted for yet another standard-issue, formless ‘people place’.

If the trend toward further erosion of public life in the big cities is no longer as strong as it once was, it has speeded up considerably in the smaller towns. Especially in the economically embattled industrial towns of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. the creation of a single shopping centre can completely destroy a vital downtown area

Ironically, the process is often fuelled by local councils and business associations which are desperate for growth and welcome uncritically any form of development. Even when the choice appears plain, many towns are willing to gain enclosed suburban shopping malls at the expense of Main Street, a frequently splendid creation elaborated far beyond the requirements of its strictly commercial function and carrying tremendous symbolic importance.

As Main Street declines, the market square is paved over for parking and the county courthouse rebuilt on the outskirts, symbolism is often the only function left —public life disappears. And not just demonstrations either. To quote Barry Sampson: ‘If you don’t have Main Street, how can you hold a parade?’

John Barber is Associate Editor of the Canadian magazine Harrowsmith.

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