Canadian Architect


Urban Reef transforms downtown Vancouver

August 23, 2014
by Canadian Architect

In 2011 the City of Vancouver began temporarily transforming the iconic 800 block of Robson Street into a summertime pedestrian plaza from Canada Day to Labour Day. This seasonal change along Robson Street is a part of the City of Vancouver’s popular VIVA Vancouver program, which creates public spaces by transforming streets into vibrant pedestrian spaces.

In previous years, the design of the summertime plaza came from a call for submissions. For 2014, the City built on its experiences and launched Robson Redux, a high-profile international design-build competition. The competition received 78 entries from around the world including Spain, Japan and the United States. The winning entry of this inaugural design-build competition was created by a team of designers from Vancouver: Kaz Bremner and Jeremiah Deustcher in conjunction with Higher Works (a local furniture collective headed by Kenn Navarra and Mike Siy).

The winning design, known as Urban Reef, stemmed from two ideas highlighted in the competition brief. First was the concept of engaging Vancouver’s urban vibrancy. While Vancouver is frequently noted for its natural setting and scenic amenities, a rich urban fabric and culture exists that the City wanted to highlight through the Robson Redux competition. Second was the underlying theme for the competition: connection. The design of Urban Reef folds these two ideas together while responding to the specific qualities of the site, creating a public sculpture and armature for socializing and performance. Through the activity that Urban Reef generates, from street performance to casual chance encounters, the project’s goal was to connect people to one another and to the space in a new way.

The 800 block of Robson Street has a unique urban character. The site hosts vendors, buskers, and all manner of street life all year round. However, through much of the year, vehicular traffic on Robson Street runs through the space. Urban Reef inverts the street from separating the space to a place that condenses pedestrian activity. The installation acts in much the same way as a reef in the ocean, as an armature that facilitates the life around it creating a vibrant new ecosystem. By the simple addition of Urban Reef to the 800 block of Robson Street, the surrounding plaza is repurposed and Vancouver’s urban vibrancy has a place to come to life.

Urban Reef’s form was generated through a series of sections that suggest different types of occupation ranging from lounging to tiered seating for watching performance and overlapping benches to enjoy friends. These sections morph into one another as the installation snakes along the site creating a dynamic form that sparks curiosity and invites exploration. While the changing sections suggest different ways of occupation, the plan responds to the existing context and organizes the surrounding space for a variety of uses. For example, Urban Reef curves inward and rolls up into tiered seating creating a small amphitheatre opposite the Vancouver Art Gallery steps. This frames a two-sided performance space where a large audience can enjoy street performances. Other curves suggest smaller performance spaces and overlapping and lounging sections provide places to engage with friends or a moment of calm to relax and people-watch.

The various moments of Urban Reef’s sculptural form are comprised of 987 unique ¾-inch birch plywood sections. All of these sections were CNC-cut and hand-finished. A rigorous set of rules and digital tools were employed to maximize the efficiency of the plywood sheets. The sections are simply tied together with threaded rod and evenly spaced with sky-blue custom spacers. The spacing between the changing sections reveals a lightness and note of colour weaving through the 40 metres of benching when viewed from the side. The transparency and colour from the side contrasts nicely with the all-wood solidity experienced when the benches are approached from the end.

While the undulating form of Urban Reef may evoke Vancouver’s natural setting of coastline and mountains, it is in fact an urban catalyst igniting activity and interactions in Robson Plaza. As people engage with Urban Reef they engage with one another as well as with the unique urban vibrancy Vancouver has to offer.

For more information, please visit

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
All posts by

Print this page

Related Posts

Have your say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *