November 26th, 2007

Steps

Posted in Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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The Vancouver Art Gallery’s steps on Robson St.

It would hardly be an original observation to point out that a simple set of steps can become a well-used hangout. One of the world’s most famous public spaces is, after all, known as the Spanish Steps. But for all their ubiquity, only some steps become popular places to sit. What makes some gathering places and others just passages to somewhere else?

There are at least three key elements to making a successful set of hangout steps. The first is openness: no matter how wide they actually are, the steps must feel and appear accessible. People should feel comfortable sitting on them, which won’t happen if they’re getting in the way of passersby. The second element is location: the steps need to be located in a high-traffic area where people would actually want to sit down. Finally, the steps must have a view: there’s no point in sitting somewhere if there’s nothing to look at.

The steps in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery are one of Vancouver’s favourite gathering spaces precisely because they fill all of these criteria. They don’t actually lead anywhere — the entrance at the top of the steps has been sealed off — so they serve no purpose other than as seats in an urban amphitheatre. Similar are the steps at Montreal’s Place des Arts. Their panorama view of busy Ste. Catherine St. and the city beyond attracts a lot of people, but they’re broad enough that sitting on them doesn’t impede access to the second-storey plaza to which they lead.

In London, the steps around the statue of “Eros” (actually the “Angel of Christian Charity”) in Picadilly Circus and the sundial at the Seven Dials are popular gathering spots (even if, in the last case, there are only two steps on which to sit). Quite possibly my favourite set of steps, however, are those in front of the Arts Building at McGill University, from which the entire city seems to unfold.

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McGill University’s “Arts steps” in downtown Montreal


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