For many years, arriving at the University of British Columbia’s Point Grey campus through one of its key gateways consisted of navigating surface parking lots and vehicular traffic to move towards the academic core. Once within the academic core, the experience wasn’t much improved. Pedestrians were either relegated to the edges or in conflict with campus traffic, and social spaces were few and far between. It wasn’t until 2010, when PFS Studio revisited the campus Master Plan to create a new Public Realm Framework and Design Guidelines that a renewed interest in the public realm began to take hold. The Framework reinforced UBC’s historic core with its Beaux-Arts inspired symmetry and formality while bringing a contemporary design approach to the modern areas of the campus. The guidelines address the functional needs of the campus community while exemplifying university values and sustainable best practices. Recognizing the changing demands on campus and understanding the potential of the public realm as a unifying thread for the University was the genesis of a major physical transformation for UBC. Expressing institutional values of sustainability, innovation and academic excellence became a key design principle leading to the integration of innovative and poetic storm water management and diverse programming for social engagement to be featured on campus.
PFS Studio, in collaboration with UBC Campus and Community Planning, led the design and implementation of the two key spaces that changed the face and experience of University Boulevard: the storm water terraces, and Martha Piper Plaza, located at the historic beaux-art intersection of campus and named in honour of the 11th president of UBC. Together, these two spaces tell the story of UBC’s aspirations as a leading academic university while providing opportunities for the collective campus community to come together and engage in a meaningful way.
The implementation of a key segment of University Boulevard was one of the first big moves that showcased how an enriched public realm experience could bring form to institutional goals and values of sustainability, innovation and academic excellence. The segment, located between a low point and high point, is an important arrival moment and a link between the new social heart and the symbolic academic heart of campus. Previously a parking lot that lead to a non-descript roundabout at the historic beaux-art intersection, the Boulevard is now transformed into dramatic stepped terraces that gracefully climb towards Martha Pipe Plaza, an elegant plaza organized around a formal yet contemporary water feature. While each space tells an important story of its own, they are conceptually connected through form, materiality and water.
The stormwater terraces serve as an ambassador of sustainability and reconciliation while also reflecting the contrasting typologies of campus: the beaux-arts structure of campus and the natural environment that surrounds it. Run-off collected from the high point feeds the terraces, trickling over weirs before reaching the cistern where water is stored and recirculated back through the system. Planted grasses serve to cleanse the water while providing a cultural acknowledgement of the Musqueam people – ‘People of the River Grass’ – whose traditional ancestral and unceded territory the University is located upon. A striking cedar post carved by Brent Sparrow Jr., a highly regarded Musqueam artist, acts as a welcoming figure to campus, and a reminder of the relationship with the Musqueam people and that this land has always been a place of learning, where teachings have been passed from generation to generation. The cascading storm water terrace is edged with seating, and punctuated by a large wooden stage. Students are now seen gathering, studying, meeting and relaxing where a parking lot once was.
The stormwater terraces lead to the centerpiece of the UBC Campus Public Realm’s transformation, Martha Piper Plaza. Dominated by a large, animated, circular water feature that metaphorically symbolizes the complete and unified whole of the university, the circle is intentionally broken to represent the spirit of innovation and challenge to convention. This theme of breaking from tradition is reinforced with the asymmetrically positioned “eye”, an elevated disc of calm water that also represents the importance of the individual within the collective campus community. Dramatic jets respond to and reflect the pulse of campus life by erupting only during scheduled hourly breaks between classes.
The transformation of University Boulevard has successfully elevated the arrival experience to, and the procession into the UBC campus by removing vehicles, prioritizing pedestrians and creating engaging, meaningful and beautiful places to meet, gather, and engage.
Project: University of British Columbia – University Boulevard
Entrant office name: PFS Studio
Other design firms involved: Public (fountain signage)
Project location: University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Design year: 2011
Year Built: 2013 (Musqueam Welcoming Pole: 2016)