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The Monuments of Piazza Italia

Eric Fredericksen

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The Monuments of Piazza Italia

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Monument to Piazza Italia, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Unit 17 (Vancouver).

Looking out from a car window along a stretch of Clark Drive where six lanes of heavy vehicles thunder back and forth from the Port of Vancouver, you might spy an oddly formal, near-ruined structure, tucked between a tire shop and the elevated tracks of the Expo Line. A postmodern colonnade, flat segments of precast concrete T-shapes, wraps around a sunken central plaza. At its rear stands a large empty white plinth.

This space was clearly planned with some ambition—aiming for grandeur, but on a budget. It reads as a place of honour, but the honoree has gone missing. An in-between space, overlooking the major wildlife corridor of the Grandview Cut, it suggests a gateway to less-surveilled parts of the city, outside the ambit of bylaw enforcement, urban planners, property development, the network of forces that shape the ordered city. Residue of the kinds of activities this allows for decorate the plaza in shifting configurations. The plaza also, however, overlooks the police impound yard, suggesting some allegory of risks and forfeits that seems to want to coalesce but does not.

Structurally, this is a magnet for intervention. The art history of the plaza, which I can only sketch here, is rich. The space became visible to current-day Vancouver largely through a single event: the discovery, one September morning in 2014, of a large red nude demon atop the plinth, one hand raising the devil horns salute, the other angled across its body to indicate a large, curving erection. Vancouver being what it is, the statue was quickly removed by City workers, and Vancouver being what it is, a petition was immediately started to return the demon to the plaza.1 It gathered 2,500 signatures.2

Less notorious interventions have done more to expand on the presence and potential of the space. As part of an Artspeak exhibition, artist Holly Ward imagined the site as a potential public square for Vancouver, which is underprovisioned in the type of grand public spaces that in older cities host both ceremonial gatherings and mass protests.3 She lined the colonnade with posters bearing utopian slogans (“Outlines of a Better World,” “Production of the Waking Dream”). Related programs explored Henri Lefebvre’s proposition of a “right to the city,” by which he meant “a transformed and renewed right to urban life.4

This short essay has thus far been coy about its knowledge of the plaza’s origin, preferring to linger on the obscurity that creates its current sense of invitation. The plaza has become semi-anonymous (Google Maps lists it as “Clark Drive Square”), but it was built in the mid-’80s as Piazza Italia (or Angelo Branca Plaza, in other accounts), as part of an ambitious plan to collaborate with ethnocultural and other community groups to create as many as 20 plazas along the path of the TransLink Expo Line. It is unclear how many were ultimately completed, and in a recent Tyee article, a journalist could locate only three.5 Jurisdictionally, they are more-or-less orphaned: not part of the City’s park system, their ownership disclaimed by TransLink, lightly stewarded, and disappointing to the communities they were meant to honour.6

Returning to the plinth at Piazza Italia, a small bronze statue once stood there: a reproduction of an 1870 Genoan marble depicting Christopher Columbus as a boy. For many Indigenous residents of East Vancouver, the sculpture was an insult and provocation, and it was a frequent target for graffiti, toilet-paper and other responses. At some point in the late ’90s, it disappeared from its increasingly inhospitable site, and then reappeared in 2000 in the Italian Gardens, a new space honoring Italo-Canadian heritage in Hastings Park, a few neighbourhoods to the east. There, a new marble-veneer pedestal claimed Columbus “discovered the unknown lands of the New World.” In 2019, I noticed on one of my visits that the caption had been edited with marker and masking tape to say that Columbus instead had “invaded the Indigenous lands of Turtle Island.” The City removed the statue to storage not long after, citing recent phone calls saying others would take action if the City did not, and indicating the need to reassess its presence on public land.7

Columbus’s former role as focal point of the composition of Angelo Branca Plaza is now largely forgotten, but it drew the attention of the artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, who knew the plaza well from her teenage walks across the city, and then learned about its history from a scholar friend while she was studying art at Simon Fraser University.

Hill decided to make her own intervention on the site, after discussing and discarding various ideas in conversation with her professor at the time, Sabine Bitter. One night, Hill and her brother visited the plaza with a generator and rewired the nonworking lights running along the top of the colonnade. In the dark night, the lights set the empty white pedestal aglow, and haloed with its empty plaza. A single photograph records the event, which was otherwise unwitnessed.8

“What I thought about was that the lights were shining on a new monument,” Hill told me, “one that celebrated public space as a place in contestation—and a particular public space that had been ‘won’ by an unofficial public who had fought for a long time against this particular monument and what it stood for. That’s why I called it Monument to Piazza Italia.”9

Eric Fredericksen

Eric Fredericksen is Head of Public Art at the City of Vancouver, Cultural Services, where he manages the City’s public art policies and programs. He was previously the Waterfront Art Program Manager for the City of Seattle. As the founding director of Western Bridge, Seattle, he organized exhibitions and stewarded commissions from 2004 to 2012. He has curated exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Or Gallery and Artspeak, all in Vancouver; the Noorderzon Festival, Groningen, the Netherlands; and Open Satellite, Bellevue, Washington. He has taught at the University of Washington, and given talks at the University of Victoria; Instant Coffee Light Bar; TBA Festival, Portland; University of Oregon; and the Sommerakademie im Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.


1 Kriston Capps, “Some in Vancouver Prefer Satan to Christopher Columbus,” Bloomberg, September 12, 2014. 

2 The petition, which was posted on September 9, 2014, remains visible on

3 Holly Ward, Every Force Evolves a Form, Artspeak, Vancouver, 2012; published to accompany Ward’s exhibition Persistence of Vision, Artspeak, June 11 to July 23, 2011.

4 Henri Lefebvre, “The Right to the City,” Writing on Cities, ed. and trans. Eleanore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, Wiley-Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, 1996, p. 158.

5 Kaitlyn Fung, “Vancouver’s Cultural Parks Are Almost Gone, but Some Caretakers Haven’t Given Up,” The Tyee, June 2, 2021

6 Naoibh O’connor, “Memory Loss: Clark Drive plaza sits forgotten and neglected,” Vancouver Courier, June 28, 2006. 

7 John Mackie, “Columbus statue at Hastings Park given refuge from anti-colonialists,” Vancouver Sun, March 24, 2021. 

8 Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Monument to Piazza Italia, inkjet print, 2014, collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

9 Text messages to the author, May 16–17, 2023.