An audacious concept put forward by the Vancouver Concert Hall and Theatre Society would see the current Vancouver Art Gallery’s Georgia Street plaza excavated to create a 1,950-seat underground concert hall, with the gallery’s Robson Street annex building redeveloped into a 450-seat multipurpose theatre.
The proposal was unveiled at a news conference this morning by VCHTS chair Ron Stern, architect Bing Thom, internationally recognized acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey, and follows the decision by Vancouver City Council to reserve two acres of the three-acre parcel of land at Larwill Park (688 Cambie) for cultural purposes.
“It is possible to build both the concert hall and the theatre and the VAG on two acres, but it would be quite challenging to accommodate the two,” Stern explained. “The complex would have to be highly, highly integrated. The gallery originally sought the entire three-acre site for an iconic, single-user art gallery building, so it’s not likely that they would embrace such an integrated complex.”¦ With what we are unveiling today we believe we have found not just an innovative, unprecedented way to use the vacated gallery site should it move to Cambie Street, but an opportunity to revitalize the gallery building and site to create an exceptional public square and to provide the city with a new purpose-built 1950-seat concert hall and a 450-seat theatre.”
The idea, conceived by Thom, is to construct a below-ground concert hall underneath the existing plaza fronting Georgia Street, and redesign the public square above to facilitated public activities such as festivals and demonstrations. The Robson Street annex building would house a 450-seat theatre to be used by organizations such as the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir, Blackbird Theatre, Musica Intima, The Electric Company, Music on Main, and the Vancouver International Dance Festival. The main gallery building would be converted into a public space with lobbies for the theatres, restaurants, boutiques, and other cultural uses, with the Georgia Street entrance once again opened up to the public.
“It’s not just a matter of what we’re going to do with the Larwill Park site,” said Thom. “It’s what we’re going to do with the existing courthouse and the whole future of Robson Square and the plaza that we have in front of the courthouse itself. It has always traditionally been so important to all of us.”
Thom noted the proposed concert hall complex, which would require excavations up to 100 feet deep, would allow the facility to link with the UBC media centre in Robson Square, and provide a space for major speakers and civic forums to take place in the heart of the city. Toyota, who was the chief acoustician of the much admired Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and will work with the VCHTS, said he was satisfied that the proposed underground concert hall could work well. “I am so happy with this proposed location and site,” he said.\p>
Tovey explained that, like the Disney Concert Hall, the proposed Vancouver concert hall would have what’s known as a vineyard design, in which both the stage and seating are raked, and the audience surrounds the stage on all sides. “The great thing about the vineyard space is that you can communicate with the audience, with musicians, and musicians can communicate with each other,” he said. “It’s about the message of the composer reaching out to the audience in a way that in a traditional concert hall space is perhaps a little more frustrating.”
As for the lack of an iconic structure in the plan, Tovey was blunt: “I can tell you we’re not looking to build something phallic, we’re looking to build something that’s a wonderful natural acoustical space. And because of that reason we can embrace the underground concept quite easily.”
Despite not requiring much in the way of above-ground building, the proposed concert hall complex would come with a hefty price tag of around $200 million, said Thom, with funding coming from government and private donations.
The City of Vancouver has been briefed on the proposal, said Stern. “I think it’s fair to say they were very excited by the boldness of the idea, and they could see immediately what it would do for the block.” The VCHTS has not ruled out a shared space with the VAG at Larwill Park, however.
Added Stern: “If the VAG decided they wanted to participate in a totally integrated complex, something could be done that would be very exciting at the bus station site. I’m not meaning to be critical in saying this, the VAG has been very consistent in saying they want their own building and they want to be iconic, and they think that that’s appropriate. It’s up to the city. It’s up to the city and the governments to decide what the balance is. What we know is there’s need for expansion of the VAG, there’s a need for a new concert hall, and there’s a need for a new small theatre. Those needs are all there. What we’ve introduced today is what we think is a terrific option for the city to consider.”