Vancouver Art Gallery conceptual design highlights wood, huge public courtyard, and natural light

Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron looked to the history of the site for inspiration

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      What’s the most provocative material you could use for a new architectural landmark in this city of glass and steel? What would make it most stand apart here?
      In the case of the just-unveiled conceptual design for the new Vancouver Art Gallery, it turns out to be traditional warm wood, almost from top to bottom of the sculptural complex that will sit at West Georgia and Cambie streets. The cladding speaks to the history of the city and the site but also upends the notion that institutions have to be constructed out of hard, shiny metal and glass (not that there’s anything wrong with, say, Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or Randall Stout Architects’ zinc-steel-and-glass Art Gallery of Alberta).

      The new gallery as seen from the street.
      Vancouver Art Gallery

      “We’re in a context with a lot of highrises but if you take this building out of its context it’s really big,” says Christine Binswanger, partner in charge of the project for Herzog & de Meuron architects, the Swiss firm the VAG has hired for the job. She’s giving the Straight a sneak preview of the artists’ drawings and architectural model with gallery director Kathleen Bartels at the old VAG site. “So the wood softens it. It’s unexpected. This kind of institution is not normally out of wood. And it will age in different ways,” she says, adding the team plans to work with B.C.’s leading wood technologists to pick materials and treatments that will work best.

      Wood is not a novelty for Herzog & de Meuron: it’s built a larch-clad, vaulted-ceiling artists’ studio in Germany and a wood-trimmed rehab hospital in Basel. But here, the material will be a direct reference to the history of the new gallery’s site on the former Larwill Park. At the turn of the last century, it was a popular sporting field, surrounded, as Binswanger shows in an archival photograph, by two-story wood houses. “To a degree it is a shocking recall of the past,” Binswanger says.



      Fast facts about the proposed new Vancouver Art Gallery

      • The building is 310,000 square feet and stands 230 feet high, or about 21 storeys.
      • It features 85,000 square feet of exhibition space—more than double what the current VAG site has now.
      • The project is slated to cost $350 million, including a $50 million endowment to support the bigger cost of operation.
      • It’s being designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, which has created designs for museums and public spaces such as the Tate Modern in London and the Perez Art Museum in Miami.
      • It will feature a 350-seat theatre in a new education centre.
      • More than half its space will be devoted to its permanent collection of more than 10,000 works.
      • If it stays on schedule, building could start as soon as 2017.


      Visitors will be able to inspect artist renderings and a 3-D model of the VAG conceptual design during a free exhibit that opens Wednesday (September 30) at the gallery, where they’ll notice a range of other unique elements to the structure as well. Highly visible because it’s flanked by low buildings like the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex and Seaforth Armoury, the tower looks like a playful stack of boxes, with some of the bigger ones up higher. Surrounding that tall structure, on the ground level, is a separate, long-and-low single-story building that frames the entire site at streetfront around a courtyard and offers up easily accessible galleries (like the Institute for Asian Art, which the VAG launched in 2014), as well as a café. “It’s got a human scale; it needed to be open and transparent,” comments Bartels.

      In other nods to its locale, the building plan calls for covered, open courtyards where Vancouverites can escape the rain and catch art installations, performances, or other special events. That area’s sunken garden, featuring shade-loving, rain-forest trees and plants, offers a bit of greenery through windows from the below-ground parts of the gallery (where the lobby and several exhibition spaces sit).

      A courtyard features overhangs to shelter from the rain and a shade-loving sunken garden that can be seen from windows below the surface.
      Vancouver Art Gallery

      But the biggest changes for the VAG are practical ones. For a start, there is, at 85,000 square feet of exhibition space, double the room to show work. The allotment for the gallery’s own collection is half of that—about the size of the entire VAG where it sits now. That means far more potential to show visitors its impressive holdings of everything from Emily Carr to photo-conceptualism—works it can only display a tiny portion of at the old Robson site. But just as important are the variety of gallery spaces, of different shapes and sizes, with different sources of light.

      Perhaps just as integral to the new vision for the VAG are the many public spaces where it can engage with the community. There’s a 350-seat theatre, not relegated to the basement, as it so often is in other major galleries, Binswanger points out, but thrust right up into the central heart of the institution and part of an expansive new education centre. Bartels looks forward to staging everything from performance art to film screenings and talks there. Transparent lower levels, as well as peek-a-boo views into galleries from the street, are meant to add to the inviting feel.

      Herzog & de Meuron's design features a big, open entrance lobby.
      Vancouver Art Gallery

      “The city has grown so much in terms of energy and this is a building that wants to absorb that,” Binswanger adds.

      The effect of the building spreads to the surrounding area. Herzog & de Meuron are proposing a radical lowering of the plaza at the Queen Elizabeth complex so it will extend naturally from the gallery as part of the city’s new Cultural District. Located on the last empty block in the downtown, the gallery will see two city buildings go up on the back one-third of the site, and pedestrian flow criss-crosses throughout the property.

      No doubt: if and when it comes to fruition, the building will have a major impact on a piece of land that has for years served mainly as a giant parking lot (save for its stage during the 2010 Winter Olympics and a few car burnings during the Stanley Cup riot).

      A window high up in the tower frames a view of the city like artwork.
      Vancouver Art Gallery

      Now the gallery has to raise the bulk of the $350 million price tag, but Bartels says actually having a building to show will help launch the public campaign. It’s been a long, hard road to this point—one that included controversy about the facility moving from the old courthouse on Robson Street, a brief plan to place it near the Plaza of Nations waterfront, and dire warnings about its ability to raise the needed funds for a new building. In April, the VAG missed a city-imposed deadline to raise $150 million from the federal and provincial governments. (That was on top of the $50 million it already has committed from the province.)

      Still, the VAG has soldiered ahead with the plans, working with its board, staff, an artists’ committee, and other community members to try help develop the conceptual design we see now. If all goes as planned, Bartels says the schematics and design process could take a bit over a year, with construction starting as early as late 2017.
      Meanwhile, Bartels expects 50,000 people to see the free display of the plans at the VAG over the next three months. And that will provide another new wave of feedback—not to mention an almost instant reaction to the idea of a striking tower of wood joining our skyline.

      Related: The Vancouver Art Gallery response in quotes: politicians, designers herald bold new building

      Follow Janet Smith on Twitter @janetsmitharts.