A first look at Emily Carr University of Art and Design's new campus

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      As B.C.’s only specialized post-secondary art school—and one of only four in the country—expectations were high when Emily Carr University announced plans for a new, $122 million campus.

      With its construction beginning just over two years ago, the swiftly-assembled building is every bit as game-changing as its blueprints promised.

      Art education, the school’s President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Ron Burnett tells the Straight on a private tour of the new complex, is constantly transforming. Combining high-tech creations with traditional disciplines like painting or sculpture—or “living archaeology” as Burnett christens it—Emily Carr has built its new campus around combining analogue and digital mediums.

      The first stop on the circuit is the school’s new auditorium—or, more specifically, the doors that open onto it. Like many of the entrances to classrooms or offices, the doors feature aboriginal designs carved into wood—but, unlike many pieces that can be found in museums, the constructions are made from both technological and manual techniques. It’s impossible to tell which has been printed and which is whittled. That, Burnett says, is the point, segueing neatly into how the school’s new lab upstairs allows individuals to mass-produce carvings.

      Reliance Theatre, NW entrance. Doors carved by Edwin Neel

      That printing technology comes as a big help to creators such as aboriginal artists, who are able to fashion pieces much more quickly with the new method: an important subject for Burnett, who takes great pride in the fact that, in the start of his tenure in 1996, there were just seven aboriginal students—and now there are over 100. The aboriginal gallery on the school’s first floor honours that, offering classes on everything from basket weaving and creating moose-skin drums to high-tech filming. “It’s been a long journey and hard work to encourage aboriginal people to apply,” Burnett says, “but we’ve achieved a very significant jump.”

      It’s clear as the tour continues how important technology has become in Emily Carr’s curriculum. Wearables and robotics labs take pride of place on the upper floors, as do a large animation studio and a separate building designed entirely for motion capture, complete with 40 cameras. Augmented and virtual reality design, 3D production, and other cutting-edge techniques are taught as standard.

      “A lot of our graduates are enthusiastic to go into the tech space,” Burnett says. “Sony Imageworks, who donated the screen in the animation studio, hires every graduation they can out of here. Anyone can learn to code, but applying code to a creative output is a totally different ask. We teach students how to weave creativity and production and technological proficiency.

      “We started teaching things like animation here before anyone,” he continues. “There are a lot of animation studios in B.C. because of our connection to Los Angeles. We have one of the biggest educational animation studios you’ll see in the city. The students here have the opportunity now to re-envision what animation could be, and combine it with things like augmented reality and special effects. A lot of people take this as their major.”

      Atria, view from the 4th floor, looking south

      The building, Burnett says, has been designed with the concept of “conversation” in mind—not just between digital and analogue disciplines, but between the students. On every floor, there are deliberately-placed nooks and crannies, and spill-out areas have been incorporated for people to gather. Burnett’s vision for the campus is about transparency and sharing—a point that’s highlighted on the tour as he asks a professor to take down a piece of paper that’s blocking the window to his office. “It’s a principle of the entire building that nothing is concealed,” he says. “I mean it quite seriously.”

      The aesthetic is equally deliberate. In-keeping with the character of the False Creek flats—a quick glance out of the numerous floor-to-ceiling windows on the east side reveals a view of the gritty train tracks by the water—the building has an industrial feel, with the overhead pipes purposely exposed and polished gray concrete covering the walls and floors. Other rooms feature high ceilings decorated with slatted wood: a nod to the building’s construction, which follows the wood-first principle.

      Printmaking studio

      Traditional disciplines such as painting, ceramics, and sculpture are heavily represented throughout the complex. The top floor, flooded with natural light, features numerous studios for analogue creations, and kilns and a foundry are also available to the students. Galleries and installation spaces abound, and the flexible design allows certain showrooms to be assigned an objective at a later date.

      The fact that it has been purpose-built, Burnett says, allows the university to incorporate features missing from the previous Granville Island campus. “At our other locations we had to improvise,” he recalls. “This building is the result of hundreds of meetings and consultations with the entire group of people who work inside it. We’ve managed to include everyone’s needs.”

      Ron Burnett Library + Learning Commons, mezzanine level

      Passing through the two-storey, plant-filled library as the tour concludes, Burnett acknowledges that this academic year will be his last as the president of Emily Carr, closing a chapter on his 21-year tenure. Despite the work that he’s put into making the new campus a reality, however, he doesn’t see the building as his legacy.

      “Something about the word ‘legacy’ really disturbs me,” he says. “I see this as a vision that I worked on for over 10 years. I see it as a project that is more about city-building and urban development than it is about myself, or me leaving something. I’m proud of it. I think we’ve created a community.”

      The new Emily Carr campus is at 520 East 1st Avenue. It opens to the public and students on Tuesday (September 5).

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays