New Polygon Gallery is architecturally eye-catching anchor for Lower Lonsdale's waterfront hub

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      Emerging from North Vancouver’s waterfront at the foot of Lonsdale, Patkau Architects’ new glass-and-metal landmark that is the Polygon Gallery has dramatically changed the landscape. In fact, it’s turning an already thriving neighbourhood into a brand-new destination for art lovers.

      But director and curator Reid Shier remembers a time when the photography gallery’s digs were not quite so noteworthy.

      Ever since the former Presentation House Gallery launched in 1976, it has featured works by some of the world’s most celebrated photographers—Edward Burtynsky, Stan Douglas, Fred Herzog, for example; Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and Diane Arbus, to name a few more. Over the years, it has developed a reputation for being one of the strongest photo-based institutions in North America.

      Yet it wasn’t uncommon for exhibiting artists to experience a sense of disconnect—and disbelief—when they first set eyes on the place, a dilapidated building from about 1902 that started out as a girls’ school before being converted into a “temporary” city hall (which lasted 62 years) and an RCMP station.

      “Any artist who was coming into town was coming based on the reputation of the institution that was pretty strong,” says Shier, Polygon Gallery director and curator, in a phone interview. “I would often pick them up at the airport. We’d drive up to the gallery, we’d stop, and then there would be a long, pregnant pause. They’d say, ‘This is the gallery?’

      “It was, to put it kindly, a deficient space,” he says. “There’s an engineering report from the 1930s that says…there’s absolutely no reason to put another dime into the building because it was so decrepit. It was literally impossible for anybody with any mobility issues to get in to; there was no air conditioning, and we had to close in summer because it would get so hot. By the time it became a cultural society in 1976, there was a promise for all members that there would be a new building within a couple of years.”

      The Polygon Gallery has been a longtime dream of curator and director Reid Shier, who's moving the world-class collection from the outdated, cramped Presentation House Gallery.
      Emily Cooper

      In fact, when Shier was hired in 2006, part of his mandate was to find the gallery a new space. It may have taken far longer than anyone anticipated, but the move has finally happened, with the Polygon Gallery set to open on November 18. It will be the largest independent photography exhibition space in Western Canada.

      The two-storey, 25,000-square-foot facility just may be a few blocks from the gallery’s former home at Chesterfield Avenue and 3rd Street West, but it’s a world apart, sitting on one of the most spectacular spots in North Vancouver, right on the water just west of Lonsdale Quay. After serving as a dry dock, the prime piece of land sat for decades as a parking lot. Designed by Patkau Architects—the company behind Whistler’s Audain Art Museum—the $20-million structure overlooks Burrard Inlet, the inner harbour, and Vancouver’s skyline.

      “You can use a lot of adjectives to describe it, but transformative is really the word that says the most,” Shier says. “I can’t recall another situation of a cultural organization going from such poverty to such riches. It is an extraordinary opportunity for us to do the kind of shows we have always done—properly, for audiences, in a space that was really built for a public.”

      The gallery came to be following an initial $4-million gift from the Audain Foundation and Polygon Homes (both established by developer and philanthropist Michael Audain). The City of North Vancouver and the provincial and federal governments donated $2.5 million each, with major gifts also coming from Brigitte and Henning Freybe, TD Bank Group, and others.

      Fitting in with the city’s vision of the seascape being a vibrant community hub, the gallery very much aims to be a gathering place.

      Its main floor consists of three walls of floor-to-ceiling glass—meaning you can stand across the street and see right through the building to the SeaBus, Canada Place, the cranes of the Port of Vancouver. Adjacent to the east-side main entrance is a public plaza (still under construction) that City of North Vancouver mayor Darrell Mussatto likens to Chicago’s Millennium Park. In front of the building’s south side is a “mega bench”, a 48-metre seat made of western red cedar, along the newly developed Spirit Trail, a multi-use path developed in partnership with the Squamish First Nation that will stretch from Deep Cove to Horseshoe Bay.

      The venue’s main floor, which has a café and gift shop, is free to visitors; the Chan Family Gallery will feature rotating installations and has seating overlooking the harbour where people can sit and relax.

      “The building is not this temple to academia but rather an accessible community hub,” says associate director Jessica Bouchard during a tour of the space. “It’s a place for people to stay a while, get a coffee, open their laptop, linger. It will be a hive of activity.”

      Adding to the accessibility factor is a just-announced boost from BMO, Bouchard notes: in addition to its campaign donation, the financial institution has underwritten the admissions program for the gallery’s first four years. That means that entry will be by donation during that entire period.

      From a design perspective, one of the most striking elements of the gallery is its roof: a saw-tooth structure features several north-facing windows that bathe the exhibition rooms in natural light. More than a practical way to brighten up the spaces even on the darkest, rainiest days, it’s also a nod to Lower Lonsdale’s shipbuilding past. During the Second World War, the area’s shipyard built more combat vessels than any other yard in Canada.

      “It harks back to the industrial history of the site,” lead architect John Patkau says on the line from his office. “This is the kind of roof that many historical factories and manufacturing facilities had because of the even light that comes in. Most gallery spaces are pretty buttoned-down and mute, but because the ceiling is so robustly developed it really makes this gallery different than any other you’ll find in this region.”

      Inside, the gallery’s materials shift from the lobby level’s concrete, glass, and steel to white walls and naturally distressed white-oak floors upstairs, where several distinct areas exist. There’s a bookshop focused on artworks and exhibitions. The Denna Homes Gallery has a covered deck space, while the Seaspan Pavilion (funded by the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation), has a fully retractable glass wall, the room leading to a large covered deck, bringing the outside in; the latter is a space that Patkau can see becoming quickly booked up for weddings and private parties.

      Another eye-catching aspect of the building is the exterior’s cladding. It’s made of perforated metal, the same kind of nonslip material used on docks, planks, and marina walkways. Behind it is a mirror of polished stainless steel, which reflects the outdoor light. “The building façade changes with the weather,” Patkau says. “If you visit on a sunny day and look up at it, you’ll see the sky reflected in the building. If you go on a fall and winter day when it’s overcast, the building reflects that greyness. So, it’s sombre and restrained some days and lively and animated on others. It’s an amazing visual phenomenon.

      The Polygon Gallery is the latest addition to North Vancouver’s ever-evolving waterfront. Lower Lonsdale is now home to Shipbuilders’ Square, where everything from concerts to yoga classes takes place, along with its bustling outdoor Shipyards Night Market; and the Pipe Shop, a restored heritage structure that started out in the 1940s as a marine pipefitting facility and is now used for private and community events. The Pinnacle Hotel at the Pier is home to the North Shore’s largest conference facilities. Soon to come to the area are a public plaza with a retractable roof that will feature an outdoor skating rink in winter and water park in summer as well as the new 16,000-square-foot home of the North Vancouver Museum and Archives.

      The historic neighbourhood’s revitalization has led to an influx of new housing developments, attracting downsizers, first-time buyers, and office workers who prefer the 12-minute SeaBus ride downtown to a bridge commute. Among the newest projects in Lower Lonsdale, affectionately known as LoLo, are the Morrison, modern townhomes designed by SHAPE Architecture, and Cascade at the Pier by Pinnacle International, a luxury project that gives residents access to that aforementioned hotel’s amenities.

      According to Mussatto, the new arts centre has a special place within North Vancouver—literally and figuratively. He points out that talk of a revitalized shoreline started well before he was first elected as a city councillor in 1993.

      “The gallery is in the heart of our city and is going to be another amazing activity at the waterfront,” Mussatto says. “I see it not just as a local attraction but a regional attraction. The gallery has world-class exhibits, and now we have a building that’s representative of the work that appears inside.”

      Despite the gallery’s move, Shier says its mandate remains unchanged: to showcase compelling photography and photo-related art. Its inaugural exhibition, N. Vancouver, will feature pieces by Althea Thauberger, Stephen Waddell, Jeff Wall, and many others. (Stay tuned for the Straight’s ongoing coverage of the Polygon Gallery’s shows.) He says it was important that the opening exhibit reflect the community that the arts hub calls home.

      “The City of North Vancouver really put a vote of trust in us to build a cultural institution on the waterfront,” he says. “It’s fantastic to be able to have a stand-alone art gallery on such an important piece of the civic landscape.

      “Lower Lonsdale is really shifting with all the activity from the area’s build-out,” Shier adds. “Before, when people came over on the SeaBus, they’d wander around Lonsdale Quay, then get back on and go back to Vancouver without a whole lot to do down there. Now, there’s a locus for staying a while.”

      The Polygon Gallery's director-curator Reid Shier.
      Emily Cooper