One of the great things about Vancouver is how absolutely passionate and involved citizens are with the public landscape. Witness the ongoing discussion in the placement and new design for the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) to be located at 688 Cambie Street on land provided by the City on a 99 year lease.
There is clearly a need for a new art gallery and the design prepared by Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron five years ago doubles the size of the current gallery space to 85,000 square feet. Remember that this is the first custom built facility for the Vancouver Art Gallery. The total cost of the project was $350 million 2013 dollars with the Province and Federal Governments conditionally pledging $200 million dollars with the remainder to be privately fundraised.
That sum of $150 million dollars may be the largest amount ever raised through the public. The Chan family who had gifted $10 million dollars to the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia graciously donated $40 million dollars to the new gallery in January.
I have previously written about the design which will create a new public space in Vancouver. In January new renderings came out that show more glass on the exterior and less wood. The new gallery would have two lower level galleries accessible for free, have a gallery area featuring Emily Carr’s work, as well as restaurant on the top floor.
But in May Kathleen Bartels the Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery did not have her contract extended . As the Vancouver Sun’s John Mackie reported, “The VAG has declined to give a statement on what happened with Bartels, who devoted much of her time at the VAG pursuing a new building at Larwill Park designed by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & De Meuron.”
In the interim John Mackie has written about Bing Thom’s 2005 design for the site which was for a multi-use facility including a cloud-like floating building. The concept housed “t The design called the Pacific Exchange was never pursued as the Vancouver Art Gallery wished to have a free standing building.
Respected urban design pundits Patrick Condon and Scot Hein have written this article in the Tyee which questions the selection of a Swiss “starchitect” for the design, which they say “expresses a facile interpretation of West Coast materials and forms fashioned into something that looks like the spawn of a ziggurat and a giant Transformer — a design that, for better or worse, increasingly seems fated to take its place in the catalogue of unbuilt Vancouver architecture.”
Condon and Hein look at how Vancouver perceives itself, and suggest that it is our quest for international style and position that pivoted the choice towards a starchitect. They point to the nearly completed Vancouver House by Bjarke Ingels as well as “similarly twisted, folded or mutilated tower forms” being developed in Vancouver as our quest to change the city’s “understated” image. Urbanist Jan Gehl is quoted who describes this plop architecture as “bird shit” architecture, buildings that are a reflection of the designer, but have no relevance or addressing of their locales.
It is absolutely vital to have good galleries, and in Vancouver’s current case only a fraction of the collection can be shown at any time, and exhibitions have to be planned for years ahead to get into the space. This is not only a design question, it is a programming one, and that is what the Vancouver Art Gallery community has been working towards.
As Ms. Bartels observed the new art gallery has the potential to be the most important building of this generation and a model of civic leadership. There have been suggestions that it was the design that has failed the gallery, in that Vancouverites were not uniquely enamoured by it. A redesign will mean more years will pass before galleries can be opened to display and educate about the art of this place.
Images Postmedia & Vancouver Art Gallery