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 “two concert halls, a new National Gallery of Aboriginal Art and an Asian art building.” 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



  1. Almost sounds like we need to do a design competition, like we did with the Central Library… The design we chose wasn’t my first pick at the time, but it definitely led to a lot of engagement and interest from the city as a whole. We ended up with a very unique building that has become a fixture, and nobody can say that they weren’t asked.

    1. There was one community that was never asked, and that was the architectural profession. Was there a board or design committee with architects, one that requested the profession to provide an intelligent critique and discourse on the competition mainly because this was such a vital piece of urban and cultural infrastructure? No. We had Gordon Campbell act as the architectural competition jury of one and choose the winner based solely on straw polling on which of the models had the most ‘striking’ facade, all with virtually non-existent accompanying design rationale. Typical politician counting votes and delivering a popular confection and mediocrity.

      Critic Trevor Boddy called the process a “mall crawl.” I think a more accurate description would be: which design best represents Vegas? What’s next, a faux half-scale Eiffel Tower for a new city hall? A desert tan stucco pyramid for the next community centre?

      The highest insult was paid to Vancouverites by architect Moshe Safdie who arrogantly claimed he “gave Vancouver a history.” Uh huh. The 14,000-year and highly unique iconography of Indigenous history is discounted, as is the more Euro-centric colonial history of the dominant society. In this story the other two finalists are never spoken of. One had a far more mature, refined semi-circular form and superior treatment of the outdoor spaces; the other was not a design but a proposed process by Richard Henriquez, one of the finest older generation local architects worthy of international recognition, who would have launched into a deep research of the site and Vancouver history with extensive public engagement.

      Several architects spoke up after the fact, some of them local, others internationally, a few through an international architectural publication that placed Safdie’s VPL Coliseum prominently on the Outrage page with a stinging written design review.

      The best features of the VPL are found inside, mainly the radical departure from the cheesy, cartoon PoMo appropriation of an image from ancient Rome on the outside (a Coliseum …. really?) to a purely functional representation of the library programming and generous common areas that take on the form of towering atria. Anyone can come up with an elliptical facade. Not everyone can blow it so badly through a complete rejection of regional history with a stunningly shallow, thin reference to biblical Rome.

      1. I would add that the interior has a major flaw too. The escalators are aligned rather than crossed as the should be. I can’t imagine a reason other than aesthetics over function. It truly makes me not want to use the library unless I can’t avoid it. The fancy new rooftop is way too much effort on the escalators and the elevators are a long wait.

      2. “The 14,000-year and highly unique iconography of Indigenous history.”

        We came down the coast of North America in our canoes. We lived in the space between the sky, the sea, and the land. In those days’ hundreds of years ago food was plentiful and available for the harvesting. Mother earth was our home and we were happy, we sang songs and told our stories to the children.

        One day aliens entered our world with their machines. It was as if they came from another planet. They couldn’t live without their machines. So we began to think of them as the cyborg people. They were part human and part machine. Everywhere that the cyborg people went they brought devastation to our world.

        It could be we thought as time went on that the machines were controlling the people. In time the machines became too numerous to count, they were everywhere and they became the economy of the land, they demanded ever more resources and energy, and finally they began to change the climate.

        Some of the cyborgs became alarmed and called for measures to protect the environment. Some thought that they could improve the designs, that they could invent new sources of energy for the machines. They all thought they could have their cake and eat it too. No one wanted to live like the canoe people.

        At about this time we began hearing stories from the north and the south about the melting ice caps. Scientists began talking about big changes on the way, with predictions that the sea level could rise by 220 feet just as it had done 65 million years ago. It seemed to us that the machines were terra forming the planet. This would not be good for the cyborg people since most of them lived in coastal cities, but machines do not have feelings for anything, they are inorganic systems, they don’t care about consequences.

        We have been struggling to make sense of all these things. Maybe the cyborgs will become all machine and not human at all, a divergent evolutionary pathway.

        As for ourselves, there will always be space between the sky, the land, and the sea, and no matter how high the sea rises we will have our canoes.

  2. “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.”
    How does a Library dressed up as faux Roman Coliseum have any relevance to our particular locale? The problem was with the competition, which was incorrectly run and pandered to the ‘world class city’ aspirations of a few local politicians.

      1. No they weren’t. One was a process by an excellent architect on uncovering history and letting it inform the design as a first priority. A coliseum is in-your-face anti-nondescript. A building with a pink elephant facade is not nondescript. Does that make it a winner in any mature discourse on architecture? Is not being nondescript the highest criteria one can strive for in a supposedly informed design competition? And just where was the informed discussion on the VPL project?

  3. Any large museum or gallery only has a small portion of their collection on display at one time. I’m not sure why this keeps getting trotted out as if it is unique to Vancouver.

  4. Is the author of the above article suggesting that we should go with this design after she appears to have said she, through the positions of others, have said it’s an inappropriate design?

  5. Sorry, Bing, I much prefer the Swiss architect’s design to that thing. His plan for the theater in the former courthouse building under the plaza is, in my opinion, a much better one.

  6. I think the problem with the Herzog and De Meuron design is that the plaza is largely walled off from the street so it screams “exclusive / enclave / elitist” – but even hen, there’s just poor access and visibility.
    So in the same way that the sunken plaza at Robson Square is under utilized because of the grade difference and the poor sightlines down into it (tourists on the upper sidewalk don’t know its there)
    – the same might occur with the hidden plaza at the new VAG.
    Also, despite being sheltered by the building, the plaza also does not appear to have much weather protection from wind blown rain and perhaps should be enclosed
    (Think Plaza of Nations and the large glass walls retrofitted after Expo 86 to make it more usable outside the summer season).

    1. The sunken plaza was supposed to tie into a subway station that never got built. Arthur has his own ideas about what should happen and they didn’t always coincide with the general flow. That being said, the sunken plaza is still a very successful place. The rink is a delightful addition to the urban environment and it allows one to slip away from the turmoil at street level.

  7. In my view the problem with the VAG project (and the VPL that came before it) is very simple: an utter lack of due process. The criteria that would underpin a reasonably good public design competition is nonexistent.

    If a publicly-funded art museum project is subjected to a reasonably decent architectural design competition, then it makes ultimate sense to have a committee or jury with peer architects, curators and public finance people write the initial RFEOI with clearly-stated art museum programming, design and budgetary rules. The jury would work in good faith to guide the process through all subsequent stages using a fair and democratic checklist format applied equally to all candidates (international and local) that could be swayed by personal bias only to defined limits in the evaluation process.

    Public consultation is key at certain stages, but it is very important that powerful individuals, lobbyists and biased groups do not attain the power to affect radical change to an otherwise fair process. It would be a great mistake to have politicians, one director or the general public dictate any of the competition criteria or who the ultimate winner will be without an extensive rationale and defendable competition evaluation criteria to back the decision.

    Peer review is essential to climate science reportage. Climate skeptics as a rule avoid the topic of peer review and the fair and open testing of hypotheses. The lack of due process in the VAG project is similarly an expression of the void of peer review. Therein, skeptics and critics are free to make misleading comments that cannot possibly be substantiated in the context of building an art museum.

    The Tyee seems to give Patrick Condon carte blanche to make sometimes outrageous, often tangential and evidence-free comments on almost any topic. The VAG is no exception. What’s more, the Tyee practices censorship in the comments that follow their articles. This happened to me when I attempted to provide links and evidence of the actual exceedingly-steep public costs to the Austrian government of the Vienna Model in housing in Condon’s 3-part series on the topic, a model he said needs to be looked at in Vancouver. It’s the same with respect to transit. There seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding about economics in his political pieces, something he shares with other critics like Elizabeth Murphy.

    Condon waxes poetic about the 50s and 60s West Coast Modern period, and that is certainly apropos in many respects. But to draw a b-line to higher land costs a half-century later and nail it down to “money laundering” is, frankly, ludicrous. What about the ultra-wealthy clients who commissioned Arthur Erickson’s houses in the 70s and 80s before the flight of money out of China? Or the corporate rape and pillage of BC’s forests by MacMillan Bloedel for whom he designed a downtown head office tower? Or the offshore money shovelled into the condos in Bing Thom’s Butterfly tower rising today in the West End, with, incidentally, $90 million in benefits for locals, daycare clients and lower income residents of the upcoming rental building?

    The theoretical does not stand up to scrutiny. Money laundering does not alone explain land value escalation through 70 years of exclusionary zoning that created an artificial shortage in land supply, decades of demographic growth, the purely non-judgemental and classless geometry of Mountain Math’s calculation that ~30% of housing consumes ~80% of the residential land supply, and the hyper-inflated demand that a decade of very cheap credit brought down.

    Where does one begin with the ordinary and perfectly predictable economics of land development and increased prices? Can we take it back to the first swing of the axe on the first old growth tree on a freshly cleared patch of newly inflated land value in what is now the downtown peninsula? After all, the development process is the same even if the scale is different.

    Speculation and money laundering are indeed present, but they are only the icing. The cake preceded them by 40 years. But that doesn’t fit the popular anti-globalization narrative. And linking money laundering in Vancouver with VAG is a stretch. For this reason people like Patrick Condon should not appear in any committee or board that is responsible for public infrastructure, as it will likely be used as nothing more than a pulpit.

    I have several books by Jan Gehl, perhaps the finest widely known urban designer on the planet, one with 60 years of actual works and urban analysis behind him. The vast majority of his work does not slag “starchitects” or automated, grade-separated rail transit or rag on with political and class themes. His work is all about public space designed for humans. Period.

    Whether VAG or VPL or any other public project is designed by a Canadian or non-Canadian architect shouldn’t matter if the project meets a set of detailed technical and financial criteria and achieves architectural excellence. If the winner is local, then bravo! If the winner is from out side the country, then bravo again! The Tate Modern is an awesome example of adaptive reuse, and is an asset for both London and the world. In fact, with no cover charge it’s a cultural gift. VAG could be too, if only the programming and public process was right. I am not convinced because there is no evidence presented as such either by VAG, or by its critics who clearly don’t understand why it is where it is today. The cart is firmly ahead of the horse.

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