The proposed design for a new Vancouver art gallery by Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron Herzog will be wrapped in wood.
You descend underground, then you rise into the air. This is how architects Herzog and de Meuron imagine visitors will enter the new Vancouver Art Gallery. If the project ever comes to fruition – and even if it isn’t – this unusual walk will change the way the city sees its architecture.
The design proposal, which was unveiled on Tuesday, is both a sensitive response to Vancouver’s building culture and a dramatic argument for doing things differently. Where other cultural buildings are horizontal, it would be vertical, rising to 70 meters; while downtown Vancouver is a city of glass, it would be shrouded in wood; and while the low “podium building” is an integral part of the city’s urban design, the gallery complex would leave much of the ground floor wide open – even bringing the public space underground.
In design, the 310,000 square foot gallery is a tall and distinctive monolith. In the drawings, it appears as a stack of tiles, bigger and bigger in the middle, then smaller again at the top; some of these boxes are wrapped in screens of wood and glass, others almost entirely of wood. a inukshuk? An Inca temple in the air? Choose your likeness. Like many cultural buildings designed by the Switzerland-based architecture firm – most notably the de Young Museum in San Francisco – it is said to have a strong and haunting presence on the streets.
Speaking about the design on Monday, HdM partner Christine Binswanger explained that boldness was precisely the goal. “Vancouver is a vertical city,” she said. “If we had designed a museum lower, it would have been eclipsed by everything around it.”
Fairly logical. But what is happening below is most unexpected. The building would face Cambie, Georgia and Beatty streets with low pavilions; Within this perimeter, most of the building would be lifted off the ground by 12-meter columns to create a 40,000 square foot public courtyard, sheltered from the rain and open to the sky.
Under this square would be a reception hall and large gallery spaces, as well as a sunken garden open to the sky. This solves the problem of the site’s steep slope while creating a weave of open and interior space, streetscape and enclosure. This is the theme Arthur Erickson and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander played in Robson Square, taken to a new level of complexity.
From there, visitors climbed by escalator or elevator through the courtyard and into the building above, to an auditorium, a restaurant, then the main galleries on levels five, six and seven. This sequence makes perfect sense; the galleries would be sober boxes, lit by carefully placed skylights and tall windows. Just as Herzog and de Meuron did at Tate Modern in London – the most visited contemporary art museum in the world – they figured out how to make a vertical gallery serve art. And add the bonus of some killer views, that crucial Vancouver amenity.
Winners of the Pritzker Prize, HdM is one of the world’s leading architectural firms and, unlike many of its peers, it lacks a distinctive style. Indeed, they pride themselves on carefully reading the place where they build and responding to it with sensitivity. This is exactly what they are doing with the VAG project, and their main idea is that downtown Vancouver – filled with generic buildings “where the view from inside has taken precedence over the architectural expression of the city, “as they write in a statement – needs a shake up.
The gallery must be innovative enough to match the work produced by Vancouver’s artistic community, and different enough to mark a new era in the city’s cultural history. This design would accomplish just that.
An important ingredient is wood – the material and commodity that built Vancouver before concrete and glass. The low wooden buildings facing the street are reminiscent of the 19th-century streetscape and the creative use of wood in local Modernist homes. Ms Binswanger said the architects would like to make as much of the gallery structure as possible out of wood, including new wood technologies such as cross-laminated timber which have high potential for innovation. “And wood is an unexpected choice of material for a building of this type,” she added. “Letting it soften in some places, letting it age and transform, I think that would be very interesting.”
The gallery must also contribute to providing a veritable agora, a place of public gathering, of which the city center has too little; the site of the gallery, formerly Larwill Park, was used for this purpose until the 1940s. For this, the architects propose to blow up part of Queen Elizabeth Square next door and to bring a new place at the level of the gallery . It’s a bold bet, that’s exactly what we need here.
And while the VAG leadership is now engaged in a formidable lobbying and fundraising effort – assuming a construction budget of $ 300 million, which may or may not cover the cost of this project – it is now focusing on an urbanistic and architectural vision which is daring and irresistible.
If you read it carefully, there is controversy in this design. Part of the Larwill Park site would be redeveloped for the benefit of the city; Herzog and de Meuron designed the block to push this commercial component into two towers along Dunsmuir Street. These towers – which are not the responsibility of the architects – appear in the drawings as glassy, square and entirely generic; they just stop on the ground to make way for an open space. Herzog and de Meuron have a message: in Vancouver, money takes the form of towers of glass, but it has to stop somewhere to make way for a public space, a beautiful, gnarled and strange place of culture.