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Vancouver Art Gallery design: Have your say

October 5th, 2015 · 7 Comments

The city architect/planner who used to oversee the big moves and small details of Vancouver’s major buildings — Ralph Segal — weighs in here on the art gallery. I myself am still trying to understand the design (it looks somewhat better seen close up than in Twitter pictures), so I have no strong thoughts. I’m throwing the conversation open here to all. Curious what you think. I’ve been surprised already so far by the people who love it (and I thought would hate it) and vice versa

About 5 years ago, as the City’s Senior Architect/Development Planner (since retired), I was a contributor to City Council’s decision to the give up the Georgia Street-fronting portion of the Larwill Park site to the Vancouver Art Gallery, arguing that an inspired, stunning Gallery building design at this location would undoubtedly be the catalyst for for a revitalized Arts, Performance, Cultural, Public Institution Precinct on this stretch of Georgia St. together with Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Public Library, CBC, an adaptive re-use of the Post Office, an enhanced Georgia St. to the east with Viaducts gone, etc.etc.

With the unveiling of the new VAG design, which some experts, politicians and other cheerleaders have raved about, I must offer (with apologies to Hans Christian Andersen) that “The Emperor Has No Clothes”. Thank goodness the presentation of the proposal pointedly cites it as “conceptual”, for if this design is implemented in its present form it will be an embarrassment to Vancouver. I understand why backers must now, with its glitzy unveiling, get behind this design. What I fail to understand is how the VAG executive and its award-winning architectural team, could have so misread how this design will be perceived. Or was the VAG executive so intimidated by Herzog de Meuron’s reputation that it failed to question the direction the design was taking as it was unfolding?

Frankly, this design is underwhelming. It needs to be a dynamic, sculptural piece unto its own, provoking debate about architecture and art. Instead, we have a static, symmetrical stacking of boxes evoking puzzlement, if not cynicism. And while the use of wood certainly can be a plus, cladding the boxes in an appliqué of wood panelling doesn’t rescue the design. The composition reminds me of a spatial relationship diagram of the various building functions, a useful architectural design tool for sorting out and organizing three dimensionally a complex building program. But for that 3-d diagram to then become the building’s architecture…aren’t we missing a few steps in the design evolution process such as asking what imagery for Vancouver art and culture as expressed in this building design we want to project around the world? Will it be a series of symmetrically stacked boxes? Perhaps the VAG’s image will be better served by having the architects pursue a design theme that truly resonates with Vancouverites, not to mention potential VAG donors. To its credit, lifting up the entire structure to create a public courtyard is a brilliant idea but to then surround it on all four sides by a one-storey, virtually continuous perimeter building effectively privatizes the space. To be truly public, it should open its arms expansively to one or both Georgia Street corners to graciously invite pedestrians into this covered, sunny space. I know, I know, all this would jog the present clearly logical functional planning/circulation arrangement of the various interior spaces and the security challenges of the street level exterior space. But does pure logic trump all else in this design? Indeed, how does logic play into this entire $350m exercise that puts a new gallery on a site that will not, for another 20 years, perhaps never, capture the prominence of the VAG’s present location at the very heart of the downtown that it now enjoys! But let’s not open that pandora’s box!

If this design is indeed “conceptual” there is a need to get back to the drawing board and rethink the image the VAG should convey for itself and for all Vancouverites who should be able to take pride in this building. The immediate impression one should experience upon encountering it should be one of drama, loving or even hating it, but not one of puzzlement or equivocation or pizza boxes. Herzog & de Mueron is entirely capable of delivering such drama as they have elsewhere and Vancouver deserves no less. Let them have another go at it.

Ralph Segal

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