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Architect’s model of the Audain Art Museum proposed for Whistler, B.C. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Architect’s model of the Audain Art Museum proposed for Whistler, B.C. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

High art: Philanthropist Michael Audain reveals design for his Whistler museum Add to ...

Described by its architect as a “very quiet participant within the forest,” the Audain Art Museum planned for Whistler, B.C., has grown to double the size originally announced. On Tuesday, philanthropist Michael Audain revealed the design for a 55,000-square-foot museum – up from the 27,000 square feet first proposed last fall, and the 39,000-square-foot facility later approved by the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

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If approved, Audain says that would make it the largest purpose-built art museum in British Columbia. Still, architect John Patkau says the building – set in a creekside lot populated with spruce and cottonwood trees as well as a works yard – is designed “not as something loud and shouting, but as something that is a partner with the natural vegetation.”

Audain, 75, is a wealthy home developer and a devoted collector of art, with a remarkable collection that focuses on, but is not limited to, art of the Northwest Coast, with works by Emily Carr, the Group of Seven, contemporary British Columbia artists such as Jeff Wall and Ken Lum and extraordinary masks by First Nations artists.

Once the chair of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s relocation committee, Audain has been among the most vocal – and moneyed – supporters of a new VAG. So when he announced last October his intention to build his own museum up the Sea to Sky Highway in Whistler, it sent ripples through the local visual-arts community: What would this mean for a new VAG? Audain, who is still chair of the VAG Foundation, has always maintained his support for a new VAG – and addressed Vancouver city council on the issue a couple of weeks ago – but decided to go with the Whistler plan because he was in a hurry, he said, to see his collection installed in a public art museum.

The proposed long, low-slung, L-shaped steel structure (55,230 square feet, to be exact) is to be surrounded and to some extent hidden by trees, meant to blend in with the forested environment. It has been carefully designed to fit into a footprint that would see only a single tree removed during construction – a cottonwood nearing the end of its life, according to Patkau.

Audain said the initial proposal did not allow for sufficient back-of-house space, or enough room in the galleries for his art.

“Our architect showed us where he would eventually build or design an addition for us and I thought, well, it probably makes sense to build the addition right away because it would be so expensive to do it later, so we may as well do it now,” said Audain. “I think it’s still a pretty nice building that fits right into the lovely spruce forest.”

The design, revealed at a Vancouver news conference held in the boardroom of Audain’s company Polygon, would see visitors enter along a gently upward-sloping ramp through the forested area. On the far side of the structure, facing Fitzsimmons Creek, is a long windowed walkway looking out through the glass onto the nature outside, and connected inside to the galleries. A sharply slanted roof is designed to shed the heavy snowfall of the mountain village, with offices and storage areas housed under the roof on the second floor. Audain’s wife and art-collecting partner, Yoshiko Karasawa, is designing a tea house for the museum.

Because the gallery is being constructed on a flood plain, the facility would be built a full storey above the ground.

The main exhibition area, to house works from Audain’s collection, would be 14,000 square feet, and the second gallery for travelling exhibitions 6,000 feet. Initially the thinking was that the temporary exhibitions would also be related to B.C. art, but Audain says he is leaning toward international exhibitions instead, contemporary art in particular. Ultimately, he says, it will be up to the museum’s director. A search to fill the position is expected to begin later this year.

It was at Audain’s behest that the proposal was expanded – which will result in an increase in construction costs from an estimated $20-million to $30-million – to be paid entirely by Audain’s foundation. The timeline has also been set back somewhat, with shovels expected in the ground late this summer, and completion by early 2015 (delayed from fall of 2014).

While the project has been motoring along – it’s been less than eight months since Audain first saw the site – he is clearly anxious to get moving. “I think it’s taking too long,” Audain told The Globe and Mail. “We should be in the ground already. The snow is gone.”

The rezoning requires approval from the Resort Municipality of Whistler, which was only informed of the proposed size increase on Monday. Audain said he would be surprised if it wasn’t approved. Whistler’s mayor, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, a big booster of the project, is quoted in the press release issued Tuesday. “We will be honoured to have a world-class art collection on permanent display,” reads her statement, in part.

The process is certainly moving at lightning speed when compared to what’s happened with the proposal for a new Vancouver Art Gallery. The VAG was recently granted conditional approval for a plot of city-owned land called Larwill Park by Vancouver city council, and now has two years to raise $150-million of the building costs.

When asked whether his attention on building his own museum will have an impact on a possible new VAG, Audain said no.

“One thing is for sure, this will be hopefully finished before construction starts on Larwill Park. So I don’t think there’ll be much competition. I wouldn’t be doing it if I felt it was competitive with the VAG relocation. Because I think Vancouver and British Columbia really needs that so much.”

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