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Dr. Ron Burnett, President of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, is photographed in the Art Revolution exhibition at Emily Carr University Granville Island campus in Vancouver, February 25, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Dr. Ron Burnett, President of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, is photographed in the Art Revolution exhibition at Emily Carr University Granville Island campus in Vancouver, February 25, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

on culture

Emily Carr University looks for a fundamental change with a new campus in East Vancouver Add to ...

Emily Carr University of Art + Design is preparing to build a new campus on Great Northern Way in East Vancouver, a move that will not only be seminal for the university, but could also transform the city landscape – animating the False Creek Flats, and changing the face of Granville Island, which the institution has outgrown. Three proponents (teams that include Bing Thom Architects, Diamond Schmitt Architects Inc. and Zeidler Partnership Architects) have been shortlisted for the public-private partnership project, with a decision expected this summer, a shovel in the ground in November and an opening date of Jan. 1, 2017.

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Overseeing the $134-million project is university president and vice-chancellor Ron Burnett, who met with The Globe and Mail at his Granville Island office.

In this process, does each team submit a full design?

They’re all submitting their best case for why they should be building and financing and maintaining [the new campus] over a 30-year period, and that does involve the best design. But it isn’t the final design, because there’s subsequently going to be six to eight weeks of intensive discussions with a whole bunch of stakeholders to look into whether the design needs to be changed or reflect further input.

Who are the stakeholders?

Students, staff, faculty, alumni and people in the community who have an interest in Emily Carr’s future and its role.

Are Vancouver residents considered stakeholders?

Not really.

Emily Carr has to raise $21-million for the project. How is that going?

It’s going well. We’re having a campaign launch in May and the community has really stepped up.

Is it difficult when you’ve also got the Vancouver Art Gallery talking about a new facility?

And Presentation House is out raising money. It’s extremely difficult. But Emily Carr has a unique position in that market because we are actually producing the artists that will show in the galleries. There’s a new awareness of the extent to which the cultural sector is dependent on this small institution and its contribution to the health of our creative economy.

Technology and the new economy must have an impact on higher learning. How will that be reflected in the design of the new campus?

The new campus has eight principles to deal with exactly what you’ve just asked me. The first major principle is students at the centre. We want a campus that places the educational needs of our students at the centre of physical and social organization. The second principle is bring the public in: We want a permeable campus that will reflect the community and make people feel that it’s theirs and they can wander onto it – with internal pedestrian walkways and a park. We’re discussing a science-art walk from Science World to Emily Carr.

Another principle is 21st century infrastructure – a design that is very integrated, ergonomic and really supports the complexity of work that we’re pursuing. We want a building that has movable walls, that has the capacity to be painted on, for screens to be plugged in. Every part of the building is usable as part of an overall art project.

You’re not just building a new facility in a different place. It’s a fundamental change, it seems.

Yes. It’s a new idea. It’s a way of really thinking about learning in the 21st century and trying to figure out how students of this generation learn. They learn informally, through screens, through text, but it’s text on screens. They learn through each other with social media. And they’re very oriented towards discovery. They’re deeply devoted to sustainable practices. They take the green economy seriously.

Why build this expensive project in this economy?

Because if we don’t do it now, we’re going to suffer 10 years from now. If we don’t diversify and recognize that the knowledge economy means something, it’s not just a term, we’re going to fall behind the eight-ball.

What happens to this space here on Granville Island?

That’s not clear. CHMC is developing a plan and I was interviewed by one of their consultants. I think this building offers tremendous opportunities to the city. It’s a treasure. It needs a bit of work, but it’s got a lot of wonderful qualities. It should be a building inhabited by artists and entrepreneurs in the cultural sector. I would love to see this become a mecca for the creative sector. But it really is not up to me.

Do you think it’ll be a different feel at Great Northern Way?

Yes. But major art schools around the world have always led the way to new areas of the cities. I see the False Creek Flats over the next 10 to 20 years exploding. It’s the only land left in Vancouver and Emily Carr will then be at the centre of this new energy. I think we’re leading the way hopefully to a reinvigoration of that side of the city. It’ll be this wonderful way of bringing east and west together.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow on Twitter: @marshalederman

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