Skip to main content
The proposed design for a new Vancouver Art Gallery by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron Herzog will be wrapped in wood. (Herzog & de Meuron)

The outside-the-box conceptual design for a new Vancouver Art Gallery resembles a series of different-sized boxes stacked on top of each other – a building wrapped in wood that’s designed to stand out from its city of glass surroundings. The vertically oriented building is to be surrounded by a low-slung, street-accessible structure framing a large open-air courtyard. A key component of the proposal, the 40,000-square-foot courtyard is meant to become a cultural magnet and draw even non-paying customers to the site.

After working together on a master plan and proposed conceptual design for more than a year, officials from the VAG and Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron revealed their proposal publicly on Tuesday.

“We believe that this building must stand out because it’s a public building,” said lead architect Christine Binswanger during an interview Monday. “It wouldn’t make sense to try to blend in and make a silent box.”

Hardly silent, the 310,000-square-foot facility makes a bold statement, rising 230 feet (70 metres) and jutting out at points, with larger volumes concentrated at the top and minimal mass at the bottom so light and air can filter down to the courtyard.

“It is so vertically dominated, this city, that to do a museum [that] would only stay on the ground – you couldn’t do it. You have to explore the height which is so much a topic of this city,” Binswanger said, a senior partner with the Pritzker Prize-winning firm whose buildings include London’s Tate Modern and Beijing’s National (“Bird’s Nest”) Stadium. “On one [hand], it’s a building that has high components but it’s also a building that is very kind of on the ground … where the street is, where the people are.”

Vertical circulation through the building is a critical component of the museum, which stretches over several floors. About 60 per cent of the exhibition space is above – on the fifth, sixth and seventh floors – while the remainder is at ground level.

“We wanted to ensure that you come into the gallery both at the courtyard level and the lobby level and you engage with art right away. So you don’t have to just take a journey up to engage with art,” VAG director Kathleen Bartels says.

The low-rise street-front structure would house a café, shop, resource centre and a series of ground-level galleries – including a free public exhibition space and a dedicated space for the VAG’s Institute of Asian Art.

“The transparency of that low building … has been very important to us, to make sure that people can look in from the streets, so it activates the street,” says Bartels, pointing out that passersby can see into the galleries through transparent sections of the glass.

The courtyard – accessible from all four streets surrounding the block – would host art installations, performances and film screenings but is also envisioned as a public space, crisscrossed daily by museum-goers and members of the public going about their lives. It has been designed with the British Columbia climate in mind – the cantilevered roofs of the low-rise structure and main building offering protection from the rain but also allowing for sunlight through spring and summer.

Through the courtyard, visitors would access the large lower-level lobby, which includes a sunken garden and is surrounded by double-height exhibition spaces. Escalators – accessible from the courtyard or that lobby – whisk visitors upstairs.

There’s an auditorium planned for the glass-enclosed second and third levels(the theatre itself even has a natural-light feature), and the fourth level – which also has a glass façade – would house a restaurant with a large terracefacing West Georgia. The main exhibition space begins on the fifth level. Stairs then take visitors up to the sixth and seventh levels, where there are more galleries. The seventh level with its floor-to-ceiling windows features a large terrace where visitors can take in views of the city, mountains and ocean.

“It would also be an amazing space to show some of the Vancouver artists because you relate so much to the city,” suggests Binswanger. (But both she and Bartels stress that nothing has been confirmed in terms of curation.)

There is room above the seventh-floor gallery for further expansion. Two levels below ground would house parking and storage.

The VAG is to share the city-owned block with a commercial development. According to the proposed master plan, two standard identical office towers would be built on the Dunsmuir Street corners. They would be similar in height to the gallery. A central alley between them would connect to the public courtyard.

A conceptual drawing shows the wooden facility in stark contrast to the linear office towers to the north (as well as some condos to the east). At the same time, the design plays off the boxy neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Theatre and the old Canada Post building – slated for redevelopment – a block away but visible across the QE Plaza.

While noting that this is outside the scope of the commission, Herzog & de Meuron is recommending changes to QE Plaza – razing the plinth to follow the street’s topography. It says in its present configuration, the plaza cannot fulfill its role as the focal point of access for the two major cultural institutions or be a successful public space.

The city, which is leasing the land to the VAG for the project (with an estimated opening date of 2021), is keen to see how the public reacts to the design before moving forward with the estimated $350-million project. When asked if the VAG would continue to work with Herzog & de Meuron if this concept fails, Bartels said, “We’re not planning for it to fail. We wouldn’t be at this stage if we didn’t feel it was going to be successful.”

At a news conference on Tuesday to reveal the design, the VAG also announced that its board would donate $23-million to the new gallery.

Artist Jeff Wall told the crowd that artists are “desperately optimistic” about the project. “I think that artists and people in the arts really think that this is an important development, that the city needs and deserves this place; that it will have an enormous effect in what happens in the arts in Vancouver and probably in the province and probably in the country over the next period,” he said.

Wall – who was born and raised in Vancouver – also expressed delight at the proposed material.

“When was the last time anybody saw a wooden building go up in the centre of the city of Vancouver? I spent my childhood and youth watching them disappear. And I think this notion of bringing back something that has vanished, bringing back something that is inherent in the nature of this place, the forest, and wood construction that originally made the city of Vancouver is already an artistic achievement and already an artistic statement about what the city is.”

Reaction to the proposal was mixed – on social media (where there were several comparisons to Jenga) and even in the room. Vancouver architecture critic Trevor Boddy worries the design might play into stereotypes. “It will quickly become known as the totem in the wooden fort,” said Boddy, immediately after the presentation. “I hope the architects are given an opportunity to do their best and evolve something less schmaltzy. ... We do not need an inukshuk version of their Bird’s Nest Stadium.”

Boddy, who is a fan of building with wood, also suggested stacked boxes are becoming architectural clichés of our time, citing Bjarke Ingels’s design for 2 World Trade Center and KPMB’s design for the Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.

Former chief city planner Brent Toderian, who saw photos and read about the proposal online, says he supports the idea of a vertical museum – and likes the use of wood. It’s key for him that the building “enlivens and strengthens” the streets.

“There’s evidence of a strong aspiration to treat the street well, to give the public spaces the best chance of success that we can and those are critically important, but God will be in the details as the old architectural saying goes,” says Toderian, now a city planning consultant.

Michael Green, a Vancouver-based architect who advocates building with wood, called the proposal “disappointing on many levels.” He said the inverted design “is exactly the wrong thing to do in an earthquake zone” and expressed concerns the building would not provide enough exhibition space – a key reason behind the proposal. He added that wood on the exterior would weather “terribly,” and suggested the nod to B.C.’s natural environment felt inauthentic.

“It’s almost a wallpapering solution,” he said.

While he does like the proposal for public access to the courtyard, a free gallery and the proposal for Queen Elizabeth Plaza, he doesn’t see it as a future-forward building.

“Like a lot of gallery architecture around the world, you make a choice either to make a very gregarious building that sort of says ‘look at me,’ as this building does. Or you choose to make one that’s very contextual, that fits into the city. And they ... chose the former and they’ve done it I think in a way that really doesn’t enhance the city or surroundings in any particular way. And my greater concern is that it will look like a very odd building 20 or 30 years from now.”

Green says he wished the gallery had solicited public opinion about design earlier in the process, rather than seek reactionary input. (As of Wednesday, the gallery will have a space open free to the public where people can see the concept for themselves and provide feedback.)

“People are ready for new buildings and new ideas,” says Green, “but I don’t think that means they have to be clumsy solutions like this that are trying too hard.”