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Christine Binswanger, Senior Partner at Herzog & de Meuron, is photographed on the future site of the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, October 1, 2014.Rafal Gerszak

Christine Binswanger arrived in Vancouver last weekend and was whisked away on a non-touristy tour of the city and environs, led by Vancouver artist Roy Arden. Stops included the historic Strathcona neighbourhood and an East Vancouver park overlooking the Burrard Inlet. Binswanger, the lead architect for a proposed new Vancouver Art Gallery, was particular taken with a little graveyard on First Nations land in North Vancouver, where a single tall cross emerges from a simple white picket fence. "Inside it's so peaceful," she explained in an interview this week, calling up photos of the cemetery on her phone. "This was such a strong moment."

How this may play into a design for a new Vancouver Art Gallery is unclear. But Binswanger was alive with inspiration recalling the place, suggesting this was an important moment in her Vancouver education as she contemplates the birth of a new gallery for the city.

Binswanger is a senior partner in Herzog & de Meuron, which has been awarded the contract to design a new Vancouver Art Gallery, to be built a few blocks from the current cramped but beloved facility – a courthouse renovated by Arthur Erickson Architects more than 30 years ago. Binswanger and her associate Simon Demeuse are now on a crash course in all things Vancouver, a city that, before this process, Binswanger had never visited.

"Honestly, I had no clue about this city; none of us really had," explained Binswanger, whose Pritzker Prize-winning firm is based in Basel, Switzerland.

They're learning. At a sold-out Meet the Architects public forum in Vancouver Wednesday night, Binswanger and Demeuse walked the audience through a number of HdM projects – including London's Tate Modern and Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium – and shared impressions of Vancouver: They were surprised that the trip downtown from the airport does not involve a highway, but "evergreen fences" along the road (giant hedges protecting fancy homes from street traffic). They noted an impressive amount of residential and pedestrian activity downtown. They believe if the viaducts that connect downtown to the east are dismantled (this is being discussed), this would have a big impact on the eastern-edge-of-downtown neighbourhood where the new gallery is to stand. They displayed insight and a smart kind of enthusiasm.

Binswanger and Demeuse are trying to learn the specificity of the place, as they say, which will inform their concept. They have been busy here – dinners with donors and other stakeholders, meetings at the gallery, site visits with David Dove of Perkins+Will, the local architectural firm on the project. Binswanger, who has also visited Saltspring Island, travelled to Haida Gwaii on Thursday. An important aspect to life here, she is learning, is the First Nations history and presence. And, of course, the natural beauty.

"Here it starts with the presence of nature, obviously, and the absence of nature once you're in this environment," Binswanger explained in the interview. "So, this radical contrast between the natural and the urban."

Pointing out the "degree of repetition" of the condo towers that dominate the skyline in this City of Glass (as Douglas Coupland has called it), Binswanger is promising something different for the gallery; something that draws on one of B.C.'s most important resources. "We want to pursue the notion of wood. …At least try. And not just that wood cladding that we see in certain places around here, but a wood structure. I'd like to make a wood structure, at least for certain parts of the complex."

A conceptual design is expected next spring, but the project still faces funding obstacles. The city has granted the VAG the land (two-thirds of a city block, to be shared with an office tower – HdM is responsible for the master plan) with conditions: The gallery is supposed to raise $150-million from Ottawa and the province (which has already given $50-million) by the end of April. Signs point to this being unlikely. But VAG director Kathleen Bartels has indicated that there might be some flexibility from the city on this.

(During the Q&A portion of the public forum Wednesday, a question was asked about the project's biggest challenges. "Money," someone in the row ahead of me whispered.)

Binswanger is not concerned about the uncertainty around the financing: "Totally normal in a museum," she said in the interview, noting that architects are used to seeing less than 50 per cent of the projects they draw ever being built. "Our work is thinking, and then sometimes we can also build."

On Monday, the architects met with some local artists and had a "beautiful, totally animated discussion" about their expectations, Binswanger said.

"Please don't do anything like Daniel Libeskind did for the [Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto]," Vancouver-based artist Myfanwy MacLeod urged at that meeting. Her point was that a museum's interior must be functional. "I was in an exhibition recently and it was a really problematic space to work in as an artist," MacLeod told The Globe, about the ROM. Installing recent exhibition at the VAG was also problematic. "It's not happening fast enough for me," she said of the new gallery.

There is strong support for a new gallery among local artists, but there has been some resistance from other camps. There is a civic attachment to the current site, particularly as a gathering place. (This support is sometimes voiced by people who rarely or never step foot inside the gallery but enjoy the outdoor space.)

Binswanger is well aware of this, and notes that the new location – a parking lot across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and a mid-budget hotel – is just a few blocks from the current gallery. "I think the fear has not to do with distance. The fear has maybe more to do with what is there now, also some of the surrounding buildings. But that will change. I promise that hotel across that site won't stay that much longer once there is that new gallery."

Because of the many changes Vancouver has seen in the past 30 years, residents probably feel a strong attachment to something old, she added. "And I understand that, totally."

Dove, who has been on the project for a couple of months, believes that with the gallery as a catalyst, there are significant prospects for the neighbourhood – and beyond.

"It's the potential for a little city to grow up," he said, standing in the parking lot that may by 2020 be an art gallery. "Vancouver is a small town and it's been taking steps in growing up and maturing. And this is a major step in that growth."