Any city is a collection of people in search of homes to house their ideas. The ideas vary in complexity according to need: giving shelter to families, to culture, to sports and entertainment, to the homeless. So Vancouver's desire to redefine itself through its collection of homes is commonplace.
The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) has been in a state of psychological homelessness for several years. Though it occupies an entire city block in the heart of downtown, the VAG's significance has been undermined. Why? Kathleen Bartels, the director of the VAG since 2001, has suggested the gallery abandon its current home, imposing a condition of exile on the venerable institution since leaving her position as assistant director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. (MOCA, by the way, is attempting to recover from the last decade's unfettered spending and a nearly exhausted endowment.)
In a city like Vancouver, with its thinly supported cultural scene, where many people would rather sail or hike than tour the stunning Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition now open at the VAG, dreams of relocation are not only unaffordable - they're damaging. Bartels may be attracted to the idea that a fancy new home might attract more customers, but the Bilbao/Guggenheim phenomenon but was a one-off conceived by very fortunate city and cultural leaders drinking some fine Spanish wine.
The Vancouver gallery's historic building overflows not only with the fundamentals of neo-classicism such as a central dome, porticos, Ionic columns, but also with collective memory that's worth more than the building's exquisite marble. Originally designed as a provincial courthouse (1905) by Francis Rattenbury, the chief architect of B.C.'s Parliament Buildings (1897), and reconfigured for $20-million in the early 1980s by the late master architect Arthur Erickson, the VAG is ripe for reinvention. Consider that the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto has undergone seven expansions since opening to the public in 1918.
Why move the gallery when there's so much potential packed into its high-profile downtown site? After all, the VAG currently operates as a critical civic linchpin and gathering place. To the north, the neo-classical façade injects some measured grace into the swanky commercialism of Georgia Street and serves as an important counterpoint to the nearby, glass-and-steel, 61-storey Shangri-La Hotel. To the south, the gallery establishes a clean axis with Robson Square, recently enlivened by a transparent dome that provides natural light for a new sunken skating rink.
How can you compare that slice of compressed urban magic to a new gallery that would be built on one of two parking lots: one near the BC Place Stadium on the north side False Creek, the other at Georgia and Dunsmuir, the site of the old bus depot.
There's intelligence to staying home and cleaning house. Before dying of old age last year, the esteemed Abraham J. Rogatnick, a retired professor of architecture at the University of B.C., wrote me a letter to draw attention to the VAG's plans to move house. Rogatnick, who was the VAG's interim director during the early 1970s, wrote of his concern that gallery officials might, "abandon their present superb site with its history of work by two of British Columbia's most revered architects and the fascinating potential to expand under the hand of yet another, perhaps international, skillful architect."
The VAG's generous front lawns suggest myriad possibilities for expanded exhibition space: think I.M. Pei's light-filled underground addition to the Louvre Museum, or Renzo Piano's expansion of the Morgan Library in New York.
Meanwhile, how many times can you sing "My bags are packed, I'm ready to go"? Bartels has signalled moving plans so often she's worn out that tune. For years, the master-planning has been going on. In March, 2008, Premier Gordon Campbell pledged $50-million toward a new building, but a site has yet to be selected. There's no news about the selection process for an architect or where the remaining $100-million would be found to cover the total cost of a significant new gallery. "We're not there yet," says Dana Sullivant, VAG director of marketing and communications. "Our process at this point is determining the site."
If there is an announcement two months from now, I hope it'll be a commitment for the VAG to stay put.
A very pricey roof job
Every house needs a decent roof. But at what cost? The new $458-million roof for BC Place Stadium is something to get excited about - if only enough events could be booked to help cover some of the extravagant capital cost.
Designed by Stantec Architecture, the roof will be the largest cable-supported, fully retractable fabric roof in the world, measuring more than four hectares in surface area. It's a piece of architectural exhilaration in an area isolated from the rest of Vancouver by the elevated viaducts and SkyTrain tracks. Intelligent fabric consisting of a thin, super-strong mylar, is being used for the 12-metre-high band which encircles the stadium. After the big tear in the roof caused by snow accumulation in 2007, there was a recommendation to tear down the big, round house. Not any more. A major sports and entertainment district is being planned to amplify a renovated stadium, and an announcement of upcoming development - my guess is a major hotel - is expected soon.
The original non-transparent roof of BC Place meant that watching a sports event felt like it was taking place within a parking garage. In its place, the new roof allows for transparency for better light and flexibility to handle high winds - it can move almost two feet from one side to another.
Does the BC Place Stadium deserve a new roof? More to the point, will it fill the seats underneath the roof? The football season for the BC Lions is limited. There's the promise of concerts and trade shows. The stadium seats 60,000 people but only 20,000 seats are required for Vancouver Whitecaps' soccer games, so Stantec has designed a fancy screen that can automatically roll down to create a more intimate clamshell feeling within the building.
A big step up from a cardboard box
Besides taking risks with its houses of culture and sports, Vancouver is vilified for its lack of housing for the homeless. So it was with considerable joy that I toured the new apartments of the Portland Hotel Society - a five-storey facility designed as a practical, supportive and beautiful community atop an $80-million performing-arts centre in the Woodward's redevelopment near the Downtown Eastside. Each of the more than 100 residents now enjoys a bachelor apartment with custom-designed maple cabinets, pull-down Murphy beds and sliding window screens for privacy.
Gregory Henriquez, the lead architect of the Woodward's redevelopment, is giddy leading the tour, pointing out a long reflecting pool that runs alongside the window of a common room. The pool, the custom-designed furniture, all of the extras come via his collaborating developer, Ian Gillespie of Westbank Projects, the builder of the five-star Shangri-La and the just-opened luxury Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. Henriquez says Gillespie couldn't stomach cheap-looking housing so the developer subsidized the government formula for affordable units. Some of the residents were once musicians who played at the old Stanley Hotel. A piano has been donated. A choir has been started.
When a house feels exactly right, enough to be called a home, that's when there's music and not a single note is forced.