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urban design

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is a subject the city's artists have returned to again and again: Roy Arden's photography, Rebecca Belmore's performance art, Chris Haddock's Da Vinci's Inquest . Now, art is poised to serve not simply as a reflection of the neighbourhood but as an agent for change, with a large, innovative arts complex set to open in the heart of the troubled area.

SFU Woodward's is part of a revolutionary mixed-use experiment on the site of a once-iconic department store in the Downtown Eastside. The new Woodward's encompasses luxury condominiums, social housing, retail and office space (among the future tenants: the National Film Board and the city's cultural-affairs offices) as well as Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts and the exhibition and creation spaces that will be part of that.

This is meant to be an integrated experience. Walk through the courtyard toward the atrium entrance and Stan Douglas's huge photographic work depicting the Gastown riots of 1971 hangs in contrast with the supermarket windows below. An in-store display of soup cans offsets the art, the history. Somewhere, Andy Warhol is chuckling.

SFU Woodward's will house a theatre, art gallery, cinema, soundstage, two black-box theatres and a studio for recitals and small dance performances, as well as the school. While still under construction, a portion of the complex is set to open for the first time this week, as part of the exhibition Vancouverism: Architecture Builds the City and for the launch of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

"It's kind of my dream that this becomes a hotbed not only locally but also internationally," says Michael Boucher, the director of cultural programs and partnerships for SFU Woodward's inaugural program. "If we can turn this into a Brooklyn Academy of Music or Cal Theatre [at the University of California, Berkeley] that would be fantastic."

The centrepiece of the facility is the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre: a below-ground space that can be used in various configurations (traditional proscenium, horseshoe) and even split into two separate theatre spaces, with a total maximum capacity of about 440 seats. It's equipped with a floor appropriate for dance, and SFU officials say the acoustics are good enough for musical performances, too.

This is where two Vancouverism salons will be held this week, marking the first time the public will enter the facility - an event which will also see the relighting of a replica of the iconic Woodward's "W" sign.

The space will operate as a theatre for the first time for Jérôme Bel's The Show Must Go On , which opens the PuSh Festival on Jan. 20. And Robert Lepage's The Blue Dragon will play in this space for the month of February, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. With 27 performances in this highly anticipated run, a lot of people will be exposed not just to the new facility but to new hopes for the Downtown Eastside.

The location makes absolute sense for the school, says SFU's Owen Underhill, who has been working on moving the contemporary-arts school off the Burnaby campus since the early 1990s. "It's a cutting-edge school that's involved with innovative artwork," he says. "It's still in some ways a well-kept secret, and I think moving into Woodward's is going to change that quite dramatically."

Visual art will be showcased on the main floor, in the Audain Gallery. The gallery itself won't open until February, but a preview show, Coming Soon, features a work by Vancouver artist (and SFU grad) Ken Lum installed in the windows facing Hastings Street. An on-line component will go live on Friday, with works that address issues in the area - including the controversial Downtown Ambassadors program (the "ambassadors" are private security guards).

The inaugural exhibition in the gallery space, First Nations/Second Nature, will be a provocative study of the idea of place and nationhood, with works by Brian Jungen, Belmore and others. It, too, is part of the Cultural Olympiad.

With the ability to hold several events simultaneously, the new complex is a natural, Boucher says, to host festival events. He is particularly interested in exploring experimental, interdisciplinary work. "We do want to create the expectation that people are going to come here and see something innovative, and that we are putting upon ourselves to push the envelope in regards to the way we present and tell stories."

There may have been a time - not very long ago - when people would have debated whether arts patrons would travel to the troubled neighbourhood to see a show. But even before Woodward's opens fully, even before the arts facility opens at all, the development is buzzing. Business people are holding meetings in the on-site café; young mothers are pushing high-end strollers through the aisles of the grocery store; people are dropping by from other parts of the city to check it out.

"I wouldn't say we have rose-coloured glasses on or anything like that, or a false perception about moving into a difficult community," says Owen. "This is probably the most challenging place you could move into, but I actually look at that as an opportunity. … I think we can be an important piece, a helpful piece, in the puzzle of the area."