In Whistler, nature trumps architecture. As you arrive, it's hard to spot signs of a sophisticated regional culture: Against the grandeur of the mountains, the Resort Municipality of Whistler is a cluster of parking lots and ersatz chalets. It's the Alps filtered though Colorado and North American suburbia.
In this context, the new Audain Art Museum makes a strong and contrary argument. A black prism, it perches in a copse of spruces along Blackcomb Way, one level above the adjacent valley land – a sculptural monolith that is conceptually rich, slightly mysterious and uncommonly beautiful.
It's exactly what the museum, which opens to the public this weekend, needs. The Audain's strong permanent collection has a regional focus, from Haida masks through Emily Carr to Rodney Graham. But the institution has yet to articulate its stand on what the art of B.C. means. The building, designed by eminent local firm Patkau Architects, will help: It coaxes you to look at the art and to look outside, enriching the experience of both.
During their 30-plus years in Vancouver, John and Patricia Patkau have built upon the climate, cultural history and topography of their adopted region. Here, they have built what John Patkau calls "not just a B.C. building, but a snow country building."
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The $30-million structure is shaped like a check mark – a splayed V, with one short and one long end. A steeply gabled roof keeps heavy snows from stacking up on the building; the fact that it is elevated, on a series of small piers, keeps it out of the flood plain of nearby Fitzsimmons Creek. (The latter move also allowed the architects to save many of the trees that studded the three-acre site, while clearing away asphalt and service vehicles.)
The Patkaus have imagined the building to provide visitors with a strong narrative sequence.
First, you enter the building through a bridge from the street, passing through treetops. "It is a transition from the quotidian world of Whistler Village to the esoteric world of art," John Patkau told me, "and the forest is the filter."
Then an entry porch – a crystalline form lined with slats of cozy hemlock – welcomes you under the high roof of the building itself. From here, you can turn right to enter the lobby or continue straight down an outdoor stair, beneath the building, to a meadow of tall grasses, and beyond that the woods and Fitzsimmons Creek.
Art or the outdoors? It's your choice.
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Well, sort of. In fact, once you are inside the museum, it becomes clear how the architecture places the art in a dialogue with the natural world, the sublime that is so hard to avoid. Along the inner edge of the V is a glassy corridor that overlooks the meadow and the woods. You walk along this corridor, which is lined with more hemlock, to enter the sequence of permanent-collection galleries and then the temporary exhibition space that caps the short end of the check mark.
This sequence is not yet complete. Last week, the black steel and aluminum of the exterior skin was all in place, but the outer stairs were still under construction; the meadow and some new trees will not be planted until the spring. These are crucial elements of the design, and while the integrity of these moves is clear, it is unfortunate that the museum opened without them.
The project has been hurried. It has been 31/2 years since Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, first considered building a museum here; this week's opening reflects an extraordinarily aggressive schedule, which included a doubling in size of the museum in midstream. "It's something I wanted to see complete in my lifetime," said Audain, who is now 78.
The facility is also cheap. It is 56,000 square feet, and its publicly disclosed budget of $535 per square foot is about half of what new art museums generally cost. For instance, the private Broad Museum in Los Angeles opened last summer with 120,000 square feet of floor space and a $140-million (U.S.) price tag.
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Audain, the chairman of Polygon Homes, is a philanthropist and art lover, but not by temperament a patron of architecture. At the media preview last week, he talked about the museum as "a home for our art. Being a home builder, that is the way I look at it." He spoke with fluency and enthusiasm about the collection; he was palpably unengaged with the building.
He hired well and got lucky. The Patkaus are among few Canadian architects who have the experience and the fluency to design a world-class museum. And, in fact, the building's design, overseen by project architect David Shone, is efficient and beautifully detailed.
The permanent collection galleries are well-proportioned white boxes with four-metre ceilings, which accommodate the painting – and photography-heavy – collection well; the sequence ends in a gallery that vaults 11.3 metres to the top of the roof gable.
In the initial exhibition, it is filled with two of Brian Jungen's golf-bag totems. The temporary galleries are a bit roomier and more flexible, pierced by windows that frame vignettes of the woods beyond. And administrative spaces are shunted upstairs, into the gable and out of the way.
But the real work of the architecture is both urbanistic and conceptual. First, by reaching out to the village's main street, it gestures toward a future in which cultural tourism plays an expanded role. Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden has been a strong advocate for that agenda, which is wise: Why not steer skiers and hikers toward the art of the region, and why not draw some of Vancouver's visitors up the Sea-to-Sky Highway with the bonus of cultural tourism?
Making that pitch work, and putting the new museum on the province's cultural landscape, means examining the links between culture and place. This is the role of architecture as a cultural practice.
And the Patkaus have thought long and hard about how that can and should work in the 21st century.
For one thing, they make strong connections between architecture and nature, as have many of their predecessors in the mountains-and-sea corridor of the West Coast. For another, they have toyed with allusions to landscape and First Nations building forms. But ultimately they have settled on a personal, modernist language that is subtly informed by its surroundings.
While I was at the Audain, I stood in the grand corridor thinking about the work I had just seen, by Haida master carver James Hart, and looked out at the unfinished lawn through a frame of wood and steel. Then it began to rain, and the water flowed down off the edge of the roof and dropped before me in a hundred little streams, dancing a performance that transformed the grey day and rough dirt with quiet magic.