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Walker Art Center Expansion, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

Herzog & de Meuron

So what is the new Vancouver Art Gallery going to look like? This was the question I heard from a few people last week, when the gallery announced that Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron would be designing its new building.

The answer is: Who knows? HdM are among the world's most creative architects, of museums in particular, and they don't have a formula. They've worked in copper and concrete; they've made a museum that looks like a barn and a winery out of stone retaining walls, using every mode of composition from stolid boxes to playing with forms.

In other words, they approach each new building the right way: as a creative problem that demands its own novel solution. Now they will solve a in downtown Vancouver, with an eye to the culture, climate and art of the city.

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Two things to bet on: What they come up with will be surprising, and it will help shape Vancouver's cityscape – still in its formative years – for a long time to come.

When I spoke with HdM senior partner Christine Binswanger last week, she was full of moderation. The process of design, she was quick to say, is only now getting started, and they have been paying attention to the urban-design aspects of the project, which will remake an entire block and will also include an office tower. "It is more interesting to begin with a blank slate," she said. "In some of our projects we have achieved responses that make sense, and to do that we need to research the place – how do people behave in public, what [building] crafts are strong in this location, and so on."

That's architectural common sense. A good public building demands this kind of engagement with a place's genius loci. (And the VAG should be credited with hiring their architects through an interview, not asking them to compete with a quickly designed scheme.)

Yet Binswanger's words belie the wild creativity that HdM has shown, over and over, from small buildings to massive ones. Its "Bird's Nest" stadium, designed for the Beijing Olympics with artist , was one of the most visible new buildings of the past few years, and it earned the attention. It combines a concrete shell with a thicket of massive steel twigs; these curve upward to support the roof and create in-between spaces of remarkable complexity.

To get architectural poetry into a stadium is a real feat. However, HdM's career-long strength has been in smaller-scale projects working with art and artists. "We prefer art to architecture, and for that matter artists to architects," founder Jacques Herzog once said. Before he and Pierre de Meuron founded the office in 1978, in their hometown of Basel, they had already managed to collaborate with Joseph Beuys – they talked the eminent artist into adapting pieces of an installation into costumes for the city's carnival. Following this, the two worked on a string of galleries and artist's studios, which in the 1990s culminated in the Tate Modern in London, completed in 2000.

That building, which is now the world's most popular modern-art museum, is masterful: It transforms a huge art-deco power station into a building with galleries of all scales that actually work for art, and yet retains the old building's infrastructural sublime. Their touch was quite light. But they're now expanding the gallery with a new wing – a tall, distorted pyramid wrapped in a perforated screen of brick.

Aesthetically they can and will do anything, but skin is important to them. They came of age at the height of postmodernism, that moment from the 1970s through the '80s when architecture employed allusions to history, often playful or ironic. Then the architecture world moved aggressively away from those ideas, looking to minimalist art and back to the form-follows-function precepts of 20th-century modernism. But Herzog and de Meuron do all of the above – they've been willing, even recently, to use façades as printed surfaces. At the De Young Museum in San Francisco (2005), the museum's body is a dark copper slab, but the windows are printed with a pixelated, abstracted and much-enlarged photograph. Part of the façade is a photograph; this is a device they also used in a collaboration with Thomas Ruff on a school library in Germany.

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Their ongoing fascination with imagery and surface will be relevant in Vancouver, where the native architecture is all about façades. They have a strong interest in the Vancouver School of photo-conceptual art, and in fact have collaborated with Jeff Wall; Herzog and Wall published a book-long conversation together in 2004, and Wall took the very first published photograph of their North American debut, the Dominus Estate winery in California. "We are close to many artists, and this is one of the motors for our work," Binswanger said. "We are interested in having an exchange with artists in a conceptual way. [In Vancouver,] there are artists whose work we know well."

Binswanger, who has been with HdM since 1991, told me she is quite certain the gallery will not adopt the "shiny, green, blueish surfaces" that are the face of Vancouverism. Right: Galleries cannot primarily be made of glass. This, too, is common sense – but also a hint of the contrarian artist's spirit that defines HdM's work.

Binswanger visited Vancouver with Pierre de Meuron to interview for the job, and she shared initial impressions of the city that are unsurprising – of a dense downtown that works, set against the mountains in "a combination that is totally astonishing." But when it comes to local buildings, she mentioned a couple of favourites in concrete: the MacMillan Bloedel tower on West Georgia, Arthur Erickson and Geoff Massey's elegant monolith, and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, right across the street from the VAG site, designed by the Montreal firm that is now ARCOP. Both good buildings, both outliers. If that's what you admire in Vancouver, you are surely ready to shake things up.

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