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A couple walks into the Vancouver Art Gallery.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

If you are trying to build a new "architecturally significant" art museum, hiring the right designers is the most important decision you can make. So far, the Vancouver Art Gallery is doing it right. The shortlist for its new building includes three bona fide global stars (Herzog and de Meuron, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and SANAA) plus Canada's best large architecture firm, KPMB, and a sleeper, the very talented Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

Right now, serious architecture is an indispensable part of a successful art museum. Any of these firms could deliver in Vancouver. The VAG's choice now, as it conducts interviews, is between metaphors and materials. Will the VAG choose architecture that starts with big ideas and grand gestures? Or will the gallery get a building – assuming it gets one at all – that works in more subtle ways?

Broadly speaking, this shortlist divides into architects of metaphors and architects of materials. For the former: Diller Scofidio + Renfro think of themselves as artists as well as architects; accordingly, they deal in metaphor as well as unapologetically impractical shapes that arc, twist and flex. Their Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston includes a "mediatheque" – basically a computer lab – that steps down to a giant "screen" that is, in fact, a window framing a bit of the harbour outside. On a large scale, their new Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles combines a "veil" that resembles a giant honeycomb, wrapping a complex building in which the archives and the galleries will both, pointedly, be visible to everybody.

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On the bland blank slate of the downtown Vancouver site, something like this could be a welcome jolt. However, with the VAG's proposed, relatively tight construction budget, it will not be easy to achieve. At 310,000 square feet and low-end cost of $235-million, that's less than $800 per square foot. The final bill for the Broad in Los Angeles will be $1,100 US per square foot.

Three other firms – Toronto's KPMB, New York's Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, and Tokyo's SANAA – each work in more subtle ways with the raw ingredients of architecture, space and materials.

KPMB's work does magical things with glass in concert with stone, wood and metals; their buildings have assertive and lovely public spaces, but they have no time for the theatrics of a DS+R building. You can say the same for TWBTA. Their most famous work is modest: the house-sized American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, with its façade of folded bronze panels. It was a counterpoint, almost a rebuke, to the monolithic white-box modernism of the Museum of Modern Art next door. MOMA won when the Folk Art Museum fell into financial difficulty; it bought, and is demolishing, that building.

SANAA, like KPMB, works with subtle effects in glass, and most of their career has been spent chasing an ever-less-present minimalism. Their most recent project is the Louvre Lens, a sprawling, single-level museum in northern France that scatters works of art between a roof and walls woven of glass and aluminum.

And then there is the unclassifiable, Herzog and de Meuron – like SANAA, winners of architecture's highest award, the Pritzker. The Swiss firm does not have a set language; rather, it works in a protean and conceptually rich manner, making vaguely symbolic sculptural forms (the "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium in Beijing) or producing a museum that resembles two very long barns (on Long Island in New York). It has consistently demonstrated a range and conceptual depth that makes for surprising and beautiful work.

But the final product, if it is built, will be shaped by the VAG's desires and priorities. Does Kathleen Bartels want most of all to build an icon? To bring something fresh to Vancouver's architecture and cityscape? Or simply to build a museum that works for art and as a fine, hospitable house of culture? I hope the last two points do not get short shrift. The winner of this process should give us one sign, if not a final one, where the gallery is going. And, perhaps, tilt the direction of the city's architectural culture.

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