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on culture

Renderings of the Blowdown Gallery (Stanley Park)

Imagine an art gallery tucked underneath and attached to the Granville Street Bridge, in airspace over the railway tracks by Crab Park, underneath a wide expanse of lawn in Stanley Park. Sound crazy? Local architect Michael Green – probably best known for his love of the wood skyscraper – says it is doable, and has mapped out a proposal as an alternative to the Vancouver Art Gallery's desired move to a new building.

Mr. Green's idea is largely meant to get people talking and is separate from the proposal recently drawn up by condo marketer/art collector Bob Rennie, but both authors express similar concerns: that the VAG's potentially city-defining development has been largely discussed behind closed doors.

"We need to have a conversation in the city; we need to make this a much more open discussion," says Mr. Green, who adds that he supports the gallery and its leadership. "Because the role of the Vancouver Art Gallery is much bigger than just a gallery. It is the critical mass of our cultural identity."

The VAG, constrained by its current facility – a provincial courthouse renovated by Arthur Erickson 30 years ago – wants to build a new, iconic gallery, estimated to cost at least $300-million, a few blocks away at Georgia and Cambie Streets. The question of whether it can build on that city-owned land is to go to city council in February.

This week, the VAG's director announced the creation of an artist advisory group to provide high-level input and recommendations for the new building, and said the gallery will release an overview and recommendations for a business plan over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the VAG released a report on Friday that it commissioned from Lord Cultural Resources – which describes itself as "the largest museum planning firm in the world" – that concluded a multisite gallery concept, specifically the one proposed by Mr. Rennie, is "impractical on a variety of levels" and "certainly unprecedented."

Mr. Green's alternate vision for the VAG is as out of the box as they come. He is proposing that the gallery stay at its current location – with the grand entrance facing Georgia restored – and build three satellite galleries: in Gastown, Stanley Park, and under the Granville Street Bridge.

For Gastown, he envisions a gallery housing aboriginal and historical Canadian art, including the Emily Carr collection, as well as most of the VAG's storage facility. His proposal: Use airspace, beginning at the end of Carrall Street, where there's parking now for a handful of cars, and build over the railroad tracks, connecting the city to Crab Park. A huge picture window would face the North Shore Mountains. What he calls the Char Gallery (the exterior would be made of charred wood) would be a favourite haunt for school groups and tourists.

"When you go to Gastown, which really I think is in desperate need of a cultural venue, people stand under the clock and wait to take a picture of it when it blows, and maybe take a picture of Gassy Jack. And if this is all we have, then we're in real trouble," Mr. Green said in an interview near his Gastown office – steps away from the proposed site.

Under the Granville Bridge, Mr. Green proposes building a tube-like gallery into the truss of the structure that would also include a public access walkway with windows to peek inside. The Truss Gallery would house contemporary work and travelling exhibitions, and better connect downtown with Granville Island.

"There are some acoustic issues and technical issues to solve, and there are structural framing issues," he says. "They all are solvable. There are people who will say it can't be done, but that's no way to build the world."

For Stanley Park, Mr. Green wants to go underground with a gallery for photography and sculpture built under the stretch of lawn at the east end near the totem poles. Views would remain unobstructed, as ramps would take visitors down into the gallery. Called the Blowdown Gallery, it would be constructed to resemble the criss-cross of trees after a storm, using wood salvaged from the 2006 windstorm or from trees uprooted by others.

"The park is owned by the city, it's a public amenity. There's been a general attitude: Don't touch it, don't do anything to the park, we can't allow it. I disagree with that attitude. This area of the park is just an underused lawn right now. It's not wilderness, it's not covered in trees," Mr. Green says. "Why not use it in a really beautiful way to tell a really beautiful Vancouver story and create a gallery that is exceptionally unique?"

The existing site downtown, which would feature the permanent collection and travelling shows, would be renovated to include a gallery space with a partly walkable glass roof under the plaza on the north side, a public access, no-ticket-required path linking Georgia to Robson, and other spaces.

Mr. Green sees the Gastown facility being built first, becoming the VAG's home while the current site is renovated. Connecting all of the sites, ultimately, would be an Arts Walk designed for pedestrians and cyclists. Total estimated cost of Mr. Green's proposal: $310-million over 10 to 15 years.

"We build a Bilbao, we're building the 30th of its kind," says Mr. Green, referring to Frank Gehry's highly acclaimed – and often imitated – Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997. "It's a 15-year old concept that's been delivered to the world many times over. If we build on the underside of the Granville Bridge, in Stanley Park or as a bridge over train tracks, we'll be doing the first galleries of those kinds. And that's what we should be doing. We shouldn't be looking at how we can copy other solutions."