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A pigeon flies past the Damien Hirst sculpture Hymn outside the Tate Modern gallery in London in August 2012.Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron – among the world's leading designers – has been selected to design a new Vancouver Art Gallery. The firm will have two themes: building for art, and making downtown work better.

HdM, which designed Beijing's Bird's Nest Olympic stadium and London's Tate Modern gallery, beat four other firms on the VAG's shortlist, propelled by a record of designing great museums and a vision to create a building that will suit its location.

In a phone interview, Christine Binswanger, a senior partner at the firm who will lead the project, said they want the gallery to represent Vancouver's "astonishing combination of a very urban life and a natural setting." But she said it also has a job to do. "It's a site that needs to connect in an interesting way Gastown with Yaletown."

At approximately 300,000 square feet, the proposed new gallery will more than double the space of the current facility – a former provincial courthouse in the heart of downtown renovated by Arthur Erickson. In the years of debate over a new VAG, many said the current facility is in a better location. Ms. Binswanger said the new building – a few blocks east on a parking lot site known as Larwill Park – will change that perception.

"I know that the museum is currently in a very privileged position in the city. People right now think this new site is difficult. But that's what makes the project interesting, I think, for us and for the gallery: to really create a new place in town."

HdM has a record of designing strong museum and gallery spaces. "They're artists' architects," gallery director Kathleen Bartels said in an interview. "They've worked with artists for their entire professional career and they know what that means."

In addition to the Tate Modern – which had an enormous impact on London and its contemporary art scene – HdM has also designed the new Perez Art Museum Miami and the Parrish Art Museum on Long Island. Pacific Rim projects include the de Young Museum in San Franciscoand the Prada Aoyama in Tokyo.

"When you look at some of their buildings – I think the Tate Modern's a wonderful example – people want to be there," Ms. Bartels said. "We want to create spaces like that where people can have those 'wow' moments, looking at amazing artwork in extraordinary architecture, and want to hang out there – whether they're 14 or they're 45. I think that is what we want the gallery to be. And I think they understand the gallery of the future."

Should the project be realized, the new Vancouver Art Gallery will be the Pritzker Prize-winning firm's first building in Canada.

Herzog & de Meuron, founded in 1978 in Basel by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, emerged as the unanimous choice from a short list of five, including Toronto's KPMB Architects; Tokyo's SANAA; and New York-based firms Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The selection process included in-depth interviews with each firm as well as a whirlwind tour where committee members took in candidates' projects in Paris, Miami, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Toronto

VAG board chair Bruce Munro Wright said a significant factor in the committee's unanimous selection of the firm was "that they are very sensitive to place" – rather than working with a consistent vocabulary of materials and forms.

"It will be a Vancouver building," he said.

The firm's experience with planning urban sites was another plus, in particular given the complexities of the project: the VAG is to occupy two-thirds of the city block, to be shared with an office tower.

Ms. Binswanger spoke with excitement about this urban agenda. The VAG "is different from other museums, in that it is such an urban renewal project at the same time," she said "There is a part that is commercial and the part that is the gallery, and how you make this an interesting ensemble."

According to Ms. Bartels, the architects plan to spend time going through British Columbia to get more of a sense of the place, and community engagement sessions with the architects will be held. A local firm will also be named to work with Herzog & de Meuron on the project.

It's unclear what the building will look like – research will include community consultations – but it almost certainly will not be a standard Vancouver glass structure. "People are fed up with shiny green and blueish surfaces ... and it's clear a building with this function will not have a similar expression," Ms. Binswanger said.

Conceptual designs are to be completed by early 2015, at which point the VAG will kick off its public capital campaign. The thinking is t hat the design will inspire donations.

Under the conditions imposed by the city for granting the VAG the land, the gallery is to raise an additional $150-million from the federal and provincial governments by the end of April 2015.

Ms. Bartels acknowledged that "we might not" meet that deadline, but said she believes there is flexibility on the city's part.

"We're working to meet that goal. We're working very, very hard. I want to be very clear: we haven't made an official ask to either level of government. It's not the right time."

Ms. Bartels says in the new fundraising reality, government dollars are more likely to follow private donations than the other way around. And having an architect in place, and a design that will engage people, is crucial in sparking those donations.