Vancouver Art Gallery director Kathleen Bartels says while building a new gallery "has certainly at times been a challenging undertaking … we are more committed than ever to this major civic project and the tremendous opportunities it presents for our city."
Ms. Bartels made the comments at a lecture Wednesday night by architect Jacques Herzog, founding partner of the Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss firm that is designing the new gallery.
The event was held a few days after the gallery failed to meet one of the major criteria set out for it by the city, which is leasing a prime piece of downtown land to the VAG. To qualify for the lease, the gallery was supposed to have raised $150-million from the federal and provincial governments by April 30. The deadline was set two years ago by city council, but it came and went without those funds raised.
No formal extension has yet been granted by the city, which has expressed concern to the VAG about the design not adhering to its guidelines. But the city, which supports the project, has not yet pulled the plug. Both sides have indicated that talks are ongoing.
On Wednesday, Ms. Bartels called the new gallery one of Vancouver's most exciting cultural and urban developments in a generation. "We are most confident that [the architects] will deliver on our design to build a new gallery that will provide the very best setting for the viewing and presentation of art, that will embrace the public realm, speaking to our position within Vancouver's urban fabric, with architecture that will be at the forefront of international museum design."
That design is to be revealed in June.
Mr. Herzog did not disclose any details about the project, which is led by his colleague Christine Binswanger, but there were some hints in his discussion about the firm's other projects, including London's Tate Modern and Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium.
"The way we see the city has a huge impact in how we conceive the building," Mr. Herzog said. Among the specifics that he mentioned about Vancouver: the topography, the grid system and the city's transformative urban development over the past few decades.
He said the firm likes to look at the history of the site where it plans to build – in this case Larwill Park, once bordered by small buildings and the site of political protests, but now a parking lot.
He emphasized the importance of public space – that a museum can't just be about a highbrow cultural experience, but should be a welcoming gathering spot for all, inside and out.
"It is, of course, the ambition of a museum to grow, to add space, but much, much more importantly … it's offering more public space for all Vancouverites – it's more space for the people. Today the museum is not an elitist bunker that is trying to just store artworks and present them to a specifically educated … sophisticated people, but it's a place for everybody. It's a place to congregate and meet," Mr. Herzog said.
He talked about the project providing a link between the various cultural buildings in the neighbourhood, including the Queen Elizabeth Theatre across the street, the design of which Mr. Herzog called "charming" and "interesting" but "not great."
The firm has designed a number of museums and galleries elsewhere (including the Perez Art Museum Miami and the M+ art museum under construction in Hong Kong), and Mr. Herzog talked about using different kinds of light in the firm's gallery projects – natural, artificial, skylights – as well as providing a diverse series of spaces within a gallery.
He talked about bringing art "up to the sky" – a missed opportunity for the MoMA in New York, he said, with its neighbouring apartment tower. He said Vancouver has the same "amazing opportunity, because Vancouver has reached a vertical dimension, which is typical for the city."
He also discussed building with wood, which he called "an interesting material," and which the firm used for a rehab hospital in Basel, where it is based: "It has been used so much in the past and has been a bit forgotten."
When asked by an audience member about support for the project – which Ms. Bartels said has its share of obstacles – Mr. Herzog said the firm feels "very supported" by the gallery.
"We understand that you cannot get everything … that you like immediately, and I think that we have several options, and I'm pretty sure that the best one will be realized."
He added: "The museum really will become a civic institution and will make the city more interesting locally, but also internationally. That's how I see the project."