As announced yesterday on Archinect, the Vancouver Art Gallery has selected the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron to design their new building. The new museum’s site will double the footprint of the old neoclassical building, and relocate the museum to a newly densifying area of Vancouver’s downtown. Herzog & de Meuron were chosen from a prestigious shortlist due to their sensitivity to place when designing institutional structures, creating forms attentive and responsive to the local area. Archinect spoke with the museum’s director, Kathleen S. Bartels, about what this means for the museum’s legacy and the future of Canadian architecture.
Archinect: What in particular of Herzog & de Meuron’s previous work appealed to the Vancouver Art Museum?
Kathleen S. Bartels: What we found so interesting and inspiring about Herzog & de Meuron’s work is that they’re extraordinarily creative. They’re real innovators in museum design, they’ve built twenty museums around the world. They have an ability to respond to a sense of place, meaning they don’t have a signature style and they’re very much immersed in the community where they’re building, and their designs reflect that place. They have a sensitivity to art and artists, which is very important to us, we want this to be first and foremost a great art museum for viewing and presenting art, and they have a sensitivity to that. They design beautiful buildings, whether they’re museums or philharmonic halls or sports stadiums, they’re very creative and unique designers.
What are the most important factors that Herzog & de Meuron will have to respond to in the new site?
The site that we’ll be relocating to is on the east side of the city. It’s an area that hasn’t been developed; it’s still in downtown Vancouver but it’s not the core of the city, which is where our current building is. However it’s an area of the city that’s changing dramatically, it’s an area that brings together the Chinatown and Gastown, which is an older part of the city that’s become a very design[-rich], restaurant area, so a lot of design studios and shops are there. It’s also bringing in a very high-density residential area called Yaletown, and it’s also part of the entertainment part of the city, where we have two big sports stadiums. So it’s a very interesting part of the downtown core, and I think the gallery will be a crucial element and a hub for changing what’s happening in that area.
Could you speak a bit about the timeline for the project?
We began with master planning on our current site. We engaged Michael Maltzan to work with us on our master plan -- they helped us work on our program and to master plan our current site to see if there were opportunities to expand on this site. After a period of working with them and the city of Vancouver, we determined that because of the nature of the site and the expansion requirements, that we wouldn’t be able to achieve what we wanted to on this site. That was 2004, 2005, then we began to look at other sites in the downtown core that would be available for the gallery to build a building that approximates 300,000 square feet.
We then began looking at sites in downtown Vancouver. Vancouver’s a very dense and extraordinarily expensive city, so to find a vacant site that was government owned, that could be given to the gallery was very important, and it was difficult to locate. We were able to find this site and had a number of starts and stops for a number of reasons over the years, but we’ve been really focusing on this site probably over the past three years. It was in April of this last year that the city of Vancouver council unanimously approved giving the gallery two thirds of the site.
Can you explain how you plan on working with the architects when moderating their designs?
I think it’ll be a very collaborative process, between the gallery and the design architect and Herzog & de Meuron, which is another important aspect of our choice in selecting them. I think they’re a very collaborative firm, and that’s critically important to us. We have developed a facility space program that we’ve been tweaking and working on for a number of years, and we want to work with them on developing and changing that even further. We’ll also be engaging a local architect, an executive architect of record, because Herzog & de Meuron aren't licensed to work in British Columbia, so that’ll be a very important next step with the design firm. We’ll be interviewing firms together and making that decision. So it’ll be a very collaborative process and we expect to have a lot of community engagement and discussions. We have a very important, sophisticated art community here, internationally renowned artists, from Jeff Wall to Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham, they all live and work in Vancouver. We have a very significant art school here, in fact three art schools, so we’ll be engaging in the art community in a very big way with Herzog & de Meuron.
What new precedent does this acquisition set for Canadian architecture in general?
It’s [Herzog & de Meuron’s] first project in Canada. I think it’s significant because [it’s been] many years since the National Gallery was built -- which is in Ottawa, which was a Moshe Safdie building -- and [this building will be] the first major museum building of this scope and scale that’s been built in Canada since then. So I think it really adds to the whole architectural vernacular in this country. Certainly for the west coast and for Canada, this is a major, significant building.
Do you think that bringing in Herzog & de Meuron will have a particular impact on the atmosphere of Canadian architects working in Canada?
I think the architecture community has been anticipating this announcement and has been very excited about it. People have been very positive about our shortlisted firms, I think there’s great respect here for Herzog & de Meuron, so I think there’ll be a lot of excitement. I think they’ll bring a lot of discussion and discourse about architecture to this city and to the country.