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Yesterday afternoon, Herzog & de Meuron and the Vancouver Art Gallery unveiled the much-anticipated scheme for the institution’s new building. The design is captivating for its restraint and sensitivity to site and street life. The Swiss firm, observing Vancouver’s glass-tower vertical growth, has proposed a wood building in a stack of irregular volumes. And its most thoughtful gesture is a publicly accessible courtyard, featuring a sunken garden, protected by cantilevered roofs overhead.

Taking over the only vacant lot left in downtown Vancouver – at West Georgia and Cambie Streets – the seven-storey building is propped above the courtyard by twelve-metre columns. The open square is meant as a social activator: welcoming pedestrians and visitors alike; hosting art, music and film performances; and providing access to the ground-floor cafe, store, free gallery and the Institute of Asian Art. From the courtyard and Cambie Street, a ceremonial staircase will lead down to the museum’s lobby and surrounding sunken garden. The building’s lower volumes are generously glazed, their lightness and transparency intended to filter sunlight and air down to the courtyard. The bulkier upper volumes are envisioned with timber facades.

Designed to accommodate the museum’s impressive growth – both in artworks and in visitors – the 29,000-square-metre building doubles the institution’s facilities, with 7,900 square metres of exhibition space, almost half of it dedicated to the permanent collection. It also houses a new education centre – with an auditorium, workshops and a resource centre – as well as a restaurant, a rooftop gallery and terrace.

Throughout, the architects have carved out views of the city and North Shore Mountains, forging more connections to the urban setting. They sought to create a building that stands up (literally) among the modern high rises – noting that a low-slung box wouldn’t cut it – and sets itself apart through a modest form and material. The use of wood, in both structure and cladding, pays homage to the province’s expertise with the material, which once dominated its architecture. The building also conveys a nice aesthetic connection to the much beloved Law Courts at Robson Square, which also features a sunken courtyard, completed by Arthur Erickson in 1980.

In the press release that went out yesterday, Jacques Herzog explained, “The urbanistic concept is based on the contrast between the low-rise framing along the street block and the taller and more sculptural building in the middle of an open and accessible garden and square. The low-rise wooden building along the street is inspired by how the streets in Vancouver were built in earlier times. The modest, almost domestic scale will enhance the character of openness and visibility for everyone.”

With the unveiling, VAG also gauged public reaction – and it’s been mixed from both practitioners and the vox populi. While everyone seems on board with the courtyard, the scheme’s totemic, sculptural form has been likened to everything from Jenga to a wooden pagoda.

One of the design’s most ardent critics is Michael Green, a well known local architect and an advocate of timber architecture. Speaking with the Globe and Mail, he felt the design was “disappointing on many levels” and that it wasn’t appropriate for an earthquake zone. He also predicted that the wood would weather poorly. However, Herzog & de Meuron is working with B.C. technologists to pick species and treatments that age well – and the VAG is excited about the project. Its Board of Trustees has committed $23-million, and the gallery will aim to raise an additional $350-million from public and private sources (the proposal also suggests razing part of Queen Elizabeth Plaza next door in order to make the courtyard more prominent). If all goes according to plan, construction will begin in 2017 with project completion scheduled for 2021.

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