May 15, 2017

"It's Not About You, It's about Us" Lessons for Vancouver Art Gallery?

There is a fundamental change in philosophy in public facilities such as art galleries and museums being globally embraced. In the last decade architects attempted to make buildings less about public function and more about their own personal stamp and message. That is evident in Gehry’s Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle which has been called “the unusual-looking building made of curves instead of corners and infamously described by a New York Times architecture critic as “something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died”.
Frank Gehry-Museum of Pop Culture
This also happened in Toronto.  The Globe and Mail article written by Alex Bozicovic details the not so subtle attempt of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to “fix” the starchitect Daniel Liebskind “Crystal” addition which opened in 2007.  As stated by the museum’s CEO, “After you’ve lived somewhere for a while you begin to think about how it can suit you better.” And you worry less about the flashy bits and more about the bones.”
Daniel Liebskind-Royal Ontario Museum-The Crystal
Here is what Daniel Liebskind said about his original proposal:  “Why should one expect the new addition to the ROM to be ‘business as usual’? Architecture in our time is no longer an introvert’s business. On the contrary, the creation of communicative, stunning and unexpected architecture signals a bold re-awakening of the civic life of the museum and the city.”  Yes it was certainly the talk of the town but in a more disruptive way. While the building had the “wow” factor in terms of being visually different, it did not roll out the welcome mat-it had heavy Costco-like doors, was crowded, uncomfortable, and didn’t attract the high numbers of forecasted visitors. The museum wanted to make the museum as welcoming as possible, so they are reopening the entrance to a 1930’s wing, and reconfiguring that rotunda to become a lobby. Everything old about attracting and creating the public is new again.
This rediscovery of the importance of the visitor experience “reflects a new focus for architecture in institutions such as this: not in making showpieces, but on the nuts and bolts of making places that work.” The point, says the CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, is that “the whole thing says, come on in”.
Meanwhile, the Audain Art Museum in Whistler designed by  British Columbia based Patkau architects is getting rave reviews-and a generous multi-million dollar portfolio of 197 works of art have been gifted by Vancouver philanthropist Bob Rennie to the National Art Gallery. Both these fine collections could have had a local home had the conditions been different.
The  Vancouver Art Gallery might want to  explore the customer friendly concept, making the consumer experience about the gallery just as important as their starchitect’s vision. While its great that their program requirements make it perfect for art exhibitions, it also should be a warm welcoming building that is easily supported and visited by citizens, with public plazas, places to meet and to rest. Somehow the current design and strategy does not say “Come on in”.

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  1. Please explain how the new VAG fails to say “come on in”, because you haven’t made a single argument supporting this opinion. The temple-like design can be insulted as a ‘stack of boxes’ but most building designs are merely a singular ‘box’. Herzog & de Meuron are not ‘starchitects’ – they do not have a signature style, they work with context.

  2. The difference between this box and others is that this is a major public cultural institution, supposedly an expression of our heritage and vision of the future. We in Vancouver seem to be suffering from insecurity so severe that it fosters our political and cultural leaders to exercise an incomprehensible need to import architects who will interpret and translate our own culture back at us through their own biased filters. This is profoundly insulting, and we don’t even know it.
    What is the totality of expression of our city’s and region’s history in this piece (face it, this is a regional art museum)? A fairly minor search of archival photos of the site, ergo a bunch of clapboard panels symbolizing the wooden siding of the working class Edwardian houses that one sat there. Wow. To anyone yearning for a deeply meaningful architectural expression of our unique natural history, our 14,000-year old indigenous presence on the land, travelling right through to developing an industrial Vancouver from the forests and mountains, and now with an evolving vision of the future, this is beyond a disappointment. It is an abject failure, like a mask is being pulled over Vancouver’s real face.
    The main library was the first major municipal institution that appropriated imagery from other’s history — ancient Rome — which ended up as an unarticulated cartoonish coliseum facade accompanied by extraordinarily poor open space planning. This is not Vegas, and there really was enough room for a decent urban plaza on the north side using more than one material and one annoyingly-sloped horizontal plane.
    The Marine Building followed the internationally popular Art Deco style but it is beautifully rendered in detail that is saturated with local history. Rattenbury’s courthouse did a much better job of Euro-cultural appropriation in its day using very high quality materials and the best design details and the utmost in building craftsmanship tradition, and that was followed up with Cardew’s beautifully minimalist Gallery Café and Erickson’s highly original Canadian Modernist Robson Square that emphasises the differences between two eras of architecture through respectful contrast. We can only imagine what Erickson could have done with a new VAG design if he didn’t depart this mortal coil. There are many very talented local architects whose vision and design process is no less relevant, and who will not import imagery like clip art plonked onto a plan.
    There are very good reasons why the Michael Audain Museum in Whistler is receiving rave reviews from many aspects, like architecture and programming to just plain public appreciation. In three words: Originality. Relevance. Honesty.
    Both the VAG and VPL suffer from the same malady: a lack of recognition of just how deep and rich our history, artistic expression and culture really are, and the absence of vision or definition of where we are going. That’s surprising for an art museum, but it’s impossible to interpret the latest gallery model any other way. The VAG and VPL likely got their functional interior and technical programming down, but as expressions of the arts and the manifestations of society’s intellectual achievements, the people were greatly shortchanged. The people own these institutions and deserve better.
    I have come to appreciate the original architecture of the nearby QE Theatre and Post Office buildings than the new VAG design and VPL that came after. Unfortunately, the PO was sold off and is about to be redeveloped in inappropriate ways (this is Vancouver, this is what we do). Once the stack of pallets arrived I realized what a good idea adaptive re-use of the old PO building would have been for the VAG by eliminating the third party colonial Euro-centric pretense of interpreting our own history on our behalf. Moreover, VAG would have had block-sized floor plates to work with, and potentially tens of millions of dollars off the final cost.
    The VAG / VAM is too important to have a multiple hundreds of millions and Vancouver’s cultural representation controlled by one individual. Please start this one from scratch, create a real competition with well-defined rules that invite multiple local and international players, with shortlisted architects well-funded to bring their designs to a pretty high degree of completion — including the extremely important open space and site planning. Then have them judged by a knowledgeable panel who will invite BOTH architectural discourse / debate / analysis AND pubic commentary (the VPL practically eliminated the first step in favour of mall polling), and make a recommendation based on an extensive, professional set of evaluation criteria.
    This is as much about process as it is about design.

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