Paul Liberatore

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Proposed new $350M Vancouver Art Gallery

VANCOUVER — After years of false starts, back-biting and confusion, Vancouver has inched closer to landing a new, $350-million civic art gallery, with plans unveiled Tuesday that showcase a building that resembles a stack of books and will be made of wood, or so its Swiss architects hope.

Key words: hope and inched. And $350 million, as in missing almost all of it.

Framed by a one-storey structure at ground level, on a forlorn downtown lot offered at no cost by the city of Vancouver, the proposed new Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) and its seven-storey main tower seem extraordinary.

There are some major caveats, which should surprise no one, because the VAG expansion and relocation project has been difficult and contentious from the start. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling in four years, a breakneck pace compared to the plodding direction set by insiders behind the proposed gallery’s relocation.


Already more than a decade in the making, there’s no end in sight to this tricky — some say unnecessary — big art project.

Handout/Herzog & de Meuron

Handout/Herzog & de MeuronThe Herzog & de Meuron design for the new Vancouver Art Gallery envisions a wooden structure that resembles a stack of books. Although the B.C. government, a backer of the project, is keen to showcase wood, the design firm says there will be structural and wood-treatment challenges.

The new VAG design is “conceptual,” reporters were told at a packed unveiling ceremony at the existing facility, a cramped, century-old stone edifice that sits smack in the city centre, an enviable location which VAG executives and trustees are nonetheless determined to abandon.

Wood is a clever choice for building material. It reflects the city’s heritage and surroundings, and the B.C. government, one of the VAG’s perennial go-to funding sources, is keen to promote its use in modern construction. But there are potential problems


More research is required before wood can be considered the final material solution, said Christine Binswanger, an architect with the renowned, Basel-based firm Herzog & de Meuron, which the VAG hired last year to design its proposed new facility.

There are few buildings made of wood anywhere in the world of the height and scale proposed by the VAG. And someone must find a way to chemically treat any chosen wood product, to make it “long-lasting and not look shabby,” Binswanger said. “We’ll keep you posted if we manage (that).”

An ominous note. But Vancouver art-goers have grown accustomed to cautions, and to waiting.

In 2004, VAG director Kathleen Bartels announced that her venerable institution was looking to expand its current footprint. Putting a brand new, purpose-built gallery on a new site was one option. Another was improving on the present facility, the former courthouse, possibly creating space underneath its popular outdoor plaza.

Then in 2008, the B.C. government under then-premier Gordon Campbell offered the gallery $50 million were it to make a new home near False Creek, outside Vancouver’s downtown core.

No suitable site was found there; the province forked over the $50 million regardless, and Bartels and the VAG’s board of trustees continued looking for sites.

Handout/Herzog & de Meuron

Handout/Herzog & de MeuronA rendering of the Herzog & de Meuron conceptual design for the new Vancouver Art Gallery shows the main lobby. The project is expected to cost $350 million, a price that has critics up in arms.

In 2008, the city of Vancouver stepped up to the plate, handing the gallery a 99-year lease for two-thirds of an old bus depot site, six blocks north and east of the current VAG location. Not the most logical spot for a new civic art gallery, but it came free, so what the heck.

The VAG’s biggest challenge, of course, has been raising the money required to erect a new building. It still has the province’s $50 million in the bank.

Tuesday, the gallery announced its trustees had generously pledged $23 million of their own money toward the project. That’s $73 million of a required $350 million raised to date, with construction costs sure to mount over time.

Does the cost have to be so high? Local real estate magnate and major art collector-slash-maven Bob Rennie doesn’t think so; he has voiced his opinion, publicly and loudly. And so often Bartels reportedly stopped speaking with him.

Low budget simply won’t cut it. The VAG wants a stunner, designed by “starchitects.” Hello, Herzog & de Meuron.

Outstanding wood issues notwithstanding, the firm’s partners know what they’re doing. Herzog & de Meuron has worked on about 20 museum projects worldwide, including London’s Tate Modern gallery, which is housed in a former power station on the banks of the Thames River.

The Tate Modern took eight years to complete, from conception to opening day. The VAG plan has already exceeded that.


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