Art galleries change cities

An art gallery can change a city. Anyone who has been to the Vancouver Art Gallery knows about the hub of activity that exists both inside and outside the building’s space. People use the gallery and environs not only to experience art, but also as a place to congregate, to protest, to busk, or to soak up some sun during the lunch hour. Because of its multi-faceted uses and ability to bring people of all kinds together, a municipal art gallery needs a monumental presence in a city’s downtown area. I am very enthusiastic about the recently revealed design concept for the new Vancouver Art Gallery by Herzog & de Meuron, to be located on a site very near Vancouver’s stellar example of civic architecture, Moshe Safdie’s library. These kind of buildings are so important because they are not just architectural structures, they are also places that create lively and interactive public spaces. Jacques Herzog is an architect who understands the dynamics of urban living, and realizes that a building consists of not only the structure itself, but also the surrounding environment. Like the late activist and journalist Jane Jacobs, Herzog sees the city is an ecosystem with street level activity being critical to any successful urban centre. Details of the conceptual design are shown in this recent article in the Georgia Straight.

You can get a sense of Herzog’s background and sensibilities in this talk at the Tate Modern: Art and Architecture. This firm has designed many other art galleries and museums including the Tate Modern in London and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. They see an art gallery as both a place to exhibit art as well as a community meeting place. Two members of the Herzog & de Meuron firm, Christine Binswanger and Simon Demeuse, speak about their work in context of designing a building specifically for Vancouver: Meet Herzog & de Meuron. This talk gives a great overview of how architectural projects are developed, and on the effect of the generalities and specificities of Vancouver on the design. For those of you familiar with Vancouver, the observations of Binswanger and Demeuse’s, will give you a new perspective on this coastal city. In a lecture at the Orpheum, last June (many months before the design concept was presented), Herzog gave Vancouver citizens a sense of why his firm was selected for the new Vancouver Art Gallery. His design process is further described on CBC The Current’s “By Design” series.

In a culture that seems to dismiss the importance of art, evidenced by everything from the lack of arts funding for schools; to comments by leaders such as Obama mocking the discipline of art history; to the ubiquitous online comments putting down art, artists and artistic practice on a continual basis, it is more important than ever to find a way to make art a part of everybody’s lives. And what better way to do this than with a monumental public building that is especially designed to showcase art? Our understanding of history is based on the arts of the time; when we think about the 19th century for example, the names of the richest banker or the most notorious industrialist aren’t the ones that immediately come to mind. Instead our thoughts are more likely to gravitate to van Gogh or Dickens. Art has a pivotal role in our understanding of who we are, and because of this, art deserves a fantastic building. Art galleries shouldn’t be quiet little buildings that you can easily walk by. They should speak loudly and make people not only pause and notice, they should also make people stop and interact with their exterior and interior spaces in many ways and and on many levels. An art gallery should be a living breathing building that connects to the streets and to the people walking them.

The design of the Herzog & Meuron building is a work of art in itself with the firm’s trademark simple boxes containing simple rectangles, and use of everyday materials (wood, in this case) in an elegant and understated manner. This modest low-rise design provides a dramatic contrast to the usual glass towers that proliferate city landscapes. Internationally renown Vancouver artist, Jeff Wall, commented on the design by saying “When was the last time anyone saw a wooden building go up in the centre of the City of Vancouver?’ This notion of bringing back something that has vanished, bringing back something that is inherent in the nature of this place – the forest – and the wooden construction that originally made the City of Vancouver, is already an artistic achievement.”

I look forward to the development this project, and while I understand many people are against using public money for an art gallery, I think it is important to emphasize that an art gallery is not just a building, it is a public space that has the ability to engage the community on many levels from an experience with art, to creating a dynamic urban environment in the surrounding courtyard, sidewalks and streets. I think the future location, in particular because of its relation to the library (which is also a fantastic public space), is a perfect place for this building, and kudos to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s staff and board of directors for having the vision and foresight to hire one of the world’s leading architectural firms to bring art the attention that it needs in our sometimes less-than-receptive culture.


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