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Interviews / October 2, 2014

Q&A: Herzog & De Meuron on the New Vancouver Art Gallery

Herzog & De Meuron wowed with the Tate Modern and other projects—so what's on their list for the new Vancouver Art Gallery? Find out in this interview.
The Herzog & De Meuron leadership, from left: senior partner (and lead architect for the Vancouver Art Gallery project) Christine Binswanger, senior partner Ascan Mergenthaler and senior partner Stefan Marbach, with founders Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog. Photo © Tobias Mandorin.  The Herzog & De Meuron leadership, from left: senior partner (and lead architect for the Vancouver Art Gallery project) Christine Binswanger, senior partner Ascan Mergenthaler and senior partner Stefan Marbach, with founders Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog. Photo © Tobias Mandorin.

In a public lecture last night, architects from the internationally renowned Swiss firm Herzog & De Meuron—known for projects like Tate Modern in London and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—provided some initial hints as to how the new Vancouver Art Gallery might develop. Here, lead architect Christine Binswanger—headed north to Haida Gwaii today to do further research—answers five questions from Canadian Art via email. Along the way, she reveals what she hopes the new gallery, due to open in 2020, will (and won’t) reflect about the realities of life on Canada’s West Coast.

Q: You are known in part for projects that respond to specifics of cities and sites. What specific aspects of Vancouver have excited you most so far as directions for exploration?

A: We have mostly seen downtown Vancouver so far and our initial reactions are concentrated on the peninsula at this moment, where both the current and the new museum are located not far from one another.

The city centre is very walkable due to the fairly short distances—we Europeans like that. The animated streetscape is a huge asset compared to cities that have been planned to accommodate traffic in the first place, as a result of the car-mania of the past decades. It is really surprising to find such a young city with almost no highways not even from the airport to the city.

The climate allows people to be outside for a long stretch of the year. If things are laid out in a good way, public spaces are exposed to the sun and can easily be activated.

The mix of neighbourhoods is fascinating; the identities of the different “small towns” that change quickly from one to the other. You have all types of urban life very close to each other. It’s not only a demographic mix, but also an urbanistic medley. However, there is one predominant feature that starts to spread all over: the omnipresent, slightly bulky residential glass tower.

One of our most recently opened projects is [the Pérez Art Museum] in Miami, [where] the task was to address the Latin community and to encourage people who do not necessarily visit museums to go there. The goal was achieved—attendance is much higher than expected. Of course, this is not just because of the new building, but also because of the focus of the collection, the rhythm in which exhibitions change, and the topics of temporary shows produced. All these components are tailored towards this specific community. The situation here in Vancouver is similar in subject but very different in “style.” Here, it is about how to involve the very large and diverse population coming from across the Pacific. North America is fascinating.

Q: Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in the world for housing. Commercial real estate there doesn’t come cheap, either, so efficient use of space is no doubt a priority for this project. What are some ways you might imagine that type of efficiency need translating into an art-gallery context?

A: The plan is to redevelop an entire downtown block with the museum as its “anchor” in terms of public space and use. We find this interesting, to design something that will be more than “just” another jewel-box type of museum and not end up with a shopping mall that uses the gallery as its fig leaf, like a cover-up.

One shouldn’t perceive the commercial program as the bad and the cultural one as the good. But the ones that make money with the real estate should support the ones that offer cultural value to society. The mix of uses is also beneficial, because it will make a place that is animated 24 hours a day.

Q: A significant aspect of Vancouver history is the fact that it stands on traditional Musqueam (First Nations) territory. How do you think a consideration of this history might shape the gallery?

A: We’d like to wait with an answer to that until after our upcoming trips around Vancouver and to the north of BC.

Q: What interest do you have in what is known as the Vancouver School of artists (for instance, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, known alternatively as photo-conceptualists)? What creative links do you perceive between architecture and photography?

A: The fact that these artists all live and work in Vancouver is a big motivation for us. Herzog & de Meuron have had close collaborations with artists since the beginning of the practice, and we are really excited to get to know the work of the so-called photo-conceptualists better. We are getting a city tour with Roy Arden next Sunday and we will have a meeting with a group of artists later this week, in which we’d like to hear about their expectations. And I would add Douglas Coupland to this list [of artists] whose writings and cultural practice have been an important source and a great pleasure to read and see for us.

Before getting involved with the gallery project, we knew the city of Vancouver mainly through the work of these artists. Now, when we walk through the city, we keep seeing their images.

We hope to be able to jointly come up with a museum that will show their work in an interesting, engaging and lively way. I don’t know how yet, but that’s one of the tasks at hand. If there is already a collection and an ongoing production of such outstanding artists, the museum of that place must “use” this somehow. There are unfortunately too many “invented” and “transplanted” museums that have more to do with tourism and marketing than with the needs of artists, but here you find both a strong local art community and a museum that cares for it.

Creative links? You cannot do architecture if you cannot perceive what is out there. We learn about perception from these (and other) artists.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like Canadians to know about your first project in this country?

A: We are very happy to have a reason to come here and we promise to give our best to make something that will be meaningful and responsive.