Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition of Herzog & de Meuron’s dazzling projects

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The new Vancouver exhibition “Material Future” is a great deal more than just haughty architectural designs embellished with simplistic elemental assemblies. It will be, according to the Vancouver Art Gallery, a showcase in “design philosophy.”

The famous architectural firm, Herzog & de Meuron, which has given rise to beautiful works of architecture across the globe, currently have their projects showcased in the VAG in a exhibition that opened on March 27. However, what is most interesting, at least to Vancouver residents, is the fact that a portion of the exhibition will focus on the designs, planning, and building of the future Vancouver Art Gallery. The actual conceptual design of the future building will be unveiled to the public in late spring.

Herzog & de Meuron is the Swiss architectural firm that designed the famous Tate Modern in London, the Young Museum in San Francisco, the National Stadium in Beijing, and the Schaulager in Basel, as well as current projects such as a new museum of visual culture in Hong Kong and the much anticipated M+. What makes the firm so well known is its uniqueness with particular attention to the materials, site and context of all of its buildings. It employs an international team of about 460 collaborators which works on projects across Europe, the Americas and Asia. The firm‘s main office is in Basel, with additional offices in Hamburg, London, Madrid, New York City, and Hong Kong.

“The firm is internationally renowned for their attention to materials, site, and context, which defines a practice that is astonishingly subtle and complex.” said a representative of the gallery in an email.

“Herzog & de Meuron has demonstrated their commitment to the new Vancouver Art Gallery project. Their research of Vancouver and British Columbia includes extensive travel throughout the province and significant time spent with Gallery stakeholders, including many artists in the Vancouver art community.”

Interestingly, the VAG has organized the exhibition in three key steps. First a preliminary introduction to the new VAG building project, which will include plans, introductions to the site architects, and different processes. The second will be a meticulous study space which will focus on the strategies and the process behind Herzog & de Meuron, and which will include monographs, as well as a projection room of the firm’s projects. The final step — and I dare say the most important — will be a lobby that will provide the visitors with the “context, plans and statues of the future gallery.”

“It has been a remarkable journey since last April when we started working closely with Herzog & de Meuron on the conceptual design of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building. This exhibition charts the history and the trajectory of the Gallery’s future growth, and it is an exciting prelude to the unveiling of the conceptual design of the new building,” said Kathleen S. Bartels, Director of the Gallery.

“Every step of the way, Herzog & de Meuron have demonstrated their commitment to this landmark project that will act as a catalyst for the city of Vancouver and beyond. Their research on Vancouver and British Columbia has been impressive, including extensive travel throughout the province.”

This whole process began in 2013, when the gallery launched an international RFQ-Request for Qualification — which means a call to firms around the world to step up and show their work so that the gallery could make a final decision on which they saw the best fit for what they wanted. Seventy-five companies from 16 different countries around the world responded to the call, until finally Herzog & de Meuron was given the job, which will work along with the Vancouver firm Perkins+Will.

Material Future Vancouver Art Gallery at 1145 West Georgia Street after refit, 1958 Vancouver Art Gallery Archives

When it comes to architecture the human mind is usually dazzled by the new and the thrilling, yet there is something rather interesting in the fact that the future gallery will no longer be the in the old provincial courts so fashionably renovated by architect Arthur Erikson in the early 1980’s. The art gallery has made it clear that they need more space for the ever-increasing collections. In fact it has reiterated that it needs a space of about 320,000 square feet, and the new location at West Georgia and Cambie is more than adequate.

Now the question remains: What are we to expect when the full design of the new building will be unveiled in late spring? Modern debauchery with cold glass and mystical complexities? Herzog & de Meuron has managed to astound people every time it first unveiled anything new, and even more so once the buildings actually came to life. This has been the case with the Allianz Arena in Munich Germany, and the Tate Modern in London which was one of the buildings that led the firm to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2001.

We have been assured that the gallery is in competent hands, and, I dare say, Herzon & de Meuron are indeed a collection of the best talent in the world of architecture. Yet, as the romantic and classicist that I am, I feel remorse at the knowledge that the art gallery will move away from the old provincial courthouse which I think is much more providential, in the sense that it is more of an appropriate structure to house high works of art.

One thing which must be said is that perhaps what is more important to the Vancouver Art Gallery is the procuring of more works of art, that allude to greater artistic tendencies, rather than the formal and costly construction of a new building — one which will still undoubtedly be beautiful and worthy to be called an art gallery. Still the question remains: What will the art gallery fill it with? Even the recent Cezanne exhibition has proven in my view to be rather tediously discouraging.

It might be just my travels within the European landscape, in fact it might simply be my half-European lineage speaking out, but I assure you the collections which have graced the Vancouver Art Gallery throughout its existence, at least in my own opinion, are not much when compared the halls of art that fill Europe’s museums, and palaces.

Although I welcome the relocation with great delight, undoubtedly at the pleasure which will be procured from seeing a beautiful Herzog & de Meuron building in Vancouver, I will still feel almost as if the more important purpose of an art gallery is to grace its viewers with more alluring pieces before superb buildings. Infallibly, perhaps even in the context of art galleries what is on the inside is far more important than the outside, as the old bromide goes.

Preferably both, yet the reality of the situation is that this is not Europe, and its halls are very far away. We must satisfy our visual needs with what we have. This will not be the the first physical move of the VAG as we all know, and although we might have mixed feelings in regards to it, we must support the gallery’s decisions, for it is the most important source of the promotion of visual arts in Vancouver.

The exhibition is scheduled to run until October.

By Milad Doroudian

Feature Image Source: Installation view of Material Future: The Architecture of Herzog & de Meuron and the Vancouver Art Gallery, exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, March 27 to October 4, 2015 Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

Second Image Source: Vancouver Art Gallery Archives