The Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver was packed with cultural creatives this past Tuesday. They were there to listen to one of the world’s architects of note speak about how he and his Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron conceptualize the projects they’ve worked on since their company’s beginnings in 1978. They are located in Basel, Switzerland and will design the new Vancouver Art Gallery.
The first thing that stood out for me in the introduction is that Jacques Herzog gets to work with his childhood friend, Pierre de Meuron. Imagine what it would be like to become friends with someone in childhood and then to continue that friendship into an educational focus, through university, into your life’s work and to build a thriving career and international architectural practice? That seems extremely lucky to me that two people’s lives could converge that way over such an extended time period.
They’ve worked on such well known sites as the conversion of the Bankside Power Station in London, transforming it into the Tate Modern that draws 5 million visitors a year and now their newest addition to that, Tate Modern 2, is in the works.
There’s the Beijing National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest, designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and a place that still attracts the Chinese people who love, according to Herzog, to congregate.
There’s the Prada Toyko building, more a sculpture than building, its stylized glass exterior like a marbleized magnifying glass of geometric shapes with each thick concave piece creating a sort of picture frame, a way of guiding the eyes to zero in more closely on the fashion on display inside, with the exterior as standalone object d’art.
The design process includes learning about the history of a footprint, past incarnations of the piece of land or buildings being utilized so that the new building is not a separate entity but finds its place as part of the community that surrounds it, improving upon that and providing new collaborations of human interaction and a new destination for everyone, even those who wouldn’t normally find themselves attracted to an art gallery.
In Vancouver, Herzog & de Meuron have the task of designing the new art gallery on a piece of land that is currently a parking lot with the Beatty Street Armoury flanking it to the south and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on the north located at West Georgia and Cambie. This place actually has a name – Larwill Park – but I’m willing to bet the majority of Vancouverites, including me, have never heard that reference before. After all, to most of us it’s just a parking lot. A place that Herzog said was used in the past for marching practice and military parades from the adjacent armoury.
A friend reminded me that this piece of land had also been the old bus depot at one point and she had memories of her first venturings at 13 years of age, taking the bus from Burnaby to the Charm School at The Bay downtown. Her memories elicited my own vague recollections of silver buses, exhaust fumes and revving engines as customers huddled under a long shelter, more just an overhang to keep the rain off, people scurrying from one bus to the next.
Currently the space seems to get used as a parking lot that houses the buses of visiting artistic groups performing at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, of trucks from movie companies, and as a pedestrian shortcut to the Chinatown Sky train station.
How could an art gallery not be a better use of this valuable city owned space? It’s really exciting to imagine the uniqueness they’ll conceive for this space. Although my first thought when I saw the location is that we have to hope that there’s never another crazy Canuck’s fan riot since this new gallery will be right in that vicinity.
If you’d like to learn more, check out Material Future: The Architecture of Herzog & de Meuron and the Vancouver Art Gallery to October 4th at the Vancouver Art Gallery.