Much dismay that the Vancouver Art Gallery is going to move out of its present location, the classical Rattenbury court house on Georgia Street, and into a new building on the site of the old bus depot on Cambie. The streets don't mean much to those who don't know Vancouver well, but the bus depot site is at the end of Georgia that is accumulating large cultural edifices: the CBC building, Vancouver Public Library, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and now the art gallery.
The QE Theatre — an opera and ballet hall – is in its original 1959 Affleck building, the library moved from its 1957 Burrard Street location and building into the 1995 Safdie coliseum-referenced library on Georgia: Library Square with huge public spaces in and out, often used by the CBC as performance space. The CBC is in a 1975 Merrick building on Georgia, expanded in 2009 (Dialog and Bakker) to include a 4000 square-foot performance studio and a glassy public face on the street. The 1958 McCarter Nairne Post Office building, also on Georgia, its future very much in danger, has been discussed as a possible home for the Vancouver Art Gallery: right location, large industrial spaces, although its massive structure would make changes almost prohibitively expensive, plus it was sold in March for $159 million to a developer.
The Vancouver Art Gallery's first building was built in 1931 on a 66'-wide lot (the original CPR survey grid based on chains for residential plots) a couple of blocks away on Georgia from the Hotel Vancouver. It looked like a bank vault, which says something about the way art was perceived, as a precious commodity meant to be safeguarded.
The building was given an International Style renovation and expansion in 1950 by Ross Lort: a part plate glass front wall, part slab, all offset planes and classic white gallery space behind. It had become a small, exceptionally accommodating gallery that under the direction of Doris Shadbolt and Tony Emery, was at the centre of the explosion of art and performance, from N.E. Thing Co to Gathie Falk, in Vancouver in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Then, in 1983, the Vancouver Art Gallery moved to the Erickson-renovated 1911 court house building, made redundant by the 1980 Erickson-designed Law Courts complex and Robson Square which filled the two blocks to the west behind the court house. It seemed appropriate in the ghastly post-modern 1980s when protests on the Court House steps were over, and museums, opera companies and symphonies turned to block-buster shows for survival, that the VAG be housed in the pomposity of a building shouting out its authority.
Art goes on no matter what the official gallery is, artists challenge and change; where they do it and where you see it is worthy of attention. In the 1980s artists were like the punk scene occupying marginal and arcane spaces, they certainly weren't in the main spaces of the new Vancouver Art Gallery in the way that they had fluidly slipped in and out of the old modernist unpretentious gallery down the street. The more we pull access to art out of the everyday, the more inexplicable it becomes to the everyday. Much like the original 1931 vault-like gallery, the court house gallery demanded, simply by the architecture itself, reverence for the exceptionalism of art.
I'm not unhappy to see the Vancouver Art Gallery leave the court house building, but one does worry about the current civic support, all over the country, for Bilbao-effect galleries and museums. By their very spectacularity they become objects rather than fabric, appropriate one would think perhaps for programs such as justice, or health, or governance. Historically, art is deemed to be one of these important conditions requiring separation in a significant architecture.
Might we have something more wabi-sabi: a necessary anchor for history, retrospectives, biennials and curation, plus the infiltration of the rest of the city, starting from that block, with a rootless, opportunistic, transient architecture that reflects the kind of programming most major galleries are engaged with today. There must be some place for a gallery architecture to constantly renew and reconstruct itself if it is to be an embedded part of the processes of cultural renewal and reconstruction, and not just the place where, after the fact, such changes are displayed.