The Vancouver Art Gallery by Alvar Aalto

Apr 29 • Articles, Museum, VANCOUVER • 3191 Views • 10 Comments on The Vancouver Art Gallery by Alvar Aalto

One graduate student’s proposal for what the new Vancouver Art Gallery could look like if it was designed by the great Finnish architect and designer, Alvar Aalto


By James Bligh…


The Vancouver Art Gallery is moving. Due to size and renovation constraints within the existing facility, the decision has been made to construct a new international institution with double the exhibition space, new educational facilities, a large scale auditorium, and much more. Shortly, we will hear from the selection committee as to which firm will have won the competition to design the new gallery: Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Herzog & de Meuron, KPMB Architects, SANAA, or Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

(Source: Apple Maps)

Larwill Park, site of the new Vancouver Art Gallery

The Vancouver Art Gallery and its surrounding public spaces are icons of extraordinary public value in the city. Resultantly, a high level of responsibility is owed to this project. It will be curious to see how adept the shortlisted firms will be in developing a powerful bond with the city, as the existing facility has, especially considering how two of them are contesting the demolition and reconstruction of the Folk Art Museum in New York.

Which architect will be the most skillful in developing a cultural icon, achieving a resonance with the city? This question is at the crux of the decisions towards this institution and others which are loaded with responsibility towards their image. Consider Alvar Aalto, an architect who was extraordinarily proficient in this regard. It would be compelling to compare the designs of five diverse and successful contemporary firms to a project inspired by the cultural masterworks of Aalto. Above is a Master of Architecture pre-thesis design exploration, developed at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, for what the new Vancouver Art Gallery might look like, had Aalto been alive and shortlisted in the competition.

Porphyrios describes Aalto as a designer who composes form and material through classical principals (as inspired by his education), before breaking the rules with such qualities as unusual poché, seductive curvatures, and contemporary construction techniques as well as smart interior design choices, like using LEHB lighting to create a bright even light in a big room. Aalto used this “rule breaking” to further evocate a historic sensuousness, a tactic which allows the occupant to derive a deeper connection to their own existence through both historic and locally significant form and materiality. This experience of historic sensuousness was further intensified by Aalto through the use of tactile strategies: columns with articulation between knee and head height, custom doorknobs, extended handrails and other elements.

The classical organizing principle in this design is the crown, a tall valley shaped element used to signify the identity of the institution. Public spaces are tied to the history of Vancouver: coniferous trees reference the original site, and a large lawn acknowledges the invaluable gathering spaces surrounding the existing gallery. Stone and copper evokes the memory of several iconic works including Hotel Vancouver, while generous use of cedar in the interior identifies the deep reliance of the Pacific Northwest on the forest.

In a city alive with cultural potential, will the winning design of the Vancouver Art Gallery emerge as an iconic tour-de-force, reminiscent of the work of Aalto?


James Bligh is a Master of Architecture thesis student, under the guidance of Professor John Shnier, at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design; James’ studies focus on the phenomenological bonding that takes place between people and architecture, and the strategies architects use to develop those bonds within the current discourse. James is working this summer with Chernoff Thompson Architects, in Vancouver British Columbia.

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