John and Patricia Patkau are among Canada’s most honoured architects, with fifteen Governor General Awards for Architecture and a 30-year career sparkling with numerous other accolades. Now their vision for Polygon Gallery is about to rise on the harbourfront. The concrete slab which will be the footprint of the new art gallery was poured at the beginning of April, and workers are busily installing rebar in elevator shafts and making other preparations for the building construction. After touring the site with both architects, we had a chat with John Patkau about the building and his aspirations for its future.
Q: Tell me how this project started for you.
When we began working on ideas for the new gallery, it was unclear what our precise site would be and what the size of the building would be. Over time, we learned that what worked for the Gallery and the community was a building with a fairly tight footprint, and a tight budget. Of course, the particular virtues of the Polygon Gallery site were immediately obvious – the phenomenal relationship to the harbour, and to the view of downtown Vancouver.
As we began our design process, it became more and more clear that there was strong public interest in preserving the larger Foot of Lonsdale site as public space. And then the Gallery had particular needs for the kind of space required to show art. We set to work to realize both of those conditions.
The visionary part of the building comes from an understanding of what an art museum – or art gallery – is.
A gallery is largely an introverted building. What you’re really trying to construct is a box in which art can be exhibited.
That building wants to have as many walls as possible to hang art and not windows. In fact, windows are often a problem for art exhibitions. The optimal art gallery is a box – a beautiful box.
I hope that we’re constructing a beautiful box for Polygon Gallery. A beautiful box that will have beautiful natural light from the roof illuminating the exhibition areas.
But I also hope – and believe – that the Gallery will be something more. This is a public institution: it has an important need to be a good neighbour and to have a welcoming public presence.
In our design, we made a very strong distinction between the exhibition floor – the upper floor – which is walled and much more enclosed in appearance, and the public reception – the ground floor – that is the exact opposite of the exhibition floor. The reception floor is a crystalline, transparent enclosure that allows people to see not only into the gallery building, but through the gallery building. So it is possible to look diagonally across the lobby and see the view continuing through the interior of the gallery building. By making this strong distinction and juxtaposition of exhibition space vs public reception space, we’ve been able to achieve optimal results for both what a gallery needs to be and what a public institution needs to be. That, I think, is one of the most important dimensions of the design.
Q: How did the site at the Foot of Lonsdale speak to you when you first saw it?
When we first went to the site, we were struck by the importance of the foot of Lonsdale in North Vancouver and the tremendous opportunity of the waterfront site relative to the Greater Vancouver area.
Lonsdale is the backbone of North Van, and the origin of Lonsdale is the Foot of Lonsdale, down by the Quay. In some ways it’s the historical nucleus of the North Shore. Everything grows from that nucleus. In many ways, this site is the most resonant site in North Vancouver, I think.
It’s the most historically resonant site – the home to the port industries on which North Vancouver was built. It is the most geographically evocative site – where sea meets mountain. And it’s the place where, in some ways, the community is most connected to the larger region – which it views just across the harbour.
So in many ways Polygon Gallery’s site is just loaded with significance.
Q: What do you hope the building will mean?
I think that for North Vancouver the new Polygon Gallery will hopefully represent a coming-of-age for the community. In addition to being a place that is extremely liveable, with a wealth of wonderful natural assets, it will feature world-class cultural resources on a par with those natural gifts. North Van is not just where people live, or live and work. But where people live, work, socialize and get access to significant cultural events – all dimensions of what it takes to be a complete urban environment in the 21st century.
Q: It’s a very striking building – viewable from virtually all the way around the harbour. What does the project represent for Patkau Architects?
It is a landmark building for us. We have done important public buildings in cities in other parts of Canada, but haven’t done this kind of building in our home city. For us it represents a very significant accomplishment. Having a public building like this – viewable from all around Greater Vancouver’s harbour – is hugely important for us. It’s our contribution to the city we love. We viewed it as that from the outset. We’ve been very fortunate that the efforts of a large number of people have made this possible.