The sun was still shining as I walked into the Perez Art Museum in Miami. After I passed through the heavy teak doors, a milky light was bouncing off the lobby’s concrete floor and splashing a flotilla of ships by the British sculptor Hew Locke. Red, yellow, sea green, their colours faded in and out in the shifting daylight.
Then the clouds won out and the building dipped into shadow. As I continued upstairs through the galleries, I passed through zones of light and darkness, with frequent glimpses to the ocean, the expressways and the exuberant vegetation of south Florida.
This might be a good preview of what is to come at the Vancouver Art Gallery, if the gallery’s plan for a new building is realized. The two museums share an architect, Christine Binswanger of the gifted Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, and a sensibility. The good news is that the Miami museum is brilliant architecture. The bad news is that it’s brilliant in one important sense, as a public gathering place, that Vancouver’s might not be.
My visit was well-timed. A few weeks ago, the VAG announced a $40-million donation to its building project, and Binswanger came to Vancouver to unveil some slight alterations to the design. The biggest change was material: The building, a tall, unpretty stack of horizontal slabs, used to be wrapped in wood. Now it will predominantly be what Binswanger called “glass logs,” semi-cylinders of glass. But wood remains prominent wherever visitors will walk or lay their hands.
This is also true at the Perez, where wood is underfoot and under your hands in many places. It’s on the floors in the first-level galleries; it wraps the edges of windows and thick doorways between interior spaces everywhere. But wood does not feature strongly on the building’s exterior; wood doesn’t do well in wet climates.
Which is the professed reason that it’s gone from the VAG, and some Vancouverites have been grumbling about this change. Having seen the Perez, I’m not convinced that this is a problem.
In fact, the Perez – which looks a bit austere in photographs – proves to be rich both visually and texturally. The oak floors on one level are nicely worn in, contrasting with the ice-cream smoothness of the concrete. I wanted to linger on the benches in the auditorium, made of concrete slabs wrapped in caramel leather. The triangular benches tucked into one corner of the gallery, the solid wood window-seats in a corner gallery – there were many places to linger.
And the art looked fantastic. A large sequence of temporary galleries held a major Christo and Jeanne-Claude show, recalling a Miami project. The square, high-ceilinged spaces, aligned with each other in a straightforward arrangement, nicely framed a range of pieces from small drawings to big balloons of pink polypropylene.
Elsewhere, the museum’s galleries maintained a useful balance between generic white boxes and more eccentric spaces, daylit and enclosed, small and large. It is a remarkable range of spatial variety for such a small building. And while the building’s concrete feels tough, there are eccentric material choices – sails in the restaurant, vintage-looking brass push plates, unexpected walls of mirror in a back corridor – that provide whimsy and variety.
A lot of the same things are likely to be true of the VAG scheme. That building would begin with a courtyard, and a ring of sunken galleries, followed by a four-storey elevator ride up into a tower and then three more levels of publicly accessible space. “The building is like a vertical city," Binswanger told me on a recent phone call. “The mixture of different purposes” – gallery, a flexible auditorium, education spaces – “provides a sense of urbanity.”
The upper levels would be linked by stairs (and elevators) and foyers that provide lots of room to linger and enjoy the view, as at Herzog’s recent, tall addition to the Tate Modern in London. So far, the drawings of the VAG scheme leave me excited to climb those steps. And after visiting the Perez, only more so.
I asked Binswanger, who oversaw the design of the Perez and the VAG, to compare the two. “They are similar, in that the two buildings both respond to the places they’re in,” she told me. “We tried to react to the climate – and create outdoor space, because both are cities where people are outside a lot.”
And this is an important point of comparison, by which the VAG plan does not look so good. In Miami, the Perez sits in a public park alongside other museums. The art gallery very much looks outward. It is lined on two sides by covered porches, topped by slats of wood and steel, that mediate between the building and the park and waterway around it. For Miami, a city without a very generous public realm, this is important. And the spaces are lovely. They are punctuated by vertical planters, designed with the French botanist Patrick Blanc – spectacular, gravity-defying columns of flora. Here you can get a table at the restaurant or hang out on a bench, in the shade and partly sheltered from the rain. I got a bit wet. It was glorious.
This crucial experience of indoor-outdoor connection, so unusual in an art museum, will be limited at the VAG. To be sure, there are windows – tall windows link some of the galleries with the outdoors. And on the basement and ground level, sunken gardens planted like a temperate rain forest promise to liven up the interior.
Yet where the Perez looks and feels hospitable, the VAG scheme by contrast does not. The courtyard at the base would be enclosed by a ring of one-storey buildings, which would “provide human scale,” as Binswanger points out, but also allow it to be closed off. (The architects are already thinking about the courtyard as a rental space.) At a time when cultural buildings are turning themselves inside out – “transparent” and “social” are the buzzwords of the moment – this is a fortress for art.
That is an issue in Vancouver, because the VAG’s current home is much more public. Its square along Georgia Street is one of very few public plazas in downtown Vancouver. On the new site at Larwill Park, the inward orientation of the new VAG is seen by some locals as problematic, distancing the institution and its offerings too much from the life of the street. That criticism, I think, is valid.
There is a balance to be found between the fortress-like and the public, the weird and the welcoming, the aloof and the friendly. The Perez achieves this balance precisely, and does what an art museum ought to do: serve the work, surprise you, and give you space to breathe. The Vancouver Art Gallery should follow.