Canadian Architect

Feature

Industrial Revolution

Exciting new spaces for two established galleries are the latest additions to an emerging cultural precinct in a gritty East Vancouver industrial district.

March 1, 2014
by Steve DiPasquale

Projects Equinox Gallery and Monte Clark Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia
Architects Measured Architecture Inc. for Equinox Gallery and D’Arcy Jones Architecture Inc for Monte Clark Gallery
Text Steve DiPasquale
Photos Latreille Delage Photography for Equinox Gallery and silentSama Architectural Photography for Monte Clark Gallery 

Vancouver’s psychogeography has been drifting east for some time. Residents, businesses and institutions are finding here a kind of spatial and economic agency largely unavailable in the city’s developed west. Most recently, this story has been unfolding just off Main Street, in the area known as the False Creek Flats. Several prominent galleries that were once long-term occupants of South Granville’s art row have relocated here, strengthening the creative culture established in the mid-1990s by organizations like the Grunt Gallery and 1000 Parker Street Studios: Catriona Jeffries resettled in the area in 2006, and more recently Winsor, Equinox and Monte Clark galleries have done the same. Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design is also scheduled to join the Centre for Digital Media as a key anchor in what has the potential to become a vital arts precinct.

Located just southeast of the downtown core at the end of False Creek, The Flats describes a 308-acre swath of mainly low-rise industrial buildings that is striated laterally by a SkyTrain line and three railyards. It stands as one of the few industrial areas in Vancouver with a rich and legible history of manufacturing, fabrication and repair. City zoning protects these uses for long-term economic resilience, but also makes provision for other uses like galleries and studios–the area thus holds a cache of buildings ripe for imaginative repurpose. Together, Monte Clark and Equinox occupy one of the masonry structures built by Finning International in the early 1960s to service a fleet of Caterpillar backhoes and excavators, those ubiquitous yellow machines that forest, mining and highway construction industries deployed in reshaping the west. Architects disclose this building’s past in fashioning its present as a home for two remarkable galleries. 

The success of the Equinox and Monte Clark projects really begins at the urban scale, with the obvious pleasure the pair has taken in situating themselves as part of the post-industrial farrago of The Flats. Set back from any main thoroughfare, the galleries have forsaken the ease of South Granville’s pedestrian traffic for the greater possibilities of a destination venue. But with a few deft insertions in their new environs, the two have turned a circuitous route into a delightful uncanny trip. Visitors make an unexpected procession through the varied accretions of the district’s past and present, and enjoy a brief departure from the sameness of scale endemic to the urban grid. As we step off Great Northern Way and move past the BCIT forklift training yard, we confront the desolate expanses of the CN railyard, then glimpse the shipping cranes of the port far beyond. And so it’s entirely apt that positioned there, about 150 metres east of our destination, is a stack of two shipping containers painted a liminal red-orange, the gallery names and a supergraphic arrow stencilled in Caterpillar yellow–the first in a series of industrial-sized trail markers deployed solely for our wayfinding. In our final approach along a wide strip of road edging the railyard, we continue to be led along by these bursts of red-orange–a few more shipping containers here, fortuitous bits of rusting equipment there–until we recognize the final swatch of colour in the distance as the building proper. We reach the front door of the Equinox Gallery first, after being funnelled through a little corner plaza carved out by the logistics of heavy machinery. The whole experience is just uncommon enough to prime us for a productive encounter with art.

Operating for about a year before the latest renovation by Measured Architecture, Equinox sought to reconfigure their original infrastructure to support more diverse forms of exhibition. The architects have bisected the former scheme by moving the front entrance farther east, and have revamped a coarser layout to include finer-grained spaces of admirable flexibility–all helping to shape new business operations in the impressive 14,500-square-foot gallery.

The design team has thus crafted an expansive but considered entrance zone, generating a real sense of ease in arrival and orientation. Instead of being met with a typical work desk shrouded by a high privacy panel, visitors are asked to perceive only the most gestural notion of reception: a long white block set at table height that subtly demarcates entrance from open office, affording a clear view of the central work table and beyond. The designers have elegantly managed to drain reception of its officiousness while still allowing staff to attend to gallery-goers. Set as we are into the central valve of the project, we understand intuitively how to navigate ourselves from here: to the left, the smaller-scale west galleries; to the right, the larger-scale east gallery. As one moves through the various spaces in the project, the sense of ease established at the outset never dissipates. 

The scheme is arranged as a series of white cubic volumes, carefully placed to float within the existing masonry shell. These masses–nesting blocks carved out to allow for passage–hover just above the floor by way of a thin reveal, and acknowledge existing outer walls, but give the most space to the building’s captivating ceiling. And although the heights of the cubes step from 16 feet to 12 feet, and then down to a more domestically scaled 10 in the private viewing area, the architects achieve a unified feel overall: they scribe a strong datum by painting the exposed columns and masonry walls of the interior shell black, leaving the filigree of ceiling services and leftover industrial apparatus to itself. The project manages to really breathe as a result of these finely tuned offsets. But it’s more than just the interstitial space at work here. In the contrast between new and existing elements, the space is also charged with a quiet but unresolved tension: the muscular volumes exude a sense of permanence and belonging, yet their Platonic purity is everywhere set against the variegated textures of the existing, lending the cubes the aura of alien visitors. 

The behaviour of light and sound in the gallery only enhances this preternatural character. Existing clerestory lighting is brought to full advantage in the large east gallery, where the high glazing and a new skylight provide a subtly capricious daylit space–augmented by a few floodlights only when necessary. And for such a large space, the acoustics are extraordinarily controlled: I somehow expected to be walking around in that gentle reverent gait that galleries can engender, but instead felt entirely comfortable taking in the work on more casual terms. The manageable acoustics are perhaps explained by the fact that the gallery’s flooring, though not immediately registering as such, turns out to be painted plywood–the ruthless economies of former occupations yield surprisingly valuable material tactics. 

If the galleries share a common envelope that doubles as an urban-scale brand, their interior lives are distinctly their own: the 4,500-square-foot west end of the building occupied by the Monte Clark Gallery was originally built with a coffered concrete ceiling, and has no clerestory glazing, for instance. These and other given conditions confer a much different attitude to the space, and have catalyzed in the project a different set of design protocols. Our introduction to the spirit of this gallery, however, occurs even prior to entry, when we first reach for the front door–a pane of glass set in a deep frame of mild steel pivoting 180 degrees. No
standardized pull. No lockset. No attempt to remove the evidence of fabrication. The door is, quizzically, just the architectural idea of a door. 

Throughout, the gallery offers itself up in this same mode of self-assured transparency–of business procedure, of past occupation, of construction necessity. Immediately striking is its open storage system, a grove of wooden dowels running floor to mezzanine underside where art can be safely stowed–without being stowed away. Flipping the back of house inside out is, first, an affable gesture, and works to create a sense of welcome, but according to owner Monte Clark, this move has also shaped a new sales culture in the gallery: having the entire inventory ready to hand has helped facilitate a more casual rapport between staff and client.

Moving into the space proper, one becomes increasingly aware of the extraordinarily haptic quality of the surfaces–the masonry walls, the staircase, the floor–and then how this tactility operates as part of a larger dialogue between old and new, rough and smooth, dark and light. And yet, it doesn’t feel as though this nuanced set of relationships fell out wholesale from behind a desk; the project’s confidently permissive moments make it feel like architect D’Arcy Jones and his team also moved by responding to idiosyncrasies they uncovered as they worked. Windows were placed to avoid interference with masonry bond beams, doorways were brought to full height to circumvent the need for the labour and materials of a lintel, and a few irregular holes and smashed-in bits of masonry have been left alone to express past necessities of production.

The gallery’s floor–or, perhaps more appropriately here, the ground plane–is the strongest and most charming of these found personalities: gouged, pocked and stained by years of maintenance on heavy machines, the building’s original concrete is a delightfully varied terrain excavated from beneath several inches of industrial paint. One also gets the sense that the finely rugged character of the steel stair and mezzanine owes its kinship to its weathered, work-hardened cousin below. This whole metal assembly bears the stamped markings of its original milling, the conspicuous seams of its site fabrication, and a few of the hasty chalk equations scrawled out by its makers. All this is not to suggest that this component hasn’t been carefully considered–the designers have elegantly concealed its structural support system, for instance–but its laissez-faire countenance works because of its accord with other elements in the scheme. 

These two projects demonstrate the value latent in the industrial building stock of the area, and point the way to what The Flats could become: at every scale, a set of compelling encounters between differing spatial and material agendas. The district, however–and especially the southern portion home to Equinox and Monte Clark–stands as contested territory, equal parts street-level creativity and top-down infrastructure planning. Galleries, art studios and recording studios are littered throughout the area and its fringes; nearby, a decommissioned school bus in a gravel parking lot is the epicentre of large all-night parties; immediately to the south, two condo towers are under construction, part of the Comprehensive Development zoning helping to finance the resettlement of Emily Carr; and a proposed SkyTrain line, if mobilized into action, promises to run straight through the site. Future settlers and current strategists would do well to see that there is value in the flexibility furnished by the structural grids of these utilitarian buildings, in the possibly unforeseen synergies of economy and performance, and in the uncanny delight of industrial-urban space. Handled with the same sensitivity to the idiosyncrasies of place, The Flats could continue to develop into a welcome complement to the city’s tyranny of the new. 

Steve DiPasquale is an intern architect at HCMA in Vancouver. Together with Bryan Beça, he is also at work on The Space of Difference, a site-specific video installation sponsored by the Surrey Art Gallery. Please visit www.operativeagency.com/surreyurbanscreen/ for more information.

Client Equinox Gallery | Architect Team Clinton Cuddington, Piers Cunnington, Katy Young, Magali Bailey, Lucy Smith | structural Fast + Epp | interiors Measured Architecture Inc. | contractor L.D.H. Installations Ltd. | Code Consultant LMDG Building Code Consultant | Area 1,350 m2 | Budget $400,000| Completion September 2013

Client Monte Clark Gallery | Architect Team D’Arcy Jones, Amanda Kemeny, Douglas Gibbons, Matthew Ketis-Bendena, Craig Bissell, Matti Saar | Architect of Record M. Saar Architecture | Structural Dan Wicke, Wicke Herft Maver Structural Engineers | Interiors D’Arcy Jones architecture inc | Contractor Larry Halvorson | Code Consultant Jean Bumen, Bumen Architecture & Code Consulting Inc. | Area 4,337 ft2 | Budget Withheld | Completion February 2014