Canadian Architect

Feature

The Expansion Dilemma

Museums across Canada are growing, and confronting the difficult choice between expanding on site and building new quarters off site. What can we learn from projects in the space-crunched Netherlands?

September 1, 2015
by Adele Weder

TEXT Adele Weder

If the past is a foreign country, Canadian museum boards might do well to look both to the past and to foreign countries. I recently toured the work of Dutch architect Hans van Heeswijk, who is riding a wave of acclaim for museum expansions across the Netherlands, garnering the kind of attention that in North America is more typically reserved for new builds. Continental Europe has long been obliged to work this way, filling in rather than flailing out, as its buildable land pretty much ran out somewhere around the last colony-shucking.

The pavilion-like expansion of Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum faces the city's Museum Plaza.

The pavilion-like expansion of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum faces the city’s Museum Plaza.

Is there something to be gleaned from the Dutch experience? As Canadian cities reach a critical density and our museums outgrow their 1970s homes, museum boards and architects from coast to coast are facing tough choices between expanding on site or creating larger quarters farther afield.

Van Heeswijk’s latest oeuvre is the expansion of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which he took over from Kisho Kurokawa after the Japanese architect’s death in 2007. Added on to a fairly mundane 1973 building (itself a posthumous completion of a Gerrit Rietveld design), the new double-height glazed entrance wing resolves the popular museum’s longstanding issue of endless lineups and bottlenecks. Beyond the pragmatics, the new foyer offers what Amsterdam critic Jaap Huisman calls “a rite of passage for visitors to shake off the impressions of the street and prepare themselves spiritually for the art that awaits them.”

Amsterdam's expanded Van Gogh Museum includes a spacious atrium that links below-grade spaces to the existing museum.

Amsterdam’s expanded Van Gogh Museum includes a spacious atrium that links below-grade spaces to the existing museum.

Given the institution’s severely constricted location on Museum Square in the centre of historic Amsterdam, it might have seemed impossible to expand the original building, let along bring it up to the current standards of global tourism. The Kurokawa/van Heeswijk scheme heads to the largest untapped site in modern cities: underground. It adds generous overhead fenestration to flood the new spaces with light. The subgrade extension serves not only as reception foyer but also as tunnel from the existing permanent exhibition spaces to a newly added temporary exhibition hall.

The Mauritshuis Museum expansion in The Hague also includes a below-grade atrium.

The Mauritshuis Museum expansion in The Hague also includes a below-grade atrium.

The new entrance hall to the Mauritshuis Museum.

The new entrance hall to the Mauritshuis Museum.

The Van Gogh Museum is the latest in a string of van Heeswijk projects that exhibit ingenious modes of maximizing space in confined quarters. Last year, he completed an underground expansion of the Netherlands’ Mauritshuis Museum in the historic district of The Hague, and in 2009 a deft renewal of a 17th-century city-owned retirement home into the Hermitage Amsterdam museum.

A section shows the connection between the existing museum and an addition occupying the building across the street.

A section shows the connection between the existing museum and an addition occupying the building across the street.

The ingenuity of these additions offered fresh perspective on the wealth of possibilities in Canada’s current wave of museum expansions. Smaller cities like Victoria and Fredericton are finding that transforming existing buildings can yield more than the sum of the old and new parts. Meanwhile, in Saskatoon, where I grew up, and in my adopted hometown of Vancouver, major museums are taking up new sites—when on-site expansions could have been viable—and, perhaps, preferable.

The proposed expansion to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects wraps around a portion of the existing museum.

The proposed expansion to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects wraps around a portion of the existing museum.

The interior of the proposed Beaverbrook Art Gallery expansion in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

The interior of the proposed Beaverbrook Art Gallery expansion in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Next month, Vancouver-based LWPAC in joint venture with Moore Architecture will unveil their design for a visually stunning steel-clad addition for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV), with a glazed hallway linking the original 1889 building to the new space. At the other end of the country, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects is transforming the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, leaving the 1958 Howell & Stewart building at the core and wrapping a contemporary design around it like an architectural cloak.

The Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon was subject to an earlier plan for expansion on its existing site.

The Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon was subject to an earlier plan for expansion on its existing site.

Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery was on track to expand its original 1964 building by Blankstein, Coop, Gillmor and Hanna (now Number TEN Architectural Group), which would have doubled its size while retaining its mid-century character. Local firm Kindrachuk Agrey Architecture had completed working drawings for the expansion when the gallery’s board was lured by a lucrative offer to build a brand-new structure—with a different firm, new gallery name and relocation from its storied riverbank setting to the other side of downtown. (Museum director Terry Graff resigned and soon after assumed the director’s position at the Beaverbrook, where he is now bringing the MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple expansion to fruition.)

Currently under construction, the Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan will replace Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery.

Currently under construction, the Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan will replace Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery.

The new Saskatoon gallery—which will be renamed the Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan when it opens next year—will be no slouch. The design team is led by KPMB Architects in association with Smith Carter (now Architecture 49). KPMB is a firm as capable of both brilliant new museums and the renewal of older buildings, as with its 1992 transformation of the Parkin-designed Art Gallery of Ontario. But the decision to abandon the original building remains a bitter disappointment for many Saskatonians and others in the Canadian art community.

While there can be huge advantages and opportunities in relocating, the Mendel board’s about-face reconfirms how uncomfortably dependent a museum’s architectural direction is on its prospective donors. Privately, insiders will tell you that even when on-site additions are viable architecturally, they are a harder sell for garnering funds. That’s one of the many legacies of Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which for some time entrenched the spanking-new standalone museum as the model. Governments can more easily imagine that a new build will be an economic kickstarter, as it was in Bilbao, and donors can imagine themselves the patrons of a building the whole world talks about.

In our country’s most ambitious museum proposal of the moment, the board of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is hoping to build a new $350-milllion building on a site several blocks away from its current location. The concept design by Herzog & de Meuron will be released at the end of September. The institution has outgrown its existing quarters, created by Arthur Erickson and his team in a conversion of the former British Columbia provincial courthouse.

If the funds can be raised, the new building will almost certainly become an instant landmark. But if the wallets of governments and big-gun donors remain as tightly closed as they have to this point, the VAG brass may well have to reconsider its earlier rejection of on-site expansion. Can we draw lessons not only from the Netherlands, but from our own past design approaches?

A view of Arthur Erickson's 1970s proposal for a tower extension to the Vancouver Art Gallery.

A view of Arthur Erickson’s 1970s proposal for a tower extension to the three-block downtown zone that now includes the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Bruno Freschi, who was on the gallery’s original 1970s design team, points out that Erickson himself first conceived of the gallery as being expandable on site: their design team had originally proposed a flexible three-block development project, with the gallery on the northern block, the provincial law courts on the southern block, and a “surge space” built into the centre block, which would accommodate a huge H-shaped tower. That centre block, says Freschi, could still be redeveloped as an expansion space with a residential tower to pay for the on-site transformation and expansion of the gallery itself over Robson Street—just as Erickson had envisioned. And additional gallery space could be developed underground, suggests Freschi.

A rendering from a recent proposal by Peter Cardew for an underground expansion to the gallery.

A rendering from a recent proposal by Peter Cardew for an underground expansion to the gallery.

Also drawing on the subterranean theme, Vancouver architect Peter Cardew has circulated a much-discussed conceptual proposal for a top-lit subterranean expansion of the VAG. “We’ve calculated that if they build a new gallery on this existing site, they could save over $100 million,” says Cardew, who had contributed to a 2004 study of expansion possibilities. Moreover, the City of Vancouver would be free to sell the lot it had reserved for the new VAG site, garnering another $50 million in funds. Cardew’s concept proposal takes advantage of the sloping site to incorporate angular glazing that would flood the edges of subgrade gallery spaces with daylight. Cardew cites Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern in London as one of many world-class examples of transforming an existing building into a magnificent new gallery. Behind the scenes, VAG insiders say that a subgrade expansion of the older building wouldn’t fly with prospective donors. Cardew doesn’t buy it: “Imagine if the Tate had said we could never sell a new gallery out of an old power plant!”

Cardew's proposed expansion would sit below the north lawn of the current gallery and incorporate skylights to bring in natural light.

Cardew’s proposed expansion would sit below the north lawn of the current gallery and incorporate skylights to bring in natural light.

Not every aging museum can be infilled or otherwise expanded on site: sometimes it makes more sense to relocate and build fresh. In fact, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria spent years exploring the possibility of establishing a new building elsewhere in the city, before determining that on-site expansion made the most sense.

“One cannot deal with this dogmatically,” says LWPAC principal Oliver Lang. “This on-site expansion turned out to be the right solution in Victoria, because it was able to best serve the needs of a contemporary museum.” The 19th-century Spencer Mansion, outdated as an exhibition space, will become the updated administration centre of the AGGV. “It is a great thing to have this connection from the past to the contemporary,” says Lang, “a beautiful dialogue between the buildings.”

Research for this article was conducted in part during a tour sponsored by the Dutch government. The tour organizers did not review or approve the content of this article.

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.