From Sea to Sky: Audain Art Museum, Whistler, British Columbia
PROJECT Audain Art Museum, Whistler, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Patkau Architects Inc.
TEXT Odile Hénault
PHOTOS James Dow / Patkau Architects
In British Columbia, the names John and Patricia Patkau, FRAIC have long been synonymous with accomplished homes featuring breathtaking views of the Pacific coast. For a number of years, however, their work has expanded greatly in scope and scale, and in time has become identified with highly prestigious cultural institutions. With the Audain Art Museum, inaugurated in 2016, the architects demonstrate a remarkable level of maturity.
The Patkaus were commissioned to design the museum by long-time art collectors Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa. The couple had been dreaming about having their own gallery space since the early 1990s, when they visited the Maeght Foundation in southern France. “We thought, that’s great,” Audain said of the Josep Lluis Sert-designed museum.¹ “That’s what we were interested in—a natural setting with indigenous landscaping, because a lot of the work we have is landscape.”
In 2012, Michael Audain, then 74, started feeling pressed for time and decided to begin the process. His first step was to look for a site that would meet the needs of the program—preferably one that was forested. Eventually, Whistler emerged as a serious option. Eager to attract cultural tourism, the town, with its well-known ski resort, was already home to a number of small private galleries and to one major venue—the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, thoughtfully designed by architect Alfred Waugh, MRAIC.
A site was offered to Audain and Karasawa by newly elected mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden on a $100, 199-year lease. Despite the generous leasing arrangements, the site was not without challenges. Accessible from Blackcomb Way, it was located between two parking lots and was being used as a public works yard. It also lay in the floodplain of the powerful Fitzsimmons Creek. But the parcel of land had magnificent coniferous trees—trees that Audain appreciated, and asked the Patkaus to preserve as much as possible. In the end, all but one were saved.
A decade earlier, on Salt Spring Island, the Patkaus had designed the 300-foot-long Linear House to slide alongside a line of mature trees. In Whistler, they used a variation on the same strategy, bending a linear building to slip into an irregular clearing. The architects then had to tackle the location’s potentially damaging flash floods and heavy winter snow accumulation. Both of these impacted the final form of the building, raised a full storey above ground, and crowned with steeply pitched roofs. At issue as well was the fact that the building did not correspond to the picturesque image encouraged by Whistler’s building guidelines—a requirement that was eventually waived by the municipality.
The building program was straightforward: the architects were to create a home for some 200 art pieces from the Audains’ private collection, which ranged from Northwest Coast First Nations masks and ritual objects, to works from modern and contemporary British Columbia artists, Emily Carr chief among them. A museum shop was to be included. Most of the exhibition spaces were to exclude daylight, though at the same time, the surrounding natural environment was to be felt strongly throughout.
In a 2014 interview, Patricia Patkau put it this way: “We needed to think about a completely interior space but also about a counterpoint space—a counterpoint that would connect people to daylight and landscape.”² This counterpoint occurs at the lobby and along the glazed main corridor, but it is particularly manifest at the museum’s exterior porch. As visitors approach the building from a glass-and-granite footbridge, they are suddenly greeted by an exuberant space: a soaring exterior wood-lined atrium, hollowed out of the museum’s dark metallic shell.
In an otherwise quiet and restrained project, the atrium is a dazzling gesture. Light pours in from above, through a glass canopy that seems to break away from the roof. A surprisingly contemporary five-metre-high aluminum totem pole, by Squamish Nation artist Xwalacktun, stands guard as a strong reminder of the region’s rich artistic offerings.
The entrance to the lobby is to the right, but one also has the choice to linger outside, stepping down wooden steps at the back of the building. The steps, which cross under the Museum’s main circulation axis, serve as a secondary access while doubling as a quiet, sheltered seating area near to the trees Audain and Karasawa so love.
Inside, a long corridor leads to interconnected galleries. Lined with wood on one side and floor-to-ceiling glass on the other, the passage gives visitors an almost surreal feeling of being outdoors among the nearby forest. Contributing to this sensation, the corridor’s ceiling is clad with wood slats that continue on the exterior, covering the roof’s extended soffits. Wood is celebrated again in a triangular skylit staircase, at the junction of the main rectilinear volume and a wing added at an angle, the latter accommodating temporary exhibits.
Much could be said about the outstanding quality of the collection, which includes works by Lawren S. Harris and Jack Shadbolt as well as contemporary Canadian artists such as Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Brian Jungen. Perhaps the most stunning piece on display is The Dance Screen (The Scream Too), carved from 2010 to 2013 by Haida artist James Hart. Almost four metres in length, it features a central shaman figure surrounded by emblematic creatures from nature. The screen dominates the first gallery, dedicated to a remarkable group of 19th-century Northwest Coast masks and other artifacts.
Searching for precedents in the architects’ past work, one could make links to Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque du Québec, where wood was skillfully used to break up a long narrow structure and bring warmth to circulation spaces and reading rooms. One could also look as far back as 1988, when the Patkaus completed a school for the Seabird Island First Nation community. The boldness of the school, with its multi-faceted roof alluding to the surrounding mountains, anticipates the audacious approach to form-making taken by the firm in subsequent projects, including the Audain Art Museum.
Now, 35 years after starting their practice, the Patkaus are exploring new avenues, which, as they explain in a forthcoming book, take them “from a relatively secure footing, anchored in the compounded experience of our decades in architecture, to a more tentative and playful disposition in which we are, once again, beginners.” Thus, material explorations at a small scale, such as in the cocoon-like bent plywood Winnipeg Skating Shelters (2011), seem to inform larger projects, like the timber-shell supported Daegu Gosan Public Library Competition entry.
At the Audain, one senses both the confidence of the Patkau’s impressive body of work, but also a new dimension that has come from their recent experiments. Pausing in the wood-lined lobby, one thinks of Emily Carr’s words: “I sat staring, staring, staring—half lost, learning a new language or rather the same language in a new dialect. So still were the big woods where I sat…” One imagines her feeling right at home in the Audain Museum.
Odile Hénault is an architecture critic, curator and professional advisor.