The Power of the Pavilion

TEXT Tony Grant

In recent years, the Olympic Games have become a magnet for national, regional and corporate interests to promote themselves through temporary venues within a host city. During the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the city has become home to a myriad of hosting spaces, interpretive displays and freestanding pavilions. Whether or not these structures can represent a meaningful architectural contribution is a good question. However, the recent furor over the design of the Canada pavilion, its cost, and the nature of the contract award suggests that they are seen as important identity statements worthy of design consideration.

For the most part, Vancouver’s pavilion structures could be described as “decorated tents.” Unlike Expo ’86, which produced a collection of temporary structures constructed like real buildings and sited in a single coherently planned development, the Olympic structures were forced to adapt to whatever sites were available, the locations often being changed late in the planning process. Designers were given the challenge of working with readily available temporary building technology (in most cases a modular tent structure), trying to somehow make their pavilions appear less bland and impermanent. A few of the successful examples are worth noting.

Probably the most significant temporary addition to Vancouver’s landscape was the Four Host First Nations Aboriginal Pavilion. Designed by Vancouver’s Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects (HBBH) and located in the plaza of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, this cedar-clad post-and-beam “doughnut” operated as a support structure for a 60-foot-diameter inflated sphere (containing a performance space and multimedia-projected interior surface) which was the main draw of the pavilion. In this case, the technology portion of the pavilion was the most temporary aspect, while the surrounding architecture will become a legacy piece on a First Nations site.

Hariri Pontarini Architects’ design for Ontario House deserves special mention for its clever concealment of a temporary structure–something sadly missing from the Canada pavilion. A series of tensioned cords arranged in vertical rows along the front and sides of the pavilion created an elegant screen highly suggestive of a waterfall and with varying effects from day to night. The screen also provided form around a large outdoor queuing area leading to the pavilion’s main attraction–a 4D theatre experience of Ontario. Cognizant of the significant wait times at pavilions, the designers have thus attempted to alleviate this tedium for visitors.

For the Maison du Qubec, located near the Ontario Pavilion, Rgis Ct et Associs Architectes created an enigmatic six-storey cube from scaffolding and white fabric which, in keeping with the minimalism of the exterior, housed only a small bistro building and outdoor performance stage. Their elegant use of a very simple structural system gets top marks.

Cibinel Architects’ CentrePlace Manitoba represented a prefabricated building with an ambitious sustainability agenda. Using recycled materials and reclaimed wood from Manitoba, it was the only structure to win a sustainability award from VANOC. Unfortunately, this pavilion suffered from poor placement on LiveCity Vancouver’s downtown site–squished into a corner and partially hidden from the street by an unattractive chain-link fence.

Despite these more notable efforts, the contribution to the urban landscape of Vancouver was limited not only by the extremely temporary nature of the event but also by an almost complete lack of urban design direction from the City to support the public celebration. In order for these structures to have had any real impact, something more than the ubiquitous lamp-standard banners and chain-link fencing should have been provided to form a coherent backdrop. From an architectural and urban design perspective, this was a disappointment, and it made the various celebration sites and activity areas seem disparate and often chaotic. For this reason, these structures quietly disappeared, leaving us with barely a memory–unlike Expo ’86. This is unfortunate, because events like these could potentially become a sort of “Biennale” of design–a forum to present ideas and technology, and to discuss urban issues. Instead, it was Tent City. CA

Tony Grant is a graduate architect and exhibit designer based in Vancouver.