Vancouver Art Gallery @ Larwill Park?

Vancouver City Council is considering a staff report today allowing the Vancouver Art Gallery to move to 2/3 of Larwill Park. This could be a wonderful development if they incorporate a concert hall on the other 1/3 of the land. As this has come up again, I’m reprising my original article about Larwill Park.

I’m also pleased to note that Michael Geller has recently come out in favour of my proposal to close Cambie Street between Dunsmuir and Georgia Streets, in order to provide restaurants and bars that can animate this area at night.

In its heyday, Larwill Park was a centre of life in the city, home to games of baseball, lacrosse, football and cricket; the site of political demonstrations, rallies, fairs and concerts; and a marshalling field and drill ground for troops. Parades, carnivals, Ferris wheels, sports and politics animated a site once dedicated to fun in a city not well known for it.

By contrast today it sits dark, covered in asphalt, used as a parking lot, and the blocks along Dunsmuir and Georgia Street east of Homer are dead at night, bereft of the street-level commercial activity that’s the life-blood of any urban setting.

Bad planning has seen this part of the city flooded with large, single-purpose, institutional buildings each occupying an entire city block – the Library, Post Office, QE Theatre complex, CBC, Vancouver Community College and Beatty Street Armory. There are few apartment buildings, no street life, and no sidewalk cafes or bars to draw people out in the evening. As a result, the area shuts down after dark, other than the pedestrians rushing to attend sporting events or shows at the QE Theatre complex.

Vancouver Art Gallery

What’s needed is more life and vitality in this part of the city, especially at night. Yet the Vancouver Art Gallery’s proposed move to Larwill Park could easily compound existing problems rather than help solve them.

I know the Larwill Park site well. I was first allowed to venture into Vancouver by myself at the age of twelve, taking the Greyhound bus from the wilds of south Surrey into the city every Saturday for violin lessons and youth orchestra, arriving at the old bus depot that occupied the site from the second world war until 1970.

Those trips and the thrill of independence they offered me at such a young age launched a life-long love affair with Vancouver and this corner of the city that continues to the present day. It’s where I’ve made my home and as I sit at my desk writing these words, I’m looking out over the site of that old bus depot – Larwill Park.

Last Thursday night I walked from Larwill Park up to Robson Square to attend a public debate on the VAGs desire to make the reverse journey. Clearly VAG needs more space, that much they’ve established. But if the only way for them to get that space is moving to Larwill Park, that move can’t be considered solely on the basis of the VAGs admirable aspirations, but needs to be placed in the context of the broader cultural needs of the entire city and the specific challenges of that setting.

Maestro Bramwell Tovey, VSO Music Director

Because, while we already have an iconic art gallery in a prime downtown location, unlike every other city our size we still have no recital hall downtown and no mid-sized concert hall for our Grammy award-winning orchestra. This context cannot be ignored.

Further, the Larwill Park site is not just a piece of vacant land like any other. Because of the dominance of monolithic, single-use, block-long buildings surrounding this neighbourhood and the lack of street-level commercial activity, the area forms a dead zone at night.

Yet what the VAG is proposing is to add yet another single-purpose, block-long, institutional building to the neighbourhood. Yes, it will be stunning. What they’re proposing would be a dramatic, iconic, architecturally unique building on the site, something as immediately and internationally recognizable as Frank Gehry’s celebrated Bilbao Museum. Such a building, conceived in isolation as a kind of ornate sculpture, would be beautiful to look at during the day. But it would only add to the desolate streets to be found here on a rainy winter’s night.

By contrast, a combination of tenants would help enliven the area at all hours of the day. So the question I asked the art gallery at the debate was simply this: “Why aren’t you willing to share the site with a new concert hall and recital hall?”

I didn’t get an answer.

If we had an art gallery, orchestra hall and recital hall sharing that site, during the day we would have people flocking to the gallery, and at night others going to concerts in the new concert halls as well as to plays, operas and shows at the QE.

Milan's Galleria is filled with sidewalk cafes

And, if the block of Cambie between Dunsmuir and Georgia were closed and replaced with cafes, bars and a fountain, and if the QE plaza was opened up in the back to present more ‘face’ to Larwill Park, we could create a dynamic, thriving fulcrum of activity that would bring the entire surrounding corner of the city back to life.

It would make for wonderful artistic synergy, create endless opportunities for cross-promotion, and enable the kinds of thematic programming across all genres – plays, operas, ballet, concerts, exhibitions and more – that great directors only dream of.

If we approach the development of Larwill Park in that context – with the goal of addressing the overall cultural needs of the entire city rather than just those of one institution – and if we understand the existing challenges of this area, we could develop a win-win solution for the VAG, Symphony, Recital Series, Chamber Music series and others, and enliven this corner of Vancouver for generations into the future.