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‘Shaped by the forces of nature’: Audain Art Museum by Patkau Architects

Housing British Columbian coastal art, the Audain Art Museum melds seamlessly into the landscape and echoes the shadows of the trees

The old logging road turned highway to Whistler Mountain reveals British Columbia’s journey from resource-driven economy to tourist destination. Driving by waterfront that reads like Canada’s Pacific Riviera, mining museums give way to roadside eateries and housing developments, dwarfed by the beauty of the mountains. The rugged granite cliffsides of the Stawamus Chief and the snow-capped peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb trump any manmade edifice.

But as you arrive at the Audain Art Museum by Patkau Architects, its presence does not shout out, but melds seamlessly into the landscape. On a former municipal works yard, it’s encircled by a grove of spruces, and appears to emerge organically from and disappear into the forest.

Originally conceived as a singular, linear building, the black-coated steel-clad museum gained a second bar-like appendage to house additional gallery space, prompting Whistlerites to call it a ‘hockey stick’. But architect John Patkau, who led the design with partner Patricia Patkau and project architect David Shone, says it was inspired by the need to preserve the surrounding trees and to ‘fill existing linear voids’ in the forest contours. 

Shaped by the forces of nature, the museum, sited on a floodplain, is elevated a full storey above ground, and its sloped roof is designed to bear the weight of and shed heavy snowfall. Its dark exterior is balanced by a luminous hemlock interior. At night, it becomes lantern-like, a literal and figurative beacon. ‘To respond to primeval forces like floods and snow in the context of a west coast forest’, explains John Patkau, ‘we had to make a strong and simple design that fit into the site and drifted into apertures in existing trees.’



Floor plan - click to expand

A primary challenge was how to respond to two key directives from the client, developer and philanthropist Michael Audain, who commissioned the project as a home for his collection of contemporary and historical British Columbian coastal art: how to create gallery spaces for the permanent collection that did not allow potentially damaging natural light to enter, while still engaging with the natural environment and bringing the outside in. 

The solution was to encase the building in dark metal, echoing the shadows of the trees – the arboreal interstitial space – and allowing the forest to prevail. A long west- facing corridor – an interior interstitial space – with extensive glazing that drinks in the surrounding greenery, offers luminescent counterpoint.

In contrast to the surrounding built environment – a mainly Postmodernist pastiche of ’80s and ’90s inspired ‘ski chalet’ riffs – the Audain elevates Whistler’s architectural aesthetic, while still engaging with the community of buildings around it.

‘Its spectacular natural setting and striking geometries lend it landmark status, while its warm wood interiors create a sense of intimacy’

While the 56,000 sq ft Audain joins brethren such as the Aspen Art Museum and Davos’s Kirchner Museum in other global resort towns, its integration into the natural environment and its simple elegance set it apart. It recalls the Louisiana outside Copenhagen and bears some resemblance to the Patkaus’ 2011 Linear House, on Salt Spring Island. Indeed the firm, known as much for its creative gallery spaces as its private residences, has designed a fitting home for Audain’s art. Its spectacular natural setting and striking geometries lend it landmark status, while its warm wood interiors create a sense of intimacy.

The Art Museum, housing BC art from the 18th century to today, as well as temporary exhibitions, is run as a non-profit gallery, playing multiple roles in the community of 10,000 people that attracts over 2 million visitors annually.

Its central location makes it a community hub for the nearby ‘village’, and it’s linked via a series of pathways to the Lil’wat Cultural Centre (an educational and First Nations-focused exhibition facility). It’s part of a growing cultural focus on the mountain, that includes annual writers’ and film festivals, alongside more recreational pursuits.

And while the museum has become a sought-after destination for North American premieres of international exhibitions – such as the current one featuring Matisse drawings – its larger mission is to showcase the art of coastal BC.

But rather than what chief curator Darrin Martens terms ‘cultural silos’, the Audain vision is one that combines First Nations and ‘settler’ art in the larger context of place. While the first gallery in the permanent collection is dedicated to First Nations art – historical and contemporary – other galleries that wind their way from early 20th-century works to contemporary display the art of both peoples.

Although other cultural institutions in Vancouver – such as the Arthur Erickson-designed Museum of Anthropology with its impressive wealth of First Nations art, and the Vancouver Art Gallery with its Emily Carr works – have larger individual collections, the Audain’s curatorial approach is relatively singular. A large red cedar carving by contemporary Haida artist Jim Hart, called The Dance Screen (The Scream Too), welcomes visitors into the first gallery. Its depiction of the shaman, who guards the portal to the spirit world, is one to recall while crossing the threshold of the museum.

Separated from the more commercial domain of the village, you enter the Audain via a bridge. This elevation of the building – in close proximity to roaring mountain streams – also works well metaphorically.

As you ascend to the museum entrance, there is a sense of procession, and a hush enhanced by the surrounding spruce. Light filtering through shoji-like wooden screens creates a sense of forest canopy, with the gallery as Shinto temple. 

‘An interplay between light and dark, transparency and solidity, the ephemeral and the eternal’

A bridge above connects upper-floor gallery and office space, while a triangular overhang of glass and bolted steel angled at 30 degrees south-west offers a perfectly framed mountain view. A wooden stairwell descends to a meadow-level plaza, where visitors can contemplate the natural setting.

As you enter the lobby – which doubles as an event/performance space – the eye is immediately drawn to the extensive glazing that reveals surrounding greenery, and situates the viewer within the landscape. 

A lobby installation light sculpture by Paul Wong, called No Thing is Forever, reminds patrons of the museum’s interplay between light and dark, transparency and solidity, and the ephemeral and the eternal.

A long rectangular corridor with ongoing glazing continues to reveal the mountain meadow and trees, and at a key juncture, interfaces with the entrance glazing and hemlock screens, blurring indoors and out and creating a rich weave of textures, light and reflections. A museum worker relates that patrons are often mesmerised by the sight of rain falling off the roof, a natural respite from ‘gallery fatigue’.

The permanent collection galleries – solely focused on British Columbia – begin with historical First Nations art and then gradually work through the richly evocative BC forests of Emily Carr, finally juxtaposing contemporary artists such as Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and Attila Richard Lukacs before offering highlights from the Vancouver school of photoconceptualism. The curatorial intent is largely successful; to present ‘native’ art in an aesthetic rather than an anthropological context and to demonstrate a unifying ‘sense of place’ that extends beyond ethnic boundaries.

In a complementary exercise, the permanent collection gallery design – while still very much in the ‘white box’ vein and made to enhance rather than overwhelm the art – begins with little in the way of natural light (a requirement to protect the collection) graduating to a lighter great hall featuring contemporary golf bag ‘totems’ by Brian Jungen, flanked by photographic works by Korean-Canadian Tim Lee that play with the fluidity of identity.

The journey from dark to light continues with a second gallery space for temporary exhibitions that opens up to the upper floor, skylit gallery. The temporary galleries are flexible and can adapt to different curatorial and spatial needs, often becoming video galleries or educational spaces.

The form of the building, says Patkau, not only follows natural forces, but also maximises the potential for the best gallery space. ‘The primary goal of the museum and the galleries in particular is to allow art to be seen at its best. I don’t feel that’s about architecture being subservient to art, architecture just has to understand its role – which is to support the art. But at the same time the way the architecture facilitates a connection between art and nature, between art and community, and between community and nature, allows it to have an assertive presence, without competing with the art.’ 



Sections - click to expand

Indeed, the built form reflects the permanent collection’s focus on place rather than ethnography, with galleries designed so that patrons can pause for contemplation of their natural surroundings. Just as the architecture enhances rather than competes with the art, so does the natural BC landscape that inspired the works lend its presence throughout the space in a way that enhances the whole experience.

Audain, who says he was inspired by the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the ‘private made public’ ethos, as well as by the Maeght Foundation in St-Paul de Vence, near Nice, is satisfied that his collection now has a suitable home. ‘My goal was to make my private collection available to the public, and to do it in a building that would relate to the art and its context.’

A firm believer in the power of art education, Audain has made the museum free for young people under 17, noting, ‘There was no art museum in my hometown (of Victoria, BC) when I was a boy’.

Whistler, he contends, with its many international visitors, is an ideal venue for showcasing BC art. ‘This is our heritage’, he says. ‘It’s part of where we live.’ Happily, the museum’s form complements its content, with a strong sense of place built into it.

But the Audain – one man’s private collection made public – raises many questions. What is the connection between indigeneity and contemporary art? The building’s answer seems to be the land – which it continually draws from and projects onto. It will be interesting to see how its relationship with neighbouring Lil’wat Cultural Centre develops, and if the pathway connecting them will become figurative as well as literal.

‘The Audain inspires questions such as: how can a private collection engage the public’

Will the Whistler location – chosen partly because of the municipality’s keen interest in developing its cultural infrastructure and the concomitant ease of building permits and construction – prove too isolating from Vancouver and art communities the gallery celebrates, or will its international cachet make it an ideal showcase for the collection?

The Audain inspires questions such as: how can a private collection engage the public, and can place supersede ethos or are they locked in symbiosis?

While the curatorial intent is to contextualise First Nations and ‘settler’ art in a contemporary as well as historical framework, rejecting cultural silos, does the museum stand alone? What will its relationship be to neighbouring institutions and to the community in general?

The Vancouver Art Gallery has a well established ‘town square’ status and integrates with the Arthur Erickson-designed Robson Square public plaza.  The Museum of Anthropology, connected to the larger University of British Columbia, is its own Modernist concrete portal into another world, while its soaring glass walls open to a water element and native landscaping and beyond that to the Pacific Ocean.

Patkau Architects’ previous renovation of the Charles H Scott Gallery at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design on Vancouver’s Granville Island, home to a popular public market and artists’ studios, opened up the gallery to the street, creating a synergy between the site and street life.

Is the Audain self-contained or outward looking? The architecture indicates a bit of both. But there is a sense that the institution is still growing into its larger role in the community. As its surrounding meadow and forest grow, it is to be hoped that its mandate will too.

Audain Art Museum

Architect: Patkau Architects

Project team: John Patkau, Patricia Patkau, David Shone, Michael Thorpe, Mike Green, Marc Holland, Cam Koroluk, Dimitri Koubatis, Tom Schroeder, Luke Stern, Peter Suter, David Zeibin

Structural engineer: Equilibrium Consulting

Photographs: James Dow / Patkau Architects