The team responsible for designing one of Lower Lonsdale’s most prominent and recognizable buildings has been awarded a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture.
Patkau Architects, the Vancouver-based firm behind the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver, was one of 12 recipients announced Friday that received the commendation, which aims to celebrate outstanding design in recently completed projects by Canadian architects.
Patkau Architects have won 19 Governor General’s medals in architecture since 1986.
Noting its “bold mass and jagged profile,” the jury behind the award observed the design of the building, which officially opened its doors to the public in November 2017, fosters “lowering the boundary between elite art activities and daily life.”
John Patkau, co-founder of Patkau Architects, agreed with the jury’s assessment on that front, arguing that when designing a museum or cultural space the goal should be to create a building that’s engaging while avoiding the inherent problems of exclusivity associated with some arts spaces.
“We worked very hard on this to try and make it a people building. I think the consequence is that even though Polygon Gallery is a gallery that has quite challenging exhibitions … at the same time, it’s neighbourly and inviting and part of the community,” said Patkau.
However, the neighbourly part was likely already baked into the Polygon Gallery’s DNA, he added.
The former Presentation House Gallery was founded in 1976 as a community arts space, before transitioning to focus primarily on the photographic arts in the early ’80s. For more than 40 years, the gallery was based out of an old house on Third Street and Chesterfield Avenue.
By the early ’90s, there was a concentrated effort in place to find a new, permanent home for the gallery.
A new site by the Lower Lonsdale waterfront was selected and initial designs for the Polygon Gallery were created in 2012. City of North Vancouver council voted to approve the gallery’s new home at the foot of Lonsdale a few years later.
Of the many sources of inspiration that Patkau Architects drew upon in designing the building, the starting block was really the site location for the project, nestled between a place of historical significance, waterfront and urban renewal, according to Patkau.
“It’s a key place on the North Shore, a singular place that has a lot of significance beyond the City of North Vancouver for the entire North Shore,” he said.
For much of the 20th century, Lower Lonsdale was home to many large industrial sites, including a shipbuilding yard which contributed heavily to the war effort during the Second World War.
The building's north-facing skylights are intended to recall those past industrial buildings that were characteristic of the North Shore harbour, said Patkau, adding that the “skin” of the building is an unusual combination of mirror-polished stainless steel covered with the kind of grating that one might find on docks or gangplanks, further adding to the waterfront setting.
“It takes that industrial heritage as part of its identity,” he said.
Also of note, the awards jury observed that the exhibition space is lifted to the second floor of the building, providing a transparent view of the Vancouver skyline from the ground floor in addition to giving people open access to the adjacent public plaza.
Although Polygon Gallery director Reid Shier remembers there was some negative feedback from the community when the design of the building was first unveiled years ago, he said the new site has become a staple of the community.
“I think the design is particularly sensitive to its site, and to language and history down there, but it doesn’t do it in a way that’s slavish to the legacy of shipbuilding architecture,” said Shier. “It has nods to the industrial motives of the area, but also points very emphatically towards its own philosophy and its own design.”
Shier and his team, along with gallery board staff, were instrumental in providing a vision for Patkau Architects to build off of. Shier also noted that the trust and backing of the previous City of North Vancouver council was critical in getting the project completed.
Comparing the new building to the former Presentation House Gallery, Shier said the new site and structure has allowed them to increase their programming and audience substantially. An example, said Shier, is when they showcased a project such as Christian Marclay’s epic 24-hour experimental montage The Clock last year, a vast undertaking they wouldn’t have been able to feature otherwise.
“It’s allowed us to really be much more of a public cultural space for the community. When we’re able to get back into the building after the pandemic is hopefully over soon, we really do look forward to welcoming everybody back,” said Shier.