Debating the merits of Larwill Park as the VAG's new home

Post by Sean Bickerton in


Larwill Park, former home of the 2010 Canada Pavilion
Some may remember Larwill Park when it housed the 2010 Canada Pavilion

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.

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.

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.

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.

- post by Sean Bickerton. You can check out Sean's blog at


I too attended the VAG discussion but, was disappointed in it. The talk mostly was around which of 2 locations was better. If a move to Larwell Park is evaluated, a big part of that consideration must be the land value of Larwell Park. It's easy to say let's give it over to VAG, VSO & a public square for free. But that would be a missed opportunity, especially in this barren precinct &, not fiscally prudent. This is a complex aspect in itself but, here I will confine my comment to suggesting that if the downtown core is looked @ as whole, the weak link is the Larwell Park precinct. And, another 1 or 2 'big boxes' will only make it worse. This combined with the missed opportunity to generate a financial return to the City make this option not desirable. There are other, better, more financially attractive uses for Larwell Park.

However, Mr. Bakker was a leader of a few who suggested a focus on process for now over solution. I heartily agree. There is no ? VAG needs more space but, the 1st ? is what kind? To answer that, one must look @ our societies demands of & expectations of the art world currently & 30 to 50 years to the future. Even in today's context 'art as a precious commodity' is only one part of the equation on the table last week. I suspect it will become less central in the future while remaining a core component of VAG's mission statement.

Trying to put all VAG's eggs in one basket in this light is perhaps not viable. So let's look @ a 3rd option. Expand VAG on-site below the front plaza, around the east side linking into the UBC spaces @ the back, consider Mike Geller's idea of infilling the 'pit' [although I would love to see the rink stay in some form -- wouldn't it be a nice foil to VAG?] & making a real downtown sized public square over. Then, establish say 6 to 10 community galleries in locations such as Aberthau, Gastown / Chinatown, Kerrisdale on 41st or the Community Centre, 49th & Main, PNE / Hastings CC / Cottage Hospice CC satellite, etc. I suspect the VAG's collection can be classed as precious, semi-precious, not-so-precious & mom & pop feel good. The community galleries can show the last 2 categories + the odd semi-precious bit. They can also be vehicles of expression for local communities in Vancouver. I'm not privy to the detailed VAG planning financial scenarios but, instead of raising money to build a 'branch plant' icon by some architect with no connection to Vancouver @ $1000 to 3000 / SF, raise money for not only capital improvements but, a satellite operating endowment. And by the way, a $1000 or $3000 / sf souped up curvy building that can be built to be equally green & attractive for $400 or $1000 is not a 'green' building.

Bottom line -- let's decide as a City the where & what we want our art gallery not only to be for the next 50 years but, what that art will be & how can it best be delivered to the public. Then the answers to the original ? will be clearer.

Sean, well said, and, in response to an earlier post on “Why?” Vancouver sorely needs a concert hall and recital combo in downtown Vancouver, (that is “music” dedicated and specific in design), I think your question at the meeting you attended is timely.

What saddens me is: “Why aren’t you willing to share the site with a new concert hall and recital hall?” "I didn’t get an answer".

I hear that the developer wants some apartments/condos on the proposed site the VAG is talking to the City about and that the VAG still does not have a go ahead with the City until the Developer and the City get their “ducks in a row” so to speak.

One can speculate on these kinds of discussions, but, at this point what I heard was from the VAG side “no land – no new gallery”.

Re a new concert and recital hall combo – why doesn’t the committee headed up by I believe, Ron Stern, get into the mix re the Larwill Park site? Perhaps they are, but, this seems awfully quiet…. – the last public info on this point.

Sean, if anyone in Vancouver can make a case for a downtown concert hall and recital hall you can, what can I do to help you?

And help, I will and I want to.

I really believe that a shared space with an “Art Gallery”, a “Concert Hall” and a “Recital Hall” at Larwill Park will change, not only the landscape of this area of town, but, will indeed make a positive contribution to bettering the quality of life for the people in this area of town.

I think this is a good reason for a few of our major cultural institutions to “band together”….(pun intended)

I don't think a series of six to ten satellite galleries would work. A large, consolidated art gallery in one central location would enable people to look at art without having to run around town. The proposed location works as it is located near Skytrain and bus lines.

There's no doubt that the Vancouver Art Gallery needs more space. They can only display 3% of their collection at one time, and their Hornby Street address wasn't even built for displaying art in the first place. Even the courthouse couldn't find it functional anymore, and had to move to a larger premises.

The Vancouver Art Gallery certainly needs the space nowadays. Most art galleries and museums will have a lecture hall/theatre (for holding talks and showing performances or films), gift shops, restaurants (the Tate Modern in London has two eateries), an educational wing or department, and library. In that context, it is understandable why the Vancouver Art Gallery would like the Larwill Park site.

A concert and recital hall was supposed to be built, but I understand that it was supposed to go into the Coal Harbour neighbourhood. Why wasn't it pursued by the city and the developers who agreed to it?

It's time to consider giving the Vancouver Art Gallery a larger site or face even more daunting limitations for future expansion. An architect who can be sensitive in uniting the street with the art gallery facility would certainly make it a positive move.

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