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Finding fine art in the forest

Audain Art Museum conceptual design incorporates forest, landscaped grounds

It isn't often exquisite works of art are in a building that appears to be "floating through the forest" but that's where Michael Audain's collection is set to be housed in Whistler.

The conceptual design of the new B.C. art museum, unveiled to the public this week, meets perhaps one of the most critical design elements outlined by the Vancouver businessman and philanthropist who owns the collection and wants to build its permanent home here; that it communes with nature. As such, just a few cottonwood trees will be removed from the site. The rest will remain largely untouched.

Raised up one storey above ground, the museum is a sleek linear rectangle building stretching diagonally across the municipal site between day parking Lots 3 and 4. One length of the building is a walkway of windows, the other side darkened to accommodate the gallery space.

"The original intention that Michael Audain had was to find a site that was treed because he wanted to get a site for a gallery that had a relationship to nature," said architect John Patkau. "And that ultimately is why he chose the Whistler site because he felt it accomplished that aspect of his ambition the best."

Contacted by Pique for comment on the conceptual designs, Michael Audain preferred to reserve his opinion, allowing time for the public process to take place.

Patkau, however, explained his rationale for the design, which came relatively easily given the constraints of building on a flood plain — that necessitated a raised structure — and preserving the existing trees.

"Actually it came fairly straightforwardly," he said of the design. "It fell into place and it's not often that happens."

He begins his description with the bridge leading from Blackcomb Way through the trees to the covered porch and main entrance of the museum.

Inspiration for the walkway came from Japanese temples, a visual, physical cue that you are heading somewhere different, perhaps somewhere more spiritual.

"You are removed from a terrestrial connection and take an elevated route to the building through the trees and so it is very special in terms of the kind of experience you have relative to normal experience," explained Patkau.

The porch will be illuminated in warm rich wood colours to create a "lantern-like quality."

The porch leads to the large museum lobby, which is the official entrance but can also be used for event space from recitals to possibly weddings and museum exhibitions.

Running along the east side of the building — looking towards Fitzsimmons Creek — is a walkway of windows. It overlooks the sculpture garden and meadow, which carries through underneath the building.

The western length of the building is the gallery space — about 4,000 square feet alone dedicated to a visual art record of B.C. from the late 18th century to present day.

There is another important characteristic of the design, said Patkau.

It accommodates a public walkway from the village, over the bridge to the trails along Fitzsimmons Creek and ultimately towards Village North.

"So that, we expect, will become an important public walkway running right through the middle of the building," said Patkau.

It's designed to evoke feelings of peace and tranquility.

This is the second building Patkau Architects have designed in Whistler. Their first design is the "Origami House" in Sunridge (see cover/feature).

Patkau explained that as the owner of that particular site tasked them with using their imagination, they began by taking the limits of the site and sculpting roofs that would shed snow in the right direction.

"The shape just came out of that," he said of the geometric, origami-shaped home.

The museum is a far cry from that angular home with its slanted walls.

"Because it's embedded in the forest, it is more discreet," said Patkau.

The museum will be dark to blend into the forest. The light from the windowed walkway will again create that illusion of a lantern in the forest.

"It will be, as the mayor said, more elegant, and less sort of theatrical than the Hadaway House (the Origami House).

"The emphasis really is on the art."

Click here to read the public reaction to the plans at Wednesday evening's open house as well as the feedback from the Advisory Design Panel.