Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Job Opportunity in Thunder Bay: Proposed Thunder Bay Art Gallery Looking for an Architect

    On a bus to North Vancouver via Stanley Park and the Lions Gate Bridge I struck up a conversation with a young architect who was proud to be on a team hired to design the expansion of the Vancouver Airport. Although the architect began the conversation enthusiastically when he talked about the expansion, he became visibly upset when he spoke about the meeting he had just come from with the head baggage handler.
     “What the fuck does a baggage handler know about aesthetic design?” he spat. The architect was upset that his team’s contemporary/modern design for the new wing of the airport might have to be altered, and he would have to cede some authority to a man who probably knew nothing about modern aesthetics.
     I was a bit surprised by his venom, but nodded in agreement, knowing that both white and blue-collar workers generally had little knowledge about the value of the arts or its history. However, when I began to wonder what a baggage handler might have to offer in such a meeting, I came up with several ideas very quickly.
     In my experience, after a long flight, the longer I have to wait for my baggage at an airport the more irritable and worried I get. I want to get the hell out of the airport as soon as possible and I don’t want my bags to be damaged, stolen or filled with cocaine. I’m hoping the items in my luggage, my camera, the gifts I bought for friends, new clothes, haven’t been lost or stolen. I’d seen news reports about baggage handlers stealing items from people’s luggage. So surely efficiency and security are important.
     And! When it comes to terrorism, what concerns might the head baggage handler have? After all, 268 Canadians, 27 Brits, and 24 Indians were murdered on Flight 182, a flight that left the Vancouver Airport in 1988. Before 9/11 this was the worst act of terrorism in North America. The bomb was hidden in a radio. In the luggage!
     I politely began to argue with the architect, pointing out how a baggage handler could most definitely contribute to the design of an efficient and safe airport. Wasn’t it paramount to get luggage from a customer’s hands to the plane and back again to the carrousel as safely and as quickly as possible? Aesthetics couldn’t possibly be the primary concern.
     The architect grumbled a bit, went dead silent and ignored me.
     With the city planning to move the Thunder Bay Art Gallery to the waterfront there are all sorts of concerns involving all sorts of people. The search for an architect is underway, and along with the excitement and hope comes some trepidation. One board member for the gallery was worried that an architect they might choose would create a “vanity project.” And during a televised session, councilor Ian Angus stated to the director of the gallery, Sharon Godwin, that he did not want the new gallery to be yet another “box.” Godwin thoroughly agreed.
     Yes, a new public gallery for Thunder Bay could be wonderful and a design that meets most everyone’s criteria would be great. Sadly, there have been enough architects whose attitudes and epic fails have soiled their own field to the extent that politicians, business people, and some of the public are nervous about dealing with them. Talk to any engineer who has had to work with architects on major projects or any member of a university administration who has and you will hear lots of colourful descriptions of architects. My favourite is “little dictators.”
     My father, Geoffrey Weller, who was a professor here at Lakehead University, became the founding president of the University of Northern British Columbia just over twenty years ago. He had the task of selecting an architect for UNBC’s construction. At the time, this was the first university to be built in Canada in twenty-fiver years. He told me how the architects simply wouldn’t listen to him. He dealt with a couple of the most famous architects in the country and was stunned by their attitude. After some frustration, he chose an American architect and to drive home the point of having a university built to meet the requirements of a northern climate, amongst many other concerns, he and the architect took a trip to Scandinavia to do some comparative research as to what worked and didn’t work for universities built in northern climates.
     The result is a fantastic little university in Prince George built in a unique C shape that allows access to every building without having to step outside in the cold. Other unique design elements were incorporated to make the building environmentally friendly, safe for women in particular, and adaptable to emerging technologies.
     A museum or gallery has its own set of functions that are unique. Although function is a primary concern, one hopes the architect has an understanding of the potential value of the numinous, a spiritual connection of land to people, primarily of our First Nations people, which would further express and fulfill the mandate of the gallery. It is an exciting prospect and one hopes the architect selected to design the new gallery gets us as excited as he or she might be when taking on the commission.
     By the way, the above design was a result of some of my own excitement about the project. I'd love to see something unique, a bit like Antoni Gaudi's work, with a First Nation artist's twist. But that's just me. 

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Discussions for the Move of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery to the Waterfront

Public discussions were held at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery just over two weeks ago to generate ideas related to the impending move of the gallery to the waterfront. Although the meetings were slightly paternalistic in method when guests had to play a bit of musical chairs and everyone was limited to preset questions that each group received at their table, the process did save time and got to the nitty-gritty, allowing everyone a voice which generated many great ideas. Not one person at the discussions protested the idea of building a new gallery at the waterfront. The attendees were mostly artists, representing different fields. They spoke well for cultural diversity in the arts and the city and were excited to contribute ideas as to how the gallery would benefit the community and would continue to fulfill the gallery’s mandates.
     A move to a new space would be awesome, provided nature doesn’t blow down the new gallery, flood it, sink it, crack it or snow it in. With a beautiful and multi-functional architectural design the gallery could perform its basic functions while also hosting a coffee shop, gift shop, bookshop, conservatory, workshop/utility space, and a hall or ballroom. Potential combinations are exciting, could earn it some money, and make the gallery a natural draw for walk-by traffic of both locals and tourists.
     The gallery’s current location in the bush at the back end of a field of asphalt that is the parking lot at Confederation College does nothing for it. Try giving directions to a tourist who asks for its location. Can you name the streets to its location? Not even the majority of college students know there’s a top-notch gallery in their back yard. Taking the bus there is a royal pain.
     With the largest permanent collection of art in the region, the only national exhibition space between Sault St. Marie and Winnipeg, the space is the most accommodating in the city with three large showrooms. With a mandate to showcase and collect aboriginal art, the gallery has nearly 25 exhibitions a year, featuring local artists and artists of national significance in travelling exhibitions, with themes and art selected by professional curators. However, the storage space and demands for bigger shows require more of both.
     As Heidi Uhlig, the board president of the gallery states, “We’ve outgrown the building. We’re essentially bursting at the seems and the feasibility study confirmed that.” The gallery is currently using all of its 18,000 square feet and the 2010 study found that the gallery needs to be at least twice its current size in order to expand its collection, exhibition space, administration space, and more. As Heidi states, “We don’t have enough space for hosting community events.”
     The gallery is putting out a request for qualifications for architects, looking for an architect who has some experience designing a museum or an art gallery. The board is looking for a design that is unique, iconic, sits well with the waterfront, allows for the functioning of the mandates as a center for aboriginal and regional art with the ability to host international shows and which reflects the topography and geography of the area. The gallery could double as a potential community space of high caliber and be a major attraction.

     This is a tall order, which leads to part two of this article in two week’s time.