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. 

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