Tuesday, December 2, 2008

VanDusen's Green Plan

One project on the slate for Vancouver's recently approved Capital Plan is a new $20 million facility at VanDusen Botanical Garden.

Designed by Busby Perkins + Will, the Planting the Seed Capital Project will completely revamp the visitor area with two new buildings (a Visitor Centre and Garden Pavilion) and a landscaping plan by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. As befits Busby's dedication to 'green' architecture, the design is highly sustainable and takes cues from the extensive surrounding garden.

Under the banner of a 'Living Building Philosophy' some of the organizing principles noted on VanDusen's website are standard eco-fare such as safe, healthy building materials and indoor quality. However with plans for a zero ecological footprint, there are some noteworthy ideas: energy needs will come from an on-site renewable source, as will the water supply which will be purified naturally.

Also significant is the roof structure. Inspired by a native orchid, the roof line as shown in concept sketches is suitably organic, featuring undulating curves above large glass walls. The buildings are topped off with green roofs that will offset their physical footprints, further reducing any negative impact on the site.

Aside from a focus on 'green' construction, the new facility will expand VanDusen's capabilities. Educational and interpretive spaces will be larger and all administrative offices will be brought together in one building. There will also be two new dining areas and more rental facilities available for performances, botanical shows and exhibitions.

The Underwood, McKinley, Smith & Wilson-designed buildings currently on the site will be demolished, though it seems not until new construction is finished. I have mixed feelings about these coming down. While not the most architecturally significant buildings in the city, they are lovely post and beam structures that are evocative of their era, built with ample timbres that play deferentially off the landscape, almost dissolving into it.

The VanDusen buildings are part of a body of work designed by Underwood + Co. from the 1960's to the early 1970's that share a common architectural language - described by Harold Kalman in his book Exploring Vancouver as "Park Board post-and-beam". The Vancouver Parks Board office (seen in this fascinating 1961 archival film) which still stands in fine condition near Stanley Park, and the Bloedel Conservatory at Queen Elizabeth Park are among this group.

This disappointment is tempered by the proposed design of the Busby buildings. Their forms are undeniably seductive and reflect their context satisfyingly. And with the hiring of Busby, the implementation of a green plan is laudable and appropriate, especially for a botanical garden. It is also clear that VanDusen could benefit from a revitalization and an increase in facility space.

However it's worth asking whether the existing Visitor Centre and Pavilion can be saved and function in some sort of secondary role. The retention of part of the original design would be an opportunity to create a compelling dialogue between old and new; one that would modestly illustrate the history of architecture in the city.

Part of that narrative is another building at VanDusen: the Forest Centre, designed by Paul Merrick/Thompson, Berwick & Pratt, falls outside of the Capital Plan and will continue to be used for educational, volunteer and office purposes.

Construction is slated to start early in 2010 and last until mid-2011. Plans are posted at the VanDusen Visitor Centre and on their website.

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