There is a fundamental change in philosophy in public facilities such as art galleries and museums being globally embraced. In the last decade architects attempted to make buildings less about public function and more about their own personal stamp and message. That is evident in Gehry’s Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle which has been called “the unusual-looking building made of curves instead of corners and infamously described by a New York Times architecture critic as “something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died”.

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Frank Gehry-Museum of Pop Culture

This also happened in Toronto.  The Globe and Mail article written by Alex Bozicovic details the not so subtle attempt of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to “fix” the starchitect Daniel Liebskind “Crystal” addition which opened in 2007.  As stated by the museum’s CEO, “After you’ve lived somewhere for a while you begin to think about how it can suit you better.” And you worry less about the flashy bits and more about the bones.”

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Daniel Liebskind-Royal Ontario Museum-The Crystal

Here is what Daniel Liebskind said about his original proposal:  “Why should one expect the new addition to the ROM to be ‘business as usual’? Architecture in our time is no longer an introvert’s business. On the contrary, the creation of communicative, stunning and unexpected architecture signals a bold re-awakening of the civic life of the museum and the city.”  Yes it was certainly the talk of the town but in a more disruptive way. While the building had the “wow” factor in terms of being visually different, it did not roll out the welcome mat-it had heavy Costco-like doors, was crowded, uncomfortable, and didn’t attract the high numbers of forecasted visitors. The museum wanted to make the museum as welcoming as possible, so they are reopening the entrance to a 1930’s wing, and reconfiguring that rotunda to become a lobby. Everything old about attracting and creating the public is new again.

This rediscovery of the importance of the visitor experience “reflects a new focus for architecture in institutions such as this: not in making showpieces, but on the nuts and bolts of making places that work.” The point, says the CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, is that “the whole thing says, come on in”.

Meanwhile, the Audain Art Museum in Whistler designed by  British Columbia based Patkau architects is getting rave reviews-and a generous multi-million dollar portfolio of 197 works of art have been gifted by Vancouver philanthropist Bob Rennie to the National Art Gallery. Both these fine collections could have had a local home had the conditions been different.

The  Vancouver Art Gallery might want to  explore the customer friendly concept, making the consumer experience about the gallery just as important as their starchitect’s vision. While its great that their program requirements make it perfect for art exhibitions, it also should be a warm welcoming building that is easily supported and visited by citizens, with public plazas, places to meet and to rest. Somehow the current design and strategy does not say “Come on in”.