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TUESDAY, JULY 12, 2016
A drive through downtown Vancouver is testament to the persistent architectural expansion of this city. Construction sites abound in Vancouver, yet very infrequently do we step back to ask how and why certain forms of architecture are used. The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) building is an excellent example of a building that draws on a specific architectural tradition that is used in deliberate ways, in this case, an ancient Greek temple similar to the Parthenon in Athens.

The study of architecture questions how space is manipulated to communicate a particular message to the public. The VAG building originally served as Vancouver’s courthouse from 1911-1979 and in 1983 it opened its doors as the art gallery we have today. The building’s past and present roles as Vancouver’s main courthouse and art gallery respectively, have a relationship to the style of architecture used. Exploring the relationship between the function of a building and its architectural history shows how Western history calls back to some of the foundations of modern legal systems and artistic representation.

Architects Francis Rattenbury and Thomas Hooper did not make a random decision in their construction of the VAG. There is frequent use of temple architecture in houses of justice in Canada, the US and Europe. Some famous examples are the US Supreme Court Building in Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia. These in turn reference the origins of our modern legal systems, namely ancient Rome. Romans put the Greek temple template to extensive use not only for religious buildings, but as part of secular, civic architecture. This was seen in particular with the basilica, where judicial activities took place.

The legal framework we use today in Canada is a variation of Roman law. For example, as Carleton Kemp Allen notes in “Law in the Making” the practice of judgment based on precedent of past rulings and Latin’s influence in modern legal discourse shows Roman influence, which is reflected in the construction of the building. Referencing these roots through architecture reinforces the specific time and place these legal values came from.
In various places and times, architecture has been used to reflect certain ideas or beliefs of the culture producing it. For example, the Gothic cathedral is strongly referenced in both Canada’s and Britain’s Parliament Buildings, complete with flying buttresses, pointed archways and spires. It is the choice to reference a certain form of architecture that we should question, in this case Canada’s choice to reference its parliament building on Britain’s is a connection to its colonial past. For Britain this architecture references the historical tradition of unifying church and state, with the monarch (beginning with Henry VIII) as being both the Head of State and Head of the Church of England.

Another example is the Taj Mahal. As Wayne Begley, professor of Indian and Islamic Art History at the University of Iowa and author of “The Myth of the Taj Mahal and New Theory of Its Symbolic Meaning” found, the Taj Mahal and its gardens, reference the apocalyptic and paradisiacal imagery from the Koran’s Sura 89, verses of which are inscribed on the entrances to the tomb’s gardens. The use of the specific motifs and calligraphy in the garden and building are a visual manifestation of Muslim beliefs as written in the Koran.

The Greek temple architectural base has also been used extensively in the construction of galleries and museums, for example the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In its use as an art gallery, the VAG building recalls the basic ideals of ‘classic’ notions of beauty that have been adopted as standards in contemporary western culture. Accepted notions of beauty in our present-day culture even trace back to the Greek ideal of eurythmy – namely that which is harmonious, proportioned, and pleasing to the eye. Notions around the ‘ideal’ in Greek art also centre around the “Golden Proportion”, the mathematical approach to art that is referenced in the proportions of the Parthenon building.

Is the conscious transformation of a courthouse building into an art gallery inherently contradictory? A courthouse is a place where rigid rules and regulations are upheld while in many cases art galleries show the work of artists that seek to push the boundaries and limitations of society. By referencing a Greek tradition of art in the architecture of our city’s art gallery the City of Vancouver could be suggesting that we adhere to certain traditions of visual representation. However, this is not compatible with contemporary art shown within the VAG itself, which seeks to break with previous trends. This juxtaposition of old and new shows us the artistic origins of Western culture, and how far modern art has gone from preconceived notions of beauty.

Art and architecture are political. Whether an artist intends their work to be political or not is irrelevant, the interpretation of the work is where we give art its meaning. In this case, how we interpret the meanings of the VAG’s architecture gives it either a political agenda that was relevant to its function as a courthouse or an entirely aesthetic one that relates to its function as an art gallery. Architectural spaces such as the Vancouver Art Gallery building are neither neutral nor transparent and in understanding how and why they are used we can understand both the intentions of the architect and more importantly what the understanding of a piece of architecture tells us about ourselves.



It's weird how different buildings take on new roles. Some of the new mosques that have shown up used to be old churches and the transitioning period is interesting.
REPLIES: claudia



Replying to Alamir:
That's interesting, but again a church and a mosque function similarly in the way that one is meant to experience the building. In both mosques and (most) churches people all face in the same direction.

In relation to this article, the Parthenon and most Greek temples were circumambulated by worshipers (they walked around the building in circles) as a form of reverence. The VAG building takes up its own block in Downtown forcing people and cars to experience it in much the same way. Whether this was intentional and whether it was meant to reference the way old temples were experienced is doubtful but I think it's interesting anyway

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