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Patkau Architects, Audain Art Museum, Whistler

Window on the woods: Audain Art Museum in Whistler

It is the classical story of how museums come about these days: a wealthy art collector and patron of the arts – in this case the building contractor Michael Audain – decides to make his collection accessible to the public. The municipal administration – in this case that of the skiing resort Whistler, north of Vancouver – provides him a prime piece of land for the purpose. The public can only hope that a talented architect gains the commission to design the museum, and that the resulting building integrates with the existing urban landscape.

In the case of the Audain Art Museum, these hopes have mainly been fulfilled. The term "urban landscape", however, is relative, the site of the long new building being a former clearing in a wooded area not far from Fitzsimmons Creek. The inner-city location may be a verdant one but is subject to seasonal flooding, and thus the architects elevated the building a full storey above the ground. A public pedestrian path cuts through the slab block, enabling people to walk from the museum car park to the riverbank without entering the museum.

The long volume, its ground plan bent into an L shape, is clad in an outer envelope of dark, standing-seam metal and is borne by six colossal supports that contain three emergency staircases and various ancillary rooms. The steeply sloping, drawn down roof has no gutters – which would probably be unable to handle the area's enormous precipitation anyway: Whistler gets a good five metres of snow every winter.

Indoors the underside of the roof, ceilings and central stairwell are lined with what would appear to be a sort of casing in hemlock pine. The main entrance leads into the museum lobby, located to the right of a broad flight of steps and featuring a long panorama window with views onto the trees outside. In devising the ground plan, the architects were faced with a dilemma: on the one hand they wanted to provide visitors with views of nature; on the other, the displayed artworks were not to be exposed to daylight. For this reason the exhibition rooms – which are formed as "white cubes" – are located in the middle of the building and accessed from a parallel glazed corridor on the river side of the museum.

The gallery space on the main level is a total of 1,300 square metres in size and offers the permanent exhibition of items from the donor's collection of work by Canadian artists and First Nation masks from British Colombia. The upper level has another 550 square metres for temporary exhibitions as well as storage rooms, workshops and museum administration offices, which large skylights provide with natural light. The sequence of museum spaces ends in a viewing lounge at the north-east gable end, where visitors are able to enjoy a view onto the woods for a last time.

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Further information:

Planning of structural framework: Equilibrium Consulting
TGA-Planning: Integral Group
Light planning: HLB Lighting Design
Landscape architecture: PFS Studio/Tom Barratt
Facade: Spratt Emanuel Engineering
Exhibition architecture: Bricault Design
Contracting business: Axiom Builders
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