It’s a particularly wet day in November, and Reid Shier opens the glass doors of The Polygon Gallery to let me into a very dry—and nearly finished—space on the southernmost edge of North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Avenue. It feels like we’re sitting on the edge of the world; my eyes dart across the hardwood floors, up the sky-high glass walls, and out onto the deep, dark blue Pacific Ocean before nestling over the skyline of downtown Vancouver. The Polygon, the new iteration of what was once Presentation House Gallery, has chosen a pretty epic spot to call home.
“The Presentation House was in a very out of the way, very old, and somewhat decrepit house,” says Shier, who was executive director of the North Shore gallery for the last 11 years, and facilitated its big move to the Lower Lonsdale waterfront. The original Presentation House building opened in 1976 on Chesterfield Avenue as a multi-disciplinary art destination, with an exclusive photography space subsequently opening in 1981. The run-down building was a juxtaposition to the photography it housed, with international artists like Annette Kelm and Anne Collier and Vancouver photographers like Stan Douglas and Fred Herzog all showing there. It was also the largest non-profit photography site in Western Canada, making a move to a better location a goal from the start: “As early as the late ‘70s, there was a desire for a facility that could really show off those exhibitions, and be a more suitable gallery space to dignify the type of artists they featured,” says Shier. “The tenants in the building were promised a new facility because it was clearly just going to be a stopgap. They didn’t realize they would be there 40 years later.”
Forty-one years later, to be exact, the photography and media-based art gallery took on a new name, and opened its doors on Nov. 18, 2017. The building sits on a prime piece of land—the view and the history of the area make it exceptionally special—and Shier says the migration involved a lot of conversations, and a lot of help from the city and the community. “It was a real confluence of a lot of different ingredients coming together finally, at the right time,” he explains. “The dream location was where we’re standing right now, and the ideal end result was an architecturally significant structure at the foot of Lonsdale Avenue. To have a public building on this site is an incredibly important civic statement.” The gallery opening coincides with the City of North Vancouver’s plan to redesign Lower Lonsdale, with an end goal of making North Vancouver a larger, and more refined, cultural and entertainment destination.
Vancouver’s Patkau Architects was commissioned to create the stunning structure. Known for using Pacific Northwest-inspired materials in its distinct, modern buildings (such as the noteworthy Audain Art Museum in Whistler), the firm brought Shier’s multiple visions to life. First, he wanted something that would fit into the industrial shipyard history of the region; second, he wanted to do the view justice; and third, he wanted visitors and locals to be able to dwell and admire the art in a bright, open space. “This whole idea of a glazed podium to which the bulk of the gallery sits is a response to both to the historic character of this area, and the current needs of it and the site itself,” says Shier. We’re standing on the first floor, and the translucency of the building means it spills out onto the surrounding streets and waterfront. It is both modern and inviting.
Shier guides our gaze north, revealing that a major design feature involved making the breathtaking water vista visible from even two blocks up Lonsdale. “There was a lot of sensitivity in blocking views of the harbour, so it was designed with attention to the pedestrian circulation around the building,” he says. As such, the building seems to melt into its surroundings instead of stick out.
The metal skin roof is made with aluminum cladding, illuminating the region’s use as a major shipyard site during the Second World War. The other point of interest in the design is the abundance of natural light even on the rainiest of days. This is especially noticeable on the second floor; step into the gallery room and look up at the layered skylight, which brings an angelic wave of airiness throughout the space.
The other half of the second floor features an amazing event and education space, where fundraisers and galas, as well as week-long art courses for elementary schools, can be held. During warmer months, visitors can step through the retractable glass door and out onto the patio overlooking to the entire inlet.
The Polygon’s first exhibit celebrates North Vancouver and runs until the end of April 2018. “It was important for me that when we open our doors for the first time, that the work here had a specific relationship to the region around which the gallery sits. All of the artists in my opening exhibition are all local or regional; some live in other cities, but all have roots or a relationship with Vancouver or North Vancouver,” Shier explains. “All of the work is about, or in response to, North Van. People in North Van who are coming into this building for the first time will see something very recognizable, but filtered through the lens of visual artists.”