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The Vancouver Art Gallery: Perception of Space


At the moment, the Vancouver Art Gallery is located in what was previously the provincial courthouse. The former courthouse is an impressive and imposing building built originally in 1906 and has been constructed following the neo-classical style. In readiness for its conversion into an art gallery, the building underwent a massive renovation exercise and is today the Vancouver Art Gallery that we have come to identify with. The VGA is Canada’s fifth-largest art gallery but in Western Australia, it is the largest. It is located at the intersection of Robson Square and West Georgia Street.

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As the center of the urban, business, and the tour operations in the city, the dynamic movement of people in the streets brings out the ideas of the space of visuality and multiculturalism. In this paper, I will investigate how space is produced and reproduced through by way of examining a specific space-Vancouver art gallery. First, the Vancouver Art Gallery shall be explored within the context of the former courthouse, then as an art gallery for nearly 30 years.

The size of the VAG is approximately 41,400 square feet, and the cumulative art collection at this gallery has been estimated at 8000. The exterior of the Vancouver art gallery was built in 1911 as the provincial courthouse and had been designed by Francis Rattenbury. The marble that was used in constructing the VAG had to be imported from Vermont and Tennessee. There are iconic columns that adorn the neoclassical building, whose original size was 165,000 square feet.

Formal porticos, ornate stonework, and a central dome are additional features that characterize this neoclassical building. Initially, the current-day VAG was home to some 18 courtrooms (Fairley 143). In 1912, an annex to the building was constructed, although this particular section does not constitute the actual gallery. However, the National Heritage list features the annex. Also, the original benches of the judge are to be found in the annex, along with additional features that characterized the courthouse. The most likable features of the Court House are the two lions that flank what was once the main entrance on Georgia Street.

The official appreciation of the building recognizes the exterior structure and interior designs (Vogel 23). The building has also heritage value. This is because the former courthouse was set aside as a national historic landmark due to its enduring existence and attractive visual perception and a symbol of Canada’s justice system. Truly, this is a paradigm of its function.

As a permanent building that was constructed for practicing law in British Columbia, this landmark is an illustration of the significance the Canadians have held to a strong legal system (Vogel 23). Since the creation of the judicial district in 1892, by 1906, it was necessary to have new facilities since many changes had taken place (Roth 123). The law court building is a very typical illustration of the neo-classical design that was highly regarded in North America in the 19th and 20th centuries – Beaux Art Traditional era (Vancouver Art Gallery 12).

Neoclassical is a term used in architecture about those buildings whose design has been inspired by classical architecture that are to be found in either Rome or Greece. The former Law court building was a very strong concrete construction that was designed in grand classical design. It is located on the city block in Georgia, Howe, and Robson. It is a monumental landmark that is found in the central business district of Vancouver. That building now functions as the gallery of Vancouver city.

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A Neoclassical building is likely to have some (but not necessarily all) of these features: symmetrical shape, tall columns that rise the full height of the building, triangular pediment, domed roof ( Rattenbury played all the right notes of neoclassical style – a façade colonnade, columned and pediment portico flanked by imperial lions, and a Palladian rotunda-to serenade the local judiciary with a flattering tune. However, he lacked the skill and rigor, the hard edge of discipline and restraint that sounds the chord of perfect classical proportion.

The interior of the rotunda is more deftly handled than the buildings outside detail. To enter the building today, one has to go through the back door. The pleasurable sense of the importance of both the building’s status (as the Vancouver Art Gallery) and one’s approach to it that once characterized the building has unfortunately been lost in the change of use.

Adjacent to the building and adjoining Georgia Street is the Centennial Fountain. Installed in 1996, it is a symbol of the unification of both Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Here is one notion of how sacred architecture is transferred to the secular building in the modern era. The origin of classical architecture started from the rise of ancient Greece up to the fall of the Roman Empire. At the time, great buildings were constructed according to precise details.

Marcus Vitruvius, an architect of Roman descent, was convinced that there is a need for builders to utilize mathematical principles during the process of constructing temples. “For without symmetry and proportion, no temple can have a regular plan.” The house of God as a sacred space was transferred on power and the authority of the Courthouse which had been constructed for practicing law in British Columbia and as an illustration of the significance, the Canadians have held to a strong legal system. This landmark puts more meaning in secular space, aside from the sacred.

The momentum of moving the art gallery to the site of the old courthouse was the occurrence of the potlatch deprivations, aboriginal land seizures, and the violent arrest of First Nations activist Leonard Pelletier. The artist and curator Doreen Jensen advocated for this movement. This is a reflection of the gallery’s contentious history and as such, the old building of the courthouse was shifted to the VAG following a very big fundraising activity.

Nowadays, the VAG functions as a gathering place; numerous protesters, tourists, spectators, shoppers move through this space. The protesters use visuality in front of the art gallery as a participator in an experience of representations. They gather with any issues and circulate through space and use the facilities of the gallery and move out. This tells us that the lived experience is directly associated with images. In other words, the art gallery is presenting people’s movement as a visual representation outside while the regulation of the movement of people inside the art gallery makes it quiet.


Lefebvre argued that “social space is produced and reproduced in connection with the forces of production (and with the relations of production).” (Lefebvre 77). I suggest the VAG is one of the good examples that showing us the process of produced and reproduced. The sacred classical architecture adopted and produced as the courthouse reflects the secular life, while the neoclassical architecture provides an enduring visual landmark and symbol of justice and an exemplar of its functional type then reproduced as the art gallery after the historical contentions, and now it has an important role as a social gathering place.

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Works Cited

Fairley, Jim. The Way We Were: The Story Of The Old Vancouver Courthouse. J. Fairley; North Vancouver, 1993.

Kostof, Spiro., Castillo, Greg., & Tobias. Richard. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals, London; Oxford University Press 1995.

Lee, John. Vancouver, Vancouver; Lonely Planet, 2008.

Lefebvre, Henri. The production of space. 1999. London: Wiley.

Roth, Leland. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, And Meaning. Boulder; Westview Press, 2007.

Vancouver Art Gallery. The Case for Taking the Vancouver Art Gallery to Court, Vancouver; Vancouver Art Gallery Association, 1998.

Vogel, Aynley. Vancouver: A History In Photographs, Vancouver: Talon books, 2009.

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