Nature and Art Become One
The Audain Art Museum’s refined use of Pacific HemFir creates harmony with its natural surroundings.
Enveloped by evergreens, clad in dark metal and encased with stunning Pacific HemFir, the unmistakably modern Audain Art Museum is counterpoint to the more traditional alpine architecture that surrounds it in the mountain resort town of Whistler, British Columbia. The building’s design is “deliberately restrained to provide a quiet, minimal backdrop to the art within and the surrounding natural landscape,” says the project’s architect, David Shone, Patkau Architects.
The firm carefully selected appearance grade Pacific HemFir—prominently featured throughout the exteriors and interiors—for its warmth, beauty and technical performance. The wood’s straight grain, consistent light colour and lack of pitch, as well as its innate strength and other indigenous qualities, make it ideal for structural applications where aesthetics are key, as is the case with this showpiece museum. The Audain’s use of this beautifully natural material undoubtedly has contributed to its strong international and national acclaim.
In Harmony with the Landscape
The Audain Art Museum is nestled in a forest of Engelmann and Sitka spruce. Its black steel and metal clad form merges with the woods—the colour specifically chosen to allow the structure to retreat into the shadows of the backdrop. The forest acts as a filter, making it nearly impossible to see its entire profile from any one point. Huddled within the thicket and set against the mountain, the building’s large footprint is hidden, its peaked roof barely visible above the tree line.
Below the peaked roof, where the museum opens to views and to provide access, a luminous Pacific HemFir wood casing is revealed. The Pacific HemFir is designed to glow out of the matte black exterior, mimicking a larger-than-life lantern in the forest which, in winter months, provides a particularly warm contrast to the starkness of the snowy landscape. At night, this effect is particularly stunning as the building radiates a welcoming warmth even as it is tucked discreetly into its forested surroundings.
The building’s soffits and exterior casing are clear vertical grain (CVG) Pacific HemFir, treated with semitransparent stain to allow the wood’s refined character and attractive natural colouring to shine through. Pacific HemFir features beautiful, consistent, light-coloured tones ranging between creamy, nearly white to a light honey. Here, and throughout the project, Patkau’s use of honey-hued wood is an inviting juxtaposition to the more austere metal cladding.
The building’s inspired use of Pacific HemFir, combined with its distinctive shape, further allows the structure to fit perfectly within the natural landscape, complementing instead of competing with it. The museum’s unique “hockey-stick” shape accommodates its wooded location, a solution that eliminated the need to remove trees from the site.
Nature and Art Become One
Visitors approach the museum via an elevated walkway, surrounded by tall trees, before arriving at the dVisitors approach the museum via an elevated walkway, surrounded by tall trees, before arriving at the dramatic entry porch, lined with honeyed Pacific HemFir. Guests are immediately greeted by an impressive Pacific HemFir ribbed oculus and a tall aluminum sculpture by Coast Salish artist Xwalacktun. The clear vertical grain of the exterior Pacific HemFir casing seamlessly connects to the wood finishings of the interior, providing a natural transition from the forested surroundings, as visitors are guided towards the entrance and into the building.
Inside the lobby, a wood ceiling and wood clad walls frame full height glazing and panoramic views, creating an immediate feeling of connection and tranquillity.
The linear wood feature from around the building’s periphery is continued to the interior walls and ceiling, which can be viewed from the outside through long walls of glass. The extensive use of Pacific HemFir vertical tongue-and-groove wood draws the visitor’s eye both inward and outward, merging the outdoors with the indoors.
“In response to curatorial requirements, the gallery spaces are primarily drywalled and windowless for the hanging of art. This contrasts with floor-to-ceiling glazing and the extensive application of wood for interior wall and ceiling finishes in public circulation areas, which define the character and experience of these spaces,” says Shone.
In the minimalist, white gallery spaces visitors enjoy the art collection of Vancouver-based builder and philanthropist Michael Audain. Works from some of British Columbia’s most celebrated artists reside here, including Emily Carr, E.J. Hughes, Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas. A showpiece of the collection is Haida artist James Hart’s monumental cedar sculpture, The Dance Screen (The Scream Too).
Pacific HemFir comes back into focus in the pathways that connect the galleries and on the walls that provide picture-frame views of the surrounding forest. This deliberately restrained form and character of the building provides a quiet, minimal backdrop, allowing the art within and the surrounding natural landscape to take centre stage, as nature and art become one.
Withstanding the Rugged Environs
Before the building could exist in harmony with nature, it first had to withstand her challenges.
The region receives 4.5 metres of snow annually. Designed to handle the winter climate Whistler is known for, the steeply sloped roof, which defines the building shape, is a result of this constraint. A snow consultant was employed to ensure that when the snow was shed it would accumulate in a controlled and beautiful way, creating edges along the paths and undercroft where a public performance space has been created by the Pacific HemFir entrance steps that double as seats. The effect is further set off by the Pacific HemFir slatted soffits that line the underside of the building’s overhangs.
Pacific HemFirm offers outstanding performance in rugged environments, thanks to its even density which allows for easy drying and uniform penetration of preservatives during the treatment process. This property gives it durability and wear resistance in outdoor applications and in high-traffic areas, such as the museum’s external and internal staircases.
Pacific HemFir’s technical performance is further bolstered by its strength, stiffness and density. Combined with its natural beauty, it is no wonder Patkau chose to feature Pacific HemFir in this signature project.
A Conversation with Nature
The continuous use of Pacific HemFir casing on the building’s exterior and interior maintains the building’s conversation with nature, built both in harmony with, and in response to, the region’s rugged natural surroundings.
Some of the museum’s most charming and clever spaces—the entrance porch and occulus, a deep window seat in the end wall, the large entrance hall, and an elegant internal circulation stair screened by timber slats—feature Pacific HemFir, showing off many of the aesthetic and performance benefits of this wood that works.
The first museum in Canada solely dedicated to the art of a single province, the Audain Art Museum fits seamlessly into the cultural and ecological fabric of Whistler.
Its use of native, sustainable Pacific HemFir “resonates with the powerful alpine landscape in which the museum sits, reinforcing a connection to the region that inspired much of the art collection within,” says Shone.
The acclaimed Audain Art Museum is a building truly in harmony with nature.
Suppliers from Forest to River, Sea to Sky
The Pacific HemFir featured at the Audain Art Museum was the result of the skilled work of many talented local suppliers, who applied their expertise to deliver a strong, sustainable and beautiful result. The Clear Vertical Grain (CVG) Pacific HemFir used at the Audain was sustainably sourced by locally based Whistler Forest Products, and PEFC Chain of Custody Certified.
The logs were then floated down the Fraser River to Terminal Forest Products’ Mainland Sawmill in Vancouver where they were sawn, grade sorted and kiln dried by J&G Log Works. After, the kiln dried boards were shipped to Cedarland Forest Products in Maple Ridge for precision milling to the specific sizes and 12 profiles that were custom designed for the Audain. The profiles were then shipped to Squamish where they were factory finished by Fisher Coatings. The interior wood was pre-finished with a semitransparent stain. The exterior wood was pre-coated with a fire retardant treatment, then top coated with a semitransparent stain for weather protection.
Finally, the prefinished profiles were shipped to Whistler and installed at the Audain by Axiom Builders, Mercroft Construction and Towne Millwork. After installation, the wood received a final protective topcoat of semitransparent stain. Together, the work of these expert suppliers created a showcase of local wood and talent alike that resulted in the 2018 Governor General’s Medal in Architecture.