The Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of B.C. is one of the province’s most iconic structures, a West Coast modern building with “Haida and Japanese esthetics” that “brings the outdoors inside.”
The focal point of Arthur Erickson’s design is the Great Hall, a grand open space that soars five storeys high. The walls are made of glass, allowing for natural light that makes the room feel like it’s part of the natural landscape.
The structure is held up by a series of cement pillars that cascade down the contours of the site, like the wood beams in an ancient native big house. Inside is a dazzling collection of totem poles from up the coast.
But that height and openness could be a big problem in an earthquake. So the Great Hall is being rebuilt with a “base isolation system,” the latest in seismic technology.
“You put the hall itself on basically rubber base isolators, and they move in a slightly different way from the rest of the building,” explains Nick Milkovich, a longtime associate of Erickson who is the architect for the project. “So this room has to be separated from the rest of the building with movement plates, but you won’t be able to see them. It takes the harsh movement of the earthquake and makes it a much more gentle movement, which is better for the exhibitory and everything inside.
“It’s a softer movement, but it’s still moving — it’s going to move up to one foot, two inches (35.5 centimetres) differently, separately, from the rest of the building.”
Typically, when a building is seismically upgraded, it means installing extra beams or bracing. But the openness and simple elegance of Erickson’s design is what makes it special.
So rather than muck with the design, the decision was made to tear down the existing Great Hall, install the base isolation system, and build a new Great Hall on top.
“The main thing to stress is that we did not want to alter anything,” said Milkovich. “We wanted to preserve the building visually as it is, the experience as it is. (When) they use braces and all that, that would destroy the feeling of the space.
“The final decision was that the most direct and simplest way was to take it down and rebuild it, with exactly the same dimensions. The profile, the colour of the concrete, we’re matching all that.”
UBC’s Jennifer Sanguinetti said the cost of the rebuild, plus some other renovations to the MOA, will be $30.5 million. The cost will be split between UBC, the province and the federal government.
Sanguinetti said the decision to rebuild was made after extensive consultation.
“The Arthur Erickson Foundation has been involved the whole way,” said Sanguinetti, UBC’s managing director of infrastructure development. “We’ve also worked with the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, the Vancouver Heritage Society, and UBC’s advisory Urban Design Panel, which has a number of external architects and architectural experts on it.
“It’s not a building we could kind of throw bracing in and call it a day. We needed to treat this very sensitively, and approach it with a real eye to the heritage value for the entire province, for the country.”
Sanguinetti said the base isolation system has mainly been used in Japan and New Zealand. The first time it was used in B.C. was for the seismic upgrading of Strathcona School, a 1914 structure.
The Great Hall is still open to museum-goers, but artifacts are being moved to other parts of the museum. The Great Hall will be closed in December, but the rest of the museum will remain open, albeit on reduced hours due to the COVID epidemic.
The pool in front of the Great Hall has already been drained in anticipation of the start of construction. The new Great Hall should be open in the spring or summer of 2022.
The Museum of Anthropology was opened in 1976, at a cost of $4.3 million. It was expanded in 2010 at a cost of $55 million.
Erickson designed the building in concert with landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander.
“It was inspired by a photo Arthur saw of a First Nations village up the coast,” said Milkovich. “The exhibits were laid as you go up the coast for the different First Nations that you encounter. It was a comprehensive story. He was doing that with the Hawthorns (Henry and Audrey), who were the original curators of the museum.
“It was designed on a path, really. From the entry you go down the ramp to the Great Hall, as if you were in the forest travelling to the seashore, to an inlet. That’s what the pond represents, an inlet up the coast.”