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Maya Lin, creator of Washington DC Vietnam Memorial, selects Glenbow for first ever Canadian project

Maya Lin, the acclaimed architect, designer, and sculptor behind some of the most internationally recognized public art pieces and spaces, has selected the Glenbow Museum as her first ever Canadian commission.

Lin will be designing the 13,000 ft. terrace for the Glenbow, which will include a pavilion, event space, gardens, and an oculus skylight that will shine light throughout all of the floors of the new JR Shaw Centre for Arts and Culture.

“We are elated. We are elated. We have imagined for several years now that this building, which has been almost with its back to the city physically for 50 years, could be transformed into a place that everybody wants to spend time,” said Nicholas Bell, CEO of Glenbow.

“Every step of the way, we’ve been imagining how can we make this even better. Having this conversation with Maya, where she transforms this really underutilized roof that’s just been sitting out there doing nothing for a half century, is almost the pinnacle of that conversation.

“I think it will demonstrate to everyone that we’re taking something that was literally nothing to the community and transforming it to a place that could be a little backyard—That could be the place where you just want to come and hang out or have a party or just get away from it all.”

Lin is best known for her work on “The Wall,” the Washington DC Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. More recently, she has worked on a water garden design for the Obama Presidential Centre, set to open in 2025.

Render of the Glenbow terrace. COURTESY MAYA LIN STUDIO

Recycling led decision to take on Calgary project

She said that it was conversations with Bell about the vision for the new JR Shaw Centre that drew her to choose Calgary for her first-ever Canadian work.

“He basically explained that they chose not to tear down a building and build a new building—that they wanted to recycle the old Glenbow. That really interested me because I’m very committed to doing sustainable design, sustainable building, and I thought that is a fantastic idea,” Lin said.

“Then when I saw the designs that DIALOG had done, and I saw that that organic facade with the panels are made right here in Calgary, I was really excited to come up here.”

Lin said that she first visited the terrace space in 2022, and envisioned how it could be transformed to provide light to the rest of the building through an oculus feature, and how the prairies could be brought into the gardens, pulling it up and onto the terrace.

“I think what I like to do is ground you in the place you’re in, and that’s not just the physical place, it’s also the cultural context. One of the very first things we’re going to do tomorrow is actually talk to native plant people, looking at medicinal usages of local plants that Native Americans and Native Canadians can use,” she said.

Lin said that DIALOG had done a beautiful job of redesigning a space that came from a time in Calgary during the late 1960s through early 1980s when buildings weren’t always built in a humane way.

“I took a look at their designs and went wow, I could easily see myself working on a pavilion and a garden in this building. I wasn’t the one starting it, but I definitely related, responded, and really loved what their approach had been,” she said.

Construction work is performed to open up a multi-storey opening for Maya Lin’s oculus design at the renovated Glenmore Museum in Calgary on Thursday, October 26, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Re-imagined downtown spaces

Bell said that having someone of Lin’s calibre, creating a space at the Glenbow, spoke to the vision of the city and the vision of the community to re-imagine all of the infrastructure around that area of downtown Calgary.

“Nobody who’s in Calgary today will be a stranger to the conversations and dialogues we’ve been having for years about how we take what’s essentially a 20th-Century city and really transform that for today’s audience: The people that need to live here now and want to thrive here,” Bell said.

“Maya is really responding to that energy in the city. I think it’s important to note she is also responding to the work of our local firms.”

He said that Lin choosing Calgary as a place for her first Canadian work was also a testament to that work being undertaken.

“I think she understands that you don’t need to be in a national capitol or even the biggest city in the country to make a difference or set a standard for what the greatest thing can look like,” Bell said.

“We also want this to be an example for other cities across the country. Glenbow’s building is the same age as many museums, performing arts centres, and theatres around Canada. Every city in Canada right now is challenged by the same infrastructural issues that started this renovation. They don’t need to turn those buildings down.”

The JR Shaw Centre for Arts and Culture will be completed in mid-2026. When opened, the Glenbow Museum will be the first major museum in Canada to offer permanent free general admission.