Herzog & de Meuron recently unveiled their concept for a new art museum, the Pritzker-winning firm’s first project in Canada, to provide a home for the expanding Vancouver Art Gallery.

“The architects have worked closely with the Gallery to conceive an elegant, accessible building that puts art and our community first,” says Kathleen Bartels, the Gallery’s director. “We are thrilled with the result.”

The concept for the 310,000-square-foot building consists of a sculptural, seven-story tower of irregularly-sized wooden boxes, stacked, centered, and raised on 40-foot cores above a courtyard. Within this deceptively simple scheme lies a richness of space, light, texture, and discovery.

Much of the concept’s richness derives from a powerful sense of unity; firstly, “a unity of building, street, and people,” as Jacques Herzog expressed it in a lecture in Vancouver earlier this year. “The main purpose for such a project is not just to hang more art. It is to bring the city to another level, and to create opportunities for everybody to participate.”

To that end, a single-story building with deep overhangs creates a continuous, human-scale street edge, integrating the Gallery into the city, and framing the courtyard behind. The courtyard, accessible to all, provides through-block connections that invite the city through the Gallery, and hosts installations and events that spill art into the city. Above the courtyard, the spectacular tower continues the integration of art and city. Transparent lower levels house collective components of the gallery’s program, and more opaque upper levels house the galleries, taking art up into the sky of this vertical city, and framing views back out.

The idea of unity also governs the design’s approach to structure, space, and ornament. Total integrity, in which a single material accounts for all three, may be difficult to achieve in contemporary architecture, “but it’s possible to come close,” says Herzog, “and it’s possible especially to test, and to become aware of, this amazing potential in architecture.”

The project’s shot at this radical integrity is expressed in wood: massive engineered timber for the structure, wood cladding and mullions for the envelope. The choice of wood refers to Vancouver’s early buildings and British Columbia’s leadership in engineered wood construction; but more importantly, wood bestows an approachability, changeability, and biotic scale in contrast with the glass towers now characteristic of the city: it distinguishes the Gallery, both as a building and an institution.

Herzog & de Meuron’s concept for the new Vancouver Art Gallery will be on exhibit at the Gallery’s current premises until January 24, 2016.