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A dramatic entrance

VanDusen Botanical Garden

Seduction. That’s what VanDusen Botanical Garden director Harry Jongerden is aiming for with the garden’s new $19.4-million Visitor Centre.

It’s not a word usually associated with botanical gardens, which tend to be rather reserved. But according to Jongerden, VanDusen and other botanical gardens need to start struttin’ their stuff, not only for their own survival, but for the survival of the planet. “Forty per cent of the world’s plant species are expected to be extinct by 2050. Meanwhile, we’ve been a secret garden, hiding behind a fence. We just can’t afford that anymore, on any level,” Jongerden says matter-of-factly.

Instead, Jongerden hopes the Visitor Centre, which is designed to look like a native orchid, will function just as real flowers do. Flowers lure in insects with nectar. In return, the insects spread the flower’s pollen. With the Visitor Centre, Jongerden aims to draw people with beauty – both the building’s beauty and the beauties of botany. Refreshed and inspired, they’ll want to know more about plants and their connection to the future of our planet. Then, he hopes, they’ll go back out into the world to change how they live.

That’s why the new building flaunts its sinuous green roof “petals” above busy Oak Street. And that’s also why, inside and out, the new Visitor Centre is a showcase for sustainability. The building aims to be Canada’s first certified “Living Building,” creating no negative environmental impact. Solar cells, photovoltaic panels, geothermal and energy exchange within the building will enable the building to produce as much energy as it consumes, leading to no net energy consumption. The building will get all of its own water from rain catchment, storm water and black water recycling. Designed by leading local sustainable architecture firm Busby Perkins + Will, the building will also exceed stringent LEED Platinum building standards.

Jongerden’s face lights up with boyish enthusiasm as he explains how the “stem” of the orchid – the walls of the building – are made of rammed earth, while at the centre of the building’s “orchid flower,” a gorgeous glass oculus (a special circular skylight) will provide natural light, as well as automatically open and close to regulate temperature.

Inside, the building’s Discovery Hall will meld the delightful and the educational, explaining how plants feed the world, inspire innovation, sustain the economy and heal and restore us. “We can’t live without plants – it’s that simple,” says Jongerden.

“The beauty of the garden says ‘all this is worth saving,’” says Jongerden. “The building says sustainability is not only achievable, it’s desirable.” Together, it’s a one-two punch that could make VanDusen Garden a potent agent for environmental change. But this stirring vision nearly didn’t come to fruition. Fundraising for the project actually started back in 2004. Vancouver Foundation and VanDusen Garden have a long-standing relationship; W.J. VanDusen, for whom the garden is named, was also one of Vancouver Foundation’s founders. So Vancouver Foundation was eager to help VanDusen bloom anew. The Foundation stepped up as one of the first major donors on board for the project, donating $1 million.

“That one million dollars really primed the pump for our fundraising drive,” says Jongerden. But finding the remaining $18 million wasn’t easy. The economic meltdown of 2008 hit. Plans were reworked more than once. “Vancouver Foundation really hung in there with us, which we really appreciate,” says Jongerden. The building finally opened its doors in September 2011.

Can a building really seduce, delight, and transform? It’s a lofty goal for any edifice. But standing in the new Visitor Centre’s main hall – the oculus opening to the breeze, natural light streaming in, illuminating sinuous curving walls of wood and concrete and the roof undulating above – is fascinating; for a moment, breath-taking. And without you even realizing it, the seduction has begun. VF

For more info on VanDusen Botanical Garden, visit their website at Or better yet, visit the Garden at 5251 Oak Street in Vancouver. If you’d like to contribute to the future of the Garden; if you want to help this gorgeous facility continue to excite, educate and inspire visitors about the world of plants, call Vancouver Foundation at 604-688-2204

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