VanDusen Learning Centre

by Janet Leduc
Heritage Vancouver

Where We Are

The McMillan-Bloedel Education Centre at Van Dusen Botanical Gardens is under threat of demolition or abandonment. The building located in the northwest quadrant of the garden has been used in recent years for offices and storage and is used by visitors to the gardens for the washrooms, the only washrooms away from the nexus of buildings around Oak and 37th.

The Education Centre is not under threat because of significant maintenance issues or because it lacks a viable use. It is threatened by a policy that demands the removal of a building from Park Board-controlled land once a new building is completed. In the Van Dusen Gardens case, the new building is the Visitor Centre on Oak Street.

Because of cost issues during construction, of the new visitor centre ended up smaller than intended and the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens Association decided to retain the offices and Floral Hall in the old building at 37th and Oak Street. According to Park Board policy, something had to go and the VanDusen Botanical Gardens Association reluctantly acceded to a demand to eliminate the Education Centre. This decision was made by the Association even though the Association has no money to demolish it, no money to replace its washroom facilities, and no budget to garden the area left.

Our understanding of the current plans are that the washrooms in the Education Centre will be retained but the balance of the building will be gutted and left as a ruin to deteriorate or to perhaps become shelter for the coyotes that have established themselves in the gardens.

What we know about the Education Centre

Forestry giant MacMillan-Bloedel donated the Education Centre to the Van Dusen Gardens in 1976. The Company used the Centre initially to explain the role forests play in the province’s environment and economy.

Known originally as MacMillan-Bloedel Place, the building is a unique, dramatic example of modernist architecture by architect Paul Merrick, who at the time worked as chief designer for Thompson, Berwick & Pratt. Sited on the edge of a reflecting pond and partially buried in a hillside, the building appears to a passerby like an ancient temple in a deep forest. Its interior is a forest of magnificent, tree-like cedar columns, interspersed with the trunks of real British Columbia trees, with dioramas of natural environments flowing from one part of the space to another. A small theatre occupies one corner of the building. Although the interior is now dotted with desks and staff meeting areas, it is easy to see how it once functioned as an education centre for children.

In major gardens in the world’s great cities structures that help interpret the botanical collections are celebrated and appreciated. The Van Dusen Gardens are more than the plants, the ponds, the streams, and the great lawn and the trees left from the old Shaughnessy Golf Course. They are the learning opportunities provided in the Garden’s facilities, the Floral Hall, the Education Centre, and the dramatic new Visitors Centre, which complement and enhance the experience and contribution of the gardens for visitors from our community, – and from other communities.

What we are doing

When we are demolishing or abandoning this building we are

Eliminating a site demonstrating the evolution of the city’s botanical garden,
Destroying a significant piece of modernist architecture by one of the city’s foremost contemporary architects,
Sending a message that gifts given to the community, like MacMillan-Bloedel Place, are not, in the long term, valued by the City,
Creating a financial burden for the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens Society forcing it to raise the funds to demolish and remediate the site, and
Demonstrating that sustainability in the adaptation and re-use of heritage buildings is a hollow concept for community owned buildings on community owned lands.

What we could do

What we could do is retain the Education Centre and give it a new role to play as one of one of the city’s Green City initiatives.

What the City of Vancouver could do is prepare a Statement of Significance for the Education Centre and engage consultants to evaluate the building’s condition, recommend operational strategies, and work with other interested parties in the community to determine a long-term use for this community heritage resource.

What we could do is excite interest in our forest industry with the opportunity to use the Education Centre to better inform our community on new wood-building technologies and contribute to improving our understanding of the role of forestry in the provincial economy.

What we could do is to excite interest in our universities to use the Education Centre as a sustainability centre bringing together ideas for urban agriculture and exciting interest in conversation on the greening of the city.

What we could do is draw attention to explore all of the opportunities to learn about what we could do to create a world that will sustain us in the future like the Centre for Interactive Research in Sustainability at the University of British Columbia and the community of connections the Centre for Interactive Research is creating around Vancouver and around the world.

What we could do is invite communities who have a common interest in preserving and protecting our environment and our natural resources. VanDusen could provide a place for people to explore, learn, connect, and contribute to opportunities.

And, since the bottom line is that the Van Dusen Gardens will likely have to replace this space eventually since the office space in the buildings at 37th and Oak is totally allocated, what we could do is use the Centre to excite visitors to the Van Dusen Gardens to visit the Bloedel Conservatory in nearby Queen Elizabeth Park until the space is once more needed for other services.

A look inside the VanDusen Learning Centre


VanDusen Botanical Gardens


Coast Forest Products Association
UBC Centre for Interactive Research in Sustainability
Organizing for Change