Roy Forster on Van Dusen

The story begins in the decade of 1960, a kind of golden age in the development of parks and gardens in Vancouver. Queen Elizabeth Park, The Bloedel Conservatory and other fine landscapes.

The Shaughnessey lands,which had been slated for residential were purchased from the Canadian Pacific Company, and a start made on the VanDusen Garden J. Whitford VanDusen was the third member of the giant forest company triumvirate of MacMillan Bloedel. Vandusen’s money, via his Vancouver Foundation., was the stimulus that funded the development VanDusen Gardens.

One year after the opening of VanDusen in 1975 MacMillan Bloedel Place – described as a “walk in the forest” was opened in a beautiful wooded corner of the site.

The iconic buildimg in the West Coast modernist style was stocked with state of the art interactive displays designed by the company that built the Jacque Costeau living sea exhibit in Los Angeles.
The visitor experience young and old could be described as passing beneath the canopy of a mature forest framed by the impressive Douglas Fir pillars with their ascending beams as branches supporting the forest leaf canopy above.

The emphasis of the interpretive displays was botanical- a rich experience in plant physiology and ecology- even a walk in hollowed trunk of a forest giant that gave insights into the form and relationship of a tree’s vital functions –the tissues and the root system mychorhiza.

Ten successful years later the displays, now somewhat dated were removed and the building was turned over to the City of Vancouver .The Park board then became responsible for maintenance. The building became the Education Centre of the VBGA-the partner with the Park Board in the operation and development of VanDusen Botanical Garden.

The VBGA provides funds to staff the Centre. There are five fulltime staff and an equal number of part time and contract personnel. The entire education program of the garden is operated from this building. If this beautiful structure and its immediate environment were lost, but there would be no adequate place to re-locate the staff anywhere on the site. The VBGA also has accounting and development-fund – raising staff there.

Consider this- the building has one floor only, is of modest size yet contains a gem of a small 60 seat theatre which can be used for various audio – visual presentation and at other times much needed space for a variety of volunteer functions.

My experience over 24 years as director of the VanDusen Botanical Garden has inspired me to write two books – one on woodland gardens the other my arboreal Odyssey – the Love of trees – both books forest related. More important, I have come to realize that all Botanical Gardens need more than one strategically placed centres of garden related activity so the plant life can be best interpreted to the visitor giving shelter and a place for social interplay. This is something that Landscape Architects and Botanist-Educators have long known, and is a feature of most botanical gardens everywhere. The continued success of VanDusen depends on this. Retaining this well used building as a heritage of our forest will help ensure that success in the future.

Of all the rich natural resources of British Columbia, the forest is the most important in the long term-not only economic,but as one vital component of the lungs of planet earth.

This building is a celebration of that resource and must be retained as a place where our young people can learn the fundamentals of forest ecology and nature as a whole.

Roy Forster
Feb. 2013