Built in 1949-50, the UBC War Memorial Gym is located on the University of British Columbia Vancouver Campus at 6081 University Boulevard. It is an avant-garde modernist glass and concrete structure built in two parts – the Gymnasium and the Memorial Hall.
It was one of the first large buildings in the region built in the International Style. It is seriously threatened with replacement by a new recreational facility.
The University of British Columbia has indicated that current athletic and recreation facilities on campus are severely lacking compared to other universities, and existing gymnasium space is at or over capacity. In 2015 the university introduced GamePlan: UBC’s Recreation and Athletics Facilities Strategy, which will “provide a 20-year framework to guide UBC’s investments in facilities for recreation, athletics and related research at the Point Grey campus.” After extensive community consultation during 2016 and 2017, the university narrowed its options and is now considering 2 options for the War Memorial Gym:
- The full renewal of the existing War Memorial Gym to meet 20-year recreation needs within significantly improved facilities,
- The demolition and replacement of the War Memorial Gym, which would result in the loss of a very significant heritage building.
According to GamePlan: “The War Memorial Gym is an aging facility with significant maintenance needs, deficiencies, and building systems that are reaching the end of its lifecycle.” As we have seen in the seismic program for Vancouver schools, this is bureaucratic speak for “we intend to tear it down.”
The UBC War Memorial Gym has a richly storied history both from an architectural and community building perspective. It was one of the first large International Style buildings in the region, designed by Sharp & Thompson, Berwick, Pratt in 1949. This radical, stripped-down architectural style resulted in a beautifully daylit and highly advanced sports facility for its time. “Working with structural engineer F.W. Urry and UBC School of Architecture director Fred Lasserre, architect Ned Pratt devised an innovative structural system of massive steel-and-concrete roof trusses to eliminate the need for sight-obstructing internal columns.” The gymnasium won a Massey Silver medal in 1951.
The UBC War Memorial Gym was built to remember the students and others who gave their lives in the Second World War. A large portion of the project funding was raised by the student body itself in keeping with the independent pioneering spirit that originally founded the Point Grey Campus and which continues today in the student-led creation of the new Student Union Building. In fact, this pioneering spirit is further evident in the design and deliberate placement of the gym as a landmark outside the early historic boundaries of the original UBC Campus.
The gym has served as an important space of remembrance at the annual Remembrance Day Ceremonies, acting as a physical and symbolic link of the UBC community of today with generations that came before.
The War Memorial Gym is a ‘signature building’ of exceptional design that strongly contributes to the experience of entering the university at its main gateway at Wesbrook Mall and University Boulevard. It is a modern heritage landmark that is irreplaceable. The demolition of this important building would be devastating to the architectural and community histories of both UBC and Vancouver.
Heritage Vancouver Society (HVS) strongly supports the retention and adaptive reuse of this important heritage asset, which is UBC’s first significant example of modernist architecture. Although the HVS generally limits its comments to the City of Vancouver, we believe that Vancouver and the UBC Vancouver Campus have historically had a strong architectural and community relationship.
In addition to being a modern heritage landmark, the War Memorial Gym serves as a physical connection between today’s community and past generations. Given the substantial rebuilding that has occurred at the campus, and the efforts made to conserve other modernist landmarks, the significance of this cultural landmark should not be overlooked.
UBC Vancouver Campus Plan: Policy 43 states that ‘Heritage resources… embody cultural meaning to the campus community and shall be retained where viable.’ The cost of a full renovation of the War Memorial Gym would be $40 million; rebuilding would cost more, $45 million.
Despite the cost savings, two more replacement options have been proposed, noting that ‘the new building design would honour the important legacy of War Memorial Gym (for example through the retention of the name and other elements of significance), which is virtually meaningless from a conservation point of view.
We are pleased to see that UBC has prepared a Statement of Significance of the War Memorial Gym, and we strongly encourage the project team to closely follow the recommendations contained when considering any new work. HVS shares values with the principles in the UBC Vancouver Campus Plan and we congratulate UBC on preparing a plan with a thematic framework for heritage conservation. We highly recommend that it be used to guide future decision making on the many important heritage assets that are a part of both the UBC and Vancouver architectural and community legacies.
We strongly encourage the citizens of Vancouver and the alumni, students and residents of UBC and the University Endowment Lands:
- To write a letter to the UBC Board of Governors email@example.com with copies to the Associate Vice President Campus and Community Planning Michael White firstname.lastname@example.org supporting the retention and adaptive reuse of the War Memorial Gym.
- To strongly recommend that the UBC thematic framework for heritage conservation for the UBC Vancouver Campus be followed for future decision making on the many important heritage assets at UBC.