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What if the English Bay Barge was an island forest? Brothers launch campaign to save Vancouver's unlikely landmark (VIDEO + PHOTOS)

They've launched a petition to create a "living landmark."

The English Bay Barge is going to be deconstructed soon.

But what if wasn't?

Brothers Chris and Alex Willms say demolition should be the last option and want others to be considered first, including turning into a living forest.

"We want to see a public discourse about more possibilities for the barge," says Alex. "Our idea of filling it with a living ecosystem and turning it into a part of the landscape is the idea we like for the barge, but there's been no real discussion about different ideas for what we could do with this thing."

While the empty hull is seen as something ugly and temporary by some, the brothers see it as an opportunity to create one of the city's stranger attractions.

"It feels incomplete right now, empty," Alex says. "Our proposal is about changing, revitalizing it into something that isn't an eyesore."

A living barge

The Wilms idea formed quickly over the end of March, moving from abstract to rendered in about a week. What they came up with is essentially a small forest inside the old wood chip barge, turning the empty vessel into a man-made partially floating habitat.

"It could be a wilderness, it could be a garden, it could be accessible, it could be an island you look at from the shore," says Alex.

Creating the natural piece is fairly straightforward they say; the bottom would be filled with soil, like a giant planter, and trees could be placed inside with a crane. Chris suggests ivy could be added as well, to cover the hull in a more natural way than industrial red. Over time it would become more and more landscape-like, he adds.

"Once you've put the effort into doing it does last and evolve over time," he says.

"This could become a long-term part of the city that would be even more amazing 50 years from now than it would be in the beginning," Alex says.

And while in the Willms's vision the barge could, in a literal sense, be an urban forest with no human visitors, it could have an artistic value as well.

"It could be a very mysterious object that is also this fusion of the human-made and the natural, which is very much a present issue in Vancouver," Alex says.

Not the first

While turning a barge into an island may sound far-fetched, many have been turned into houses, and at least a couple of smaller barges have become floating living landscapes.

"We'll be posting a collection of reference projects that really help to explain this type of situation which happens often," says Alex.

There are two projects they're already focusing on. One is the Smithson Floating Island, an art project that saw a barge filled with trees and towed around New York City for a week in 2005.

Much more similar to what their proposing is Swale, a project started in New York in 2016 that is ongoing. Described as a "floating food forest" it's essentially an old barge filled with herbs, fruits and vegetables that can be harvested; it's both an art project, farm, and recycled industrial boat.

"Our proposal is unique but not unprecedented," says Alex, who learned of the predecessors first and showed his brother.

"I had never seen such a thing," Chris says. "When I first saw one of the floating living barges I was like 'Boom, this is proof of concept.'

"It seems very feasible once you see it."

Industrial sized philosophy

While the barge is essentially a big red hull, the brothers say it's come to represent more to people. To some, it's a piece of junk, but Chris says there's more there.

"It means a lot more than that as a metaphor," he explains. "To people walking along the seawall, a lot of them have a lot of different ideas about the barge."

That variety of ideas, thoughts and discussion the barge has created is worth considering, the brothers say.

One central one is climate change, the duo say, as the barge came ashore during a massive windstorm that was a precursor to the flooding in Abbotsford during the rainiest fall ever in Vancouver after the second warmest summer on record.

"The idea of the barge is coming to represent something greater for Vancouver than simply the nuisance," Chris notes.

That can be parlayed into something more tangible.

"It can be more than an industrial novelty," Alex says. "It can be a hybrid of Vancouver's condition which is both industrial and natural and urban, we think that's a cool idea."

In more concrete terms, it can be an attraction and something to consider.

"It's about redirecting our efforts and resources into something that's an investment in tourism, biodiversity, public art and climate action all at once," Alex says.

"And, bonus, you don't have to weld a barge apart for months and months."

It's not Lego

The idea that the barge must be removed seems natural simple, the brothers say. But, they point out, it's not a certainty and it won't be simple.

"There's a reason we don't normally demolish large industrial ships in public," Alex points out, noting safety issues, along with the impact it will have on the enjoyment of a popular area in Vancouver for what could be months.

"Vancouver wants to be an ecologically forward, awesome city and so if we don't need to go through this lengthy process of demolition, then why should we?" he asks.

Moving forward

Right now the brothers are gauging the public's interest in the idea while the barge is still intact. No date for the beginning of deconstruction has been shared, but the intention has been announced.

They hope to hear back from the community at large through their website and petition, to find out if there's enough momentum to save the barge.

"We need to gauge community support; if there's enough then we'll contact the authoritative parties," Chris says. "We can't plan ahead of time; it's very much dependent on the interactions with the community."

They also note that while they like their idea, it's not the only possibility.

"We know the barge can't be left as it is, empty and abandoned. It was a novelty at the beginning, but the novelty is wearing thin," Alex says, noting that large, empty hull there's lots that could be done. "Demolition is just one choice."