An Architect’s Architect
TEXT Andrew Gruft
Peter Cardew may be a multiple award-winner for many of his buildings, and known to all who are serious about architecture in Canada, but he has very little public profile in his hometown. In Vancouver, it is the business of architecture–real estate–that dominates. Even within the profession, the major topics of conversation seem to focus on the biggest and flashiest projects under construction. With the exception of star designers, the media continues to identify projects by the developer and never the architect, who is often not mentioned at all. This remains the working context of architecture in British Columbia.
In contrast, all conversations about projects of architectural consequence in the West have always connected with Cardew, who has taken his place amongst the small group of committed practitioners of architecture working on the West Coast. This is underscored by the recognition he has received in Canada and elsewhere: accolades, exhibitions, lectures, juries, and teaching in the US, Europe, Asia and even Latin America and Australia.
Despite his modest body of work containing a few large projects, Cardew is known for his consistency and rigour. Each project is carefully considered no matter what its size or apparent importance–an interior design for a small medical clinic is given the same level of consideration as a public building. Cardew is always searching for what he calls the project’s “essence,” the key understanding of its nature that drives his architectural concepts. Why still no book on his architecture? He’s “working on it.” As usual, he is too busy concentrating on his projects.
Cardew arrived in Vancouver from Britain in 1966, gravitating to Rhone & Iredale, one of the more innovative firms operating in Canada at that time. Similar to Thompson Berwick and Pratt (TBP) or Erickson Massey, this was an important “nursery” practice that incubated talented young architects. Bing Thom, Bruno Freschi, Brigitte Shim, and the Patkaus passed through Erickson’s office. Ron Thom, Barry Downs, Paul Merrick and too many others to mention went through TBP. However, it was at Rhone & Iredale where I met Cardew, along with Richard Henriquez. Cardew and I still have fond memories of the regular late Friday afternoon design discussions where the entire office participated in heated arguments criticizing current projects in the office.
During his tenure at Rhone & Iredale, Cardew produced a number of fine projects such as the False Creek Row Houses (1980) and the Crown Life Building (1975). False Creek consisted of a row of long, narrow housing units. This was a radical, unknown typology in Vancouver at the time, influenced by Cardew’s knowledge of the best of British Modernist public housing. When clients questioned the narrowness of the units he had designed, he suggested that they measure the smallest dimension of the biggest room in their homes, and that convinced them. Crown Life, arguably still the best high-rise office building in Vancouver, shows the influence of one of his heroes, James Stirling. It set a standard for commercial office buildings yet to be equalled, with only Erickson’s MacMillan Bloedel Building (1969) as its closest competitor.
As Rhone & Iredale were coming apart in 1980, Cardew started his own practice. I have always believed that if the breakup could have been avoided, he would have been the chief designer of one of the major architectural firms in Canada (like Gordon Bunshaft at SOM) and would have had the opportunity to design many large projects, demonstrating his prodigious talent. But Cardew tells a different story. In fact, he had been thinking of going out on his own for a number of years, disillusioned with working in a large firm where he was becoming less able to control his project from start to finish, and unable to devote sufficient attention to the making of the building, not just its design.
Cardew works with a small, dedicated staff of about half a dozen, insisting that they work “collegially rather than hierarchically.” His modestly sized open office space is dominated by a 30-foot-long communal worktable set along its centre with workstations on each side. The divider is set low enough so everyone can see each other. One end serves as the “conference table.” He sits at one of the stations, not working alone in an isolated office, but together with his staff in open interaction. Cardew still maintains that he has never wanted to have a large office, but if he were to expand he would rather be more diverse–such as having his own construction company with engineering capabilities.
Cardew started his own practice with a hit–it was the Lignum Office Building (1977) for a lumber company in Williams Lake, British Columbia. A smooth, streamlined simple object, the building had to compete with a host of much larger elements in the landscape: the mill, sawdust burners, piles of lumber–all of industrial scale. In that context, a little building would have looked ridiculous, but by carefully adjusting the program for maximum effect, Cardew was able to produce a building that punches well above its weight.
The O’Sullivan-Donaldson House in Lions Bay (1983) was his first single-family residential project and demonstrated the clarity and rigour that was to mark all of his residential work, continuing right through to his recently completed zinc-clad house in Vancouver’s Dunbar neighbourhood. One cannot talk about Cardew houses without focusing on the Sturdy House (1998), perched on the rocks of a quintessential Pacific Coast site while eschewing any cheap West Coast romanticism. Nevertheless, the home fits perfectly with its stunning wilderness surroundings.
Cardew’s CN Pavilion for Expo ’86 stood out amongst the plethora of strident trivia competing for attention–that which constitutes the norm for exhibition pavilion design. The memorable building was clear, simple and held more than enough presence to be noticed. His project for the Expo Tower, an exciting design incorporating memories of previous exhibition markers, was unfortunately never built when the fair went well over budget.
Another key project that deserves note is the Stone Band School, a project that transforms elements derived from traditional native architecture into an organizing structure for a contemporary First Nations school. Winning a Progressive Architecture Award in 1991, the school addresses the needs of the community while giving its members an architecture they can identify with and be proud of, but without the sentimentality that marred so many projects built for First Nations at this time.
The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC (1995) is one of Cardew’s finest buildings, achieved with the support of intelligent and knowledgeable clients–the museum director and donors–a key factor in bringing off such an ambitious project. A powerful architectural concept rigorously carried through into supportive detailing produces one of the best small art galleries anywhere–a masterwork of Canadian architecture of the period.
In opposition to the norm, Cardew’s practice sets a challenging alternate example for young designers entering the profession at this key moment of major change. An unreconstructed but not hidebound Modernist, Cardew has continuously demonstrated imaginative ways to infuse classic Modernism with new ideas, keeping his work fresh and alive. Most architects are happy to have built a couple of outstanding projects through the course of their careers–Peter Cardew has more than half a dozen. The 2012 RAIC Gold Medal is well deserved. CA
Andrew Gruft is Professor Emeritus at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at UBC, the curator of several exhibitions, and the author of a number of publications on contemporary Canadian Architecture, including Substance over Spectacle, A Measure of Consensus, Idea into Form, and two books on the work of Patkau Architects.