Craft Work

TEXT Elizabeth Shotton

The extensive publication record in the international press on the work of Peter Cardew, starting from the very earliest mention in Deutsche Bauzeitung in 1962 where architect Max Bacher graciously gives his youthful intern Cardew full credit for the design of an exhibition pavilion in Stuttgart, attests to a significant record of achievement in the past 50 years. A showcase of this body of work, Drawing Conclusions, sponsored by the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 2010, is but the most recent of many exhibitions and lectures given in both public and academic venues, further evidence of the high regard held for the work. Yet, though this is a testament to the scope of recognition Cardew has achieved over the span of his career to date, the true achievement lies in the approach to the work itself, and it is this that will have an immeasurable and lasting impact on our profession. Spanning across all scales, from the iconic Crown Life Plaza undertaken while a partner with Rhone & Iredale in the 1970s, to the small but precise prefabricated Lach Klan Industrial Arts Shop of the late 1980s, and the skillful adaptation of a postwar split-level bungalow in West Vancouver in 2007, the work is pursued with equal passion, integrity and precision regardless of budget or locale. David Scott, an associate with the firm, describes Cardew’s approach to architecture as founded on a “belief that all who use the buildings should be treated with dignity and respect and that all buildings are crafted to the highest level achievable regardless of the informality of its use or the banality of its material.” Dignity, respect and craft are fundamental in both the work and the process, offering our profession an inspirational paradigm for architectural practice.

Peter G. Rowe, in his treatise Civic Realism, describes a good civic work to be dependent not only on the manifestation of the familiar, the pluralistic and the critical, but is also “inextricably bound up with the continual advancement of the expressive means by which it is made and elaborated.” The strength of Cardew’s work on purely urban grounds–the resonance each project develops with the given environment through a profound understanding of the social and cultural aspirations of the communities it both serves and neighbours–is undeniable. But just as apparent throughout the portfolio is an indelible trace of material and structural imperatives, which seem to inform the work in equal measure to his very evident social objectives. So to view this body of work in an isolated fashion from a theoretical construct regarding society or from an equally isolated position of the relevance of making to design is to fail to grasp the totality of the work. The two forums, that of social theory and that of making, are here inexorably linked and interdependent–a truly civic body of work.

Cardew’s convictions regarding dignity are manifest in his earliest work after graduation while working for Roman Halter, on a rehabilitation school for disabled children in Kent in which the dignity of the children was considered of foremost importance. Cardew’s intention in the design was “that the ramp provided a heightened experience of privileged entry comparable to that of formal steps rising to the entry to Victorian civic buildings,” thus neutralizing any perceived difference between the able-bodied and the less able. Similar in approach is his work on the original Lignum Offices in Williams Lake, where the desire to reinforce the understanding of common endeavour among all of its employees, whether administrative or mill worker, led to the attenuation of the small program across the site, enlarging the scope of the building’s influence well beyond its small footprint and, more critically, signalling the co-dependent nature of the workers regardless of position. The architectural approach in these early projects resonates again in the much later Belkin Gallery, where there is an insistent equality to the treatment of what would normally be considered front and back of house–an abolishment of differential treatment without resorting to the unilateral sameness which inflicts most projects that reject hierarchy–thereby creating a project with the capacity to draw the surrounding spaces, buildings and communities into a cohesive dialogue with equal dignity. 

The craft of making has been just as critical to the work, evident in the fine detailing of each project. But less recognized is the exploration and ambition in the design of structure and use of materials. The early Lignum project, undertaken with CY Loh as structural engineer, broke new ground in the fabrication of curved plywood box beams, as recorded in Wood World. This tradition was continued on the recent Calgary Folk Festival Hall, designed in concert with Gerry Epp of Fast & Epp Structural Engineers, in which conventional joinery techniques were evolved in the three-dimensional roof trusses. This is architectural research at its best; the development of new ideas and technologies, which are tested through construction. The collaborative design process that exists between Cardew and his colleagues in related disciplines accounts for the success of these endeavours and, though a rare phenomenon within our profession, offers an encouraging model of practice. This form of invention is also pursued at more intimate scales in the design of furniture–a long-term preoccupation for Cardew, which had on occasion surfaced in the public realm (RE POSE Folding Chair), but has more recently been formalized in a collaboration with a Vancouver furniture maker, 18KARAT.

Equally significant is the range of influence Cardew’s approach to architecture has had, as it spans across the profession, academia and the larger public realm by virtue of the breadth of Cardew’s participation in the community. His long-term and enduring tenure as an educator and mentor of young architects across the Americas and Europe will continue to have a lasting impact on the profession of architecture on an international scale. His patience, articulate guidance and generosity have shaped many young architects, mentored through several decades, enriching the profession through the continuation of the ideals of dignity, respect and craft in new practices. In tandem with the generous amount of time and effort Cardew has given to the education, he has also contributed invaluable time and insight to the wider Vancouver community, in particular through his many years of service as the Chair of the Urban Design Panel, a role for which he is well remembered and highly regarded.

There are few architects capable of sustaining a career the length of Cardew’s with as much integrity to principles, attention to clients, and care in every detail. Even rarer then to find one gifted enough to span the range between furniture design, architecture and urban design with equal sophistication, or to transcend the boundaries between practice, education and public advocacy with ease. There is no doubt that Peter Cardew satisfies all the criteria for an RAIC Gold Medal, offering an alternative vision of leadership in our profession. CA

Elizabeth Shotton is a lecturer at the School of Architecture, Landscape & Civil Engineering, University College Dublin.