Canadian Architect

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A Continuum of Work

2012 RAIC Gold Medallist Peter Cardew discusses the evolution of his career and his dedicated approach to architecture--but most importantly, the simple desire to continue making good buildings.

May 30, 2012
by Canadian Architect

INTERVIEWER Ian Chodikoff

How did your educational and early experiences working as an architect in England and Germany develop your approach to architecture?

I went through the traditional five-year program in architecture at the Kingston School of Art (which became the Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture at Kingston University). The school wanted us to take a year off after third year, so I decided to work in Germany. I was one of the first students from that school who decided to study abroad, and I got a job working for Max Becher who ran a very small firm in Stuttgart. Becher was more of an academic than a practitioner, but it was a terrific experience for me. There were four people in the office, and all of a sudden they received a commission for an exhibition pavilion. Although I didn’t speak a word of German, Becher asked me to supervise the project. Unlike today where everybody speaks English, very few Germans were able to speak English in those days. This forced me to draw so that I could effectively communicate with the contractors. In hindsight, this was a very important skill to learn. After finishing my studies, I made a conscious decision to work for relatively unknown firms. I felt as though I had my own architectural ideas but they weren’t fully developed so I wanted to work in firms that would allow me to design and, in essence, continue my education. 

After working for a couple of firms, you worked for the architect and artist Roman Halter in the UK. What made you finally decide to move to Canada?

Roman Halter had a small firm and he gave me a project to look after–a school for children with physical disabilities. I left for Canada before the school was actually finished. Halter was very supportive of me and let me do everything as long as I didn’t mess anything up. One design element of the school which I was particularly proud of was the treatment of the entry. School buses would back up to a 2’-6” platform and let the kids out onto the platform where they could take a ramp down into the school–this was before there were loading platforms or specialized buses to facilitate the unloading of disabled children. For the sake of the kids’ dignity, I suggested that everybody should go down that ramp so that the able-bodied would have to walk up a few steps before entering the school with everyone else. I had a lot of arguments with that design but I eventually won out. After about a year, Halter offered me a partnership which would mean a major commitment to the firm. I was 25 years old and I felt as though I hadn’t explored enough architecturally. My excuse was that I wanted to travel for awhile; my ultimate destination was Australia, but I never made it there. My mother lived in New York at the time, and I went there first before moving on to Vancouver where I had a few friends, and I’ve never left.

After getting a job working at Rhone & Iredale, how did Bill Rhone and Rand Iredale influence your architecture?

Rhone & Iredale was a unique working environment where they encouraged their project managers to run everything. That’s not to say they weren’t interested in the design, but they saw their role as mentors. The firm had weekly office-wide design panels. Almost every project was presented and the review sessions could be quite vicious. Rhone and Iredale were great admirers of Caudill Rowlett Scott (CRS), a firm based out of Houston, Texas. CRS was a similar architecture firm to Rhone & Iredale; Caudill established all kinds of systems and Rand Iredale was also a big fan of systems. He brought in one of the first computer systems in Vancouver. Rhone & Iredale was a terrific firm that had some very good people working for them–Richard Henriquez. Peter Busby, Terry Williams and others.

This critical mass of people working for the firm at that time must have shored up your attitudes about design and rational structuralism with buildings like the Crown Life office tower. Can you discuss these big important commissions and maybe why you made a decision to not work on large projects such as these after you left Rhone & Iredale?

You give me too much credit about making such conscious decisions! When you get into this business, you often take what you can get. I’ve never been a great promoter of my work. As for the Crown Life building, Bill Rhone was in charge of that building and we basically got the commission because of the Westcoast Transmission building that preceded it. There is no way that you can build these kinds of buildings today. The whole culture has changed. Firstly, there are no head-office buildings in Vancouver anymore, so you end up dealing with a junior vice-president instead of clients like Frank McMahon who owned the Westcoast Transmission Company. According to Rhone, McMahon looked at the presentation model for five minutes before saying, “OK, build it!”

How has your attitude about architecture changed over the course of your career?

I’ve never separated building types when I design buildings. You are always dealing with people issues. Take the Lignum Sawmill as an example. I got that commission through somebody that I knew. The owner of the company was John (Jake) Kerr and through our professional relationship, he later gave me the second phase to design when I had my own office. For the townhouses at False Creek, this was a project that I completed as a first-time developer. The City of Vancouver basically said, “If anybody wants land, come and apply for it.” Ron Pears (who later went on to establish Aldrich Pears) and I went to the City for the land while we were still working together at Rhone & Iredale. We raised the money and enjoyed a terrific experience with the project, which changed my ideas about what architecture can accomplish. What did all of this teach me specifically? I look at life as a kind of continuum and treat every project the same way–an opportunity to do good work. 

On the subject of clients, can you talk about what happened during Expo ’86–a pivotal and exciting moment in Vancouver’s history that brought a lot of urban development and ambition to the city?

Expo ’86 was a more adventurous time. When I was asked to design the CN Pavilion for Expo, the client didn’t know what the exhibit would look like so I suggested that we take our inspiration from the great European railway terminals. If you build a great structure that can accommodate anything underneath, then you don’t have to worry about waiting for the exhibit designers to design the exhibition. Vancouver today is a much more timid city, and a less adventurous one. You wouldn’t think so when you look at the buildings today, but I believe this might just be a part of growing up from a frontier town into a more established business city.

Do you still think of Vancouver as a frontier town today?

I don’t think so but sometimes I regret its transformation. Individuals like Frank McMahon were definitely part of that frontier-town attitude. Those clients are simply not around anymore. When Jake Kerr first took me up to the site at Williams Lake, we rode on a Greyhound bus. By the time I was hired to design the last phase of Lignum, we flew in his private jet. There is definitely less risk-taking today but that’s true within the entire profession of architecture. With less risk-taking, architects end up producing show-off buildings that are really just decorated sheds. I don’t think that people are asking fundamental questions about buildings anymore. I really appreciate buildings like the Seattle Public Library (designed by OMA), but I don’t think that it is a great advancement in architecture. On the other hand, James Stirling’s Faculty of H
istory building at the University of Cambridge represents a real curiosity that examines how this building type can actually evolve. I recently went to a lecture given by Winy Maas of MVRDV and another one delivered by Bjarke Ingels of BIG; I don’t think that there is any question that architects used to be more serious. It’s all very superficial today.

If there is one building that you are known for, it would be the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Has this building met your own personal expectations of success?

We were lucky enough to get this job. I can’t say that I worked any harder on this project than any other because I work hard at all of my projects. The success of this building was a matter of finding the essence of the architectural meaning behind the program. The initial program was based on precedent. When they saw that the three separate spaces they wanted couldn’t be built with the budget that founding director Scott Watson had in mind, we had to develop an alternative strategy. This is where the idea for the pivoting walls came into being–you could have one big space with different spatial configurations within it. Another issue was the eventual removal of a large lobby. At a university gallery, there are never enough people arriving at once to merit a large lobby, so you can basically eliminate that space from the program. The success of the Belkin is built upon rethinking what a facility like this could be rather than just adopting the initial program and designing a building around it.

You have had many interesting people work for you over the years–people like Russell Acton, Marc Boutin and Beth Shotton, who have since moved on to establish their own successful careers. How do you see your role as a mentor?

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen myself as a mentor. I just try to hire good people with common goals. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve become older, but I still learn from younger people too. Our office is currently comprised of five people. Eight is the maximum that we’ll ever have. When my office grew to 10 people, I simply became a bad manager. 

You have often had a strong opinion about representing your work in drawings and models.

I love to draw. The drawings that most people see are ones you do in the beginning. These are usually schematic and fictional. The drawings that I enjoy doing come after the project has been built.

Can you describe the relationships that you’ve built up with contractors over the years–key individuals that have helped you realize the construction of your architectural ideas?

I wish we could have that luxury. Often, we must deal with the guy who presents the lowest bid. We have certain sub-trades that we like to use and that I try to steer toward the general contractor. For example, we are currently using Structurecraft Builders to design the roof for the Calgary Folk Music Festival. Nobody else has the ability to design and manufacture a roof of this kind. I’ve personally toyed with the idea of starting up my own construction company similar to the way the structural engineering company of Fast+Epp established Structurecraft.

Who influences your work?

I was recently in Switzerland to look at some of Peter Zumthor’s buildings–work that I admire for its craft and workmanship. I am typically more interested in the work of smaller practices around the world and these are the projects that I like to visit and explore. In Canada, I greatly admire the work of John and Patricia Patkau. As a student it was James Stirling–if I ever had a hero it would be him. When the Canadian Centre for Architecture bought his archive, I arranged to go to Montreal to see the collection. I had a wonderful few days where they gave me complete access to the archives. It was fabulous. They gave me a pair of white gloves and said, “Go to it!” For somebody who has seen his drawings as a kid in school, this was a fantastic time. 

You talk about your own life as a continuum. Do you have any unfinished business to deal with in your practice? 

I have some ideas as to what it should be. I just want to keep on designing good buildings. CA




Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

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