TEXT Adele Weder
Peter Busby is one of our country’s major forces in the crusade for a paradigm shift in sustainable design. But making that happen is a formidable task, not for the faint of heart; in Busby’s case, he has pursued his goals with mercurial zeal. “When someone like Peter comes in to a firm like Perkins+Will, he can take over and shake everything on the tree,” says Martin Nielsen, a former principal at Busby Perkins+Will. “Like Steve Jobs, he’s an industry visionary with a ballsy persona.” It’s the kind of steely persona that’s handy–and possibly essential–for making an impact in a world of sclerotic conventions bound with red tape. This much is clear: on architecture’s battlefield, he is warlord.
Busby’s Vancouver ascent began in the mid-1980s in a small office on the southern periphery of downtown. Norm Shearing, who worked for Busby from 1985-87, recalls the Busby-designed office as “this jewel, a big sheet of glass with a steel cross-truss holding it in place,” nestled in a bleak stretch of Granville Street in a then-marginal neighbourhood. Its very presence bespoke Busby’s emerging value system, in which architecture should be a powerful presence everywhere and architects should be fearless. “It was a very clear statement of his architectural aesthetic and how it would knit into the existing urban fabric,” says Shearing, now president of Dockside Green. “It marked the direction he wanted to take the rm.” Shearing worked for him as his lone staffer, to be followed soon enough by Paul Bridger (his partner from 1986 until Bridger’s untimely death in 1995) and Jim Huffman, who has remained one of Busby’s foremost designers ever since.
Busby then began the process of negotiating his place in the design community. It is rarely easy for any young firm, but particularly treacherous for those firms stickhandling their way through the minefield of big-city real-estate forces. Shearing recalls Busby grappling with pressure from a developer-client who had cut corners to the point where Busby felt the building would no longer meet the requirements of the development permit. He walked away from the project, recalls Shearing, rather than compromise its architectural and ethical integrity.
Not every project has been so easy to walk away from, though, nor has the “right thing to do” always been so unambiguous. The first major project of his career, Vancouver’s Wall Centre tower, was also the most controversial. After construction commenced, the glazing turned out to be much darker than what the City of Vancouver believed it had agreed to as part of a complex negotiation for additional building height. Busby defended his role, and that of his client, but many of his colleagues believed he had deferred too much. To those familiar with the project, it was clear that in his client, Busby had encountered a personality even more forceful than his own–to his potential destruction.
The ensuing scandal temporarily threatened everything he had worked for, and darkened a moment that should have rightfully been nothing but glorious, his debut on the national stage as a major player. During this time, he projected the aura of a man defeated, or nearly so. As part of my interview for a National Post story on this subject, I relayed some of his peers’ armchair admonitions that he should have relinquished the Wall Centre project rather than condone any perceived sleight of hand (or sleight of eye). He was not defensive but wearily resigned: What purpose would it serve for him to walk away from the project, he replied, when there is so much left to do that only his firm could accomplish? It was a saga right out of Lord Weary’s Castle, with Busby grappling against the light or against the dark, depending on your perspective.
The resulting compromise of dark glass on the bottom third of the tower and light glass on the top two-thirds seemed like a Pyrrhic victory to some, a Solomonic decision to others. For Busby, it was Nietzschean: the Wall fiasco could have killed him professionally, but he survived it, and it made him stronger.
As with many great sagas, this one ended in great achievement with nobody much caring in the end who might have been the bad guy. The Wall Centre was a turning point not only in Busby’s own career but also in Vancouver’s urban identify. More than any other building of its time, it raised the shamefully low bar of architectural quality in fin-de-siècle Vancouver.
In a final bit of irony, the current city council recently acquiesced to the developer’s renewed insistence on dark glass, citing environmental reasons. But on the bright side, there is no turning back. From that point on and to the present day, with the vaunted Vancouver House (Bjarke Ingels Group with DIALOG) set to rise between the limbs of the Granville Street Bridge, the city learned that high-calibre design was something worth fighting for.
The fighter in Busby is well-known to admirers and detractors alike. His ferocious obsessiveness is the stuff of legend. A stint at his office is renowned as trial by re, wherein only the hardiest souls survive and thrive–be it there, or elsewhere. Former associate principal Brian Wakelin attributes Busby’s formidably tough manner with helping him develop his own skill set when it came time to start his own practice. “He would grill me, and force me to defend my approach,” recalls Wakelin, who worked with Busby and then Perkins+Will before leaving to establish his own rm, Public: Architecture + Communication. “Because of that, I developed a rock-solid process for every project.”
Busby’s sense of realpolitik prompted him to establish Designlines in 1987. At the time it was an unusual move: the incorporation of an industrial-design subsidiary within an architectural practice. Now such professional structures seem logical.
“He’s a very strategic thinker,” says Alfred Waugh, who partnered with him in 2001 to form Waugh Busby Architects, a side business to Busby + Associates Architects. “He’ll have a meeting before each [client] meeting to map out the give-and-take, figuring out how a client is going to react, what the cost issues are going to be and how we could propose to solve them.” Because many of his ambitions involve non-conventional and innovative approaches, Busby has developed a methodology that takes extra care to communicate the firm’s ideas.
Like Designlines, Waugh Busby Architects–conceived as a 51%- Aboriginal-owned firm with a view to pursuing First Nations work–was an innovation in a model of practice. The partnership, however, dissolved when Perkins+Will bought out Busby + Associates.
Though Busby’s forceful personality has occasionally ruffled feathers, some colleagues observe that he has evolved into a calmer, more relaxed soul in recent years. Perhaps with six Governor General and 13 Lieutenant Governor Awards, plus another 100-plus design honours, he no longer needs to prove his mettle. “He’s got the Order of Canada, he’s got the RAIC Gold Medal, nobody can take that away from him,” observes Shearing. When things are going his way, his grinning optimism and charisma energize a room. He donates time to public talks on green design and to unpaid community activities, such as the City of Vancouver’s FormShift urban density ideas competition. And he quietly contributes in other ways, such as helping establish the Vaughn Berg Memorial Prize at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture, in memory of a young graduate architect at the firm who succumbed to cancer; he also named a conference room at his Vancouver office in Berg’s name.
“It takes a while for him to develop trust in someone,” says Huffman, currently the design director at Perkins+Will Vancouver, “but once he does, that trust is forever.” Even those who felt compelled to get out of Busby’s looming shadow have few regrets about investing their formative years and gleaning the benefits of his audacious talents. “It’s been an absolutely incredible 15-year ride,” says Nielsen, now a principal at DIALOG. “Without Peter, it would have been like any other office.” CA
Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.