The 2012 RAIC Gold Medal is being awarded to Peter Cardew, a Vancouver architect who has dedicated his career to realizing exceptional buildings for his clients through a careful approach to design that explores very seriously the architectural ideas of depth and circumstance. While Cardew’s work avoids rhetoric and pomposity, the world of architecture today is permeated by a global design culture that not only accepts, but encourages a superficial architecture fuelled by grandiose statements and flashy, high-resolution images accessed from the Internet. Cardew’s architecture serves as a veritable balm to this shallow condition where the “cool factor” caricatures buildings rather than allowing innovative spatial, material or contextual explorations. There is little room for whimsy in the work of Peter Cardew; he is an architect whose commissions prioritize program, site and structure over a modish material palette and promotional renderings of show-off buildings that are little more than–in Cardew’s own words–“decorated sheds.”

Since the establishment of the firm in 1980, Cardew’s small, low-profile practice has completed a modest number of consistently excellent buildings. He is living proof that it is still possible to maintain an office that places a high priority on architectural meaning and craft–priorities which require both thoughtfulness and an unhurried pace. His disciplined career path is marked by deeply personal experiences that have inspired the many talented individuals who have worked for him over the years. By his own admission, Cardew is not a brazen self-promoter, and this is a major reason why his portfolio tends not to include an abundance of conspicuously celebrated civic buildings. But it is not something he has consciously shied away from, as he has consistently pursued opportunities to design large-scale public buildings.

Cardew moved to Vancouver in the late 1960s and got a job with Rhone & Iredale Architects, where he had an opportunity to work with many of the finest emerging architects and some of the best projects of the 1970s. When he branched out on his own in 1980, he evolved as an architect during a transformative decade marked by Expo ’86–a significant turning point for the city which saw itself morph from a frontier town into an established city with a new generation of clients able to appreciate the sophistication of Cardew’s architecture.

In today’s world, the superficiality of slick imagery produced by even the most mediocre of architects can influence clients everywhere and make them believe in a certain architectural rhetoric. Consequently, many architects have established their own brand of polemical showmanship with the goal of wooing influential clients and landing tasty commissions. By contrast, Cardew isn’t dogmatic about his work. Throughout his entire career, he has steadfastly maintained a rigorous approach to the details and rationalism that reveal the intelligence of his architecture. There is much to learn from the work of Peter Cardew, an architect who has established his own well-ordered principles of architecture based upon the foundations of practice, knowledge and determination.

Ian Chodikoff