No Ordinary Building

TEXT Greg Bellerby

In 1996, I had the opportunity to co-curate with Elizabeth Shotton an exhibition of the work of Peter Cardew at the Charles H. Scott Gallery at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. The exhibition was titled Ordinary Buildings, a reflection of Cardew’s belief that the essential buildings are the common buildings: schools, office buildings, houses and stores. The exhibition featured eight projects from a 20-year period, chosen to demonstrate the various building types Cardew had produced. These included the industrial (Lignum Offices and Forestry Centre, 1977/96), the educational (Stone Band School, 1992), the cultural (Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 1995), and the residential (False Creek Housing, 1980 and Odlum Live-Work Studios, 1996). All of them award-winning projects.

Cardew had definite ideas about how his work should be represented, the design of the exhibition, and the publication that accompanied it. For Cardew, the exhibition was not simply an exercise in self-promotion, but rather an opportunity to provide an analysis of the projects and the design process, and to examine the conceptual foundation of each project. The exhibition also addressed to a degree the problematic aspects of the architectural exhibition itself. To that end, the decision was made to not include photographs of the buildings, but instead rely on drawings and models alone. 

The main feature of the exhibition was a large conceptual drawing and a model of each building. The models often revealed only a portion of the project, acting as an aid to further understand the concept. Cardew refers to these as “investigations, made after the buildings are completed, of ideas critical to the formation of the building. They represent an analytical expression of what remains a largely intuitive design process, providing a clearer and more critical understanding of the development of architectural ideas.”

I think the exhibition accomplished two things: it represented Cardew’s work and the thoughtfulness and intelligence that go into the development of his projects; and it also challenged us as viewers to really look and comprehend how architecture is made. It allowed for a discourse not only on Cardew’s work, but on contemporary architecture in general. The exhibition opened in Vancouver and toured across Canada and to several cities in the United States, attesting to the respect Cardew has among his colleagues in Canada and elsewhere.

Since establishing his own practice in 1980, Cardew has produced a truly significant number of outstanding projects–most of which have won awards. His practice is typified by a refinement in his buildings and a design integrity that has been uncompromising. His work emerges from a thoughtful analysis of each project, its program, site and client’s needs, resulting in buildings that are often cited for their clarity, simplicity, elegance and quality. A major achievement has been the consistent quality of his work throughout his career, a result of his commitment to the higher goals of architecture, ones that can have a positive influence on the urban environment and individual lives. CA 

Greg Bellerby is the Director/Curator of the Charles H. Scott Gallery at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.