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Pivotal Design

TEXT Scott Watson

It is a pleasure to recall working with Peter Cardew on the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, which opened in June of 1995. We chose Peter for two reasons. Firstly, we liked his commitment to his Modernist ideas. In the early ’90s, Postmodernism’s sway had not quite yet expired. Peter exemplified the ethical, philosophical and political understanding of architecture that we call Modernism. Secondly, alone among the shortlisted candidates, Peter was prepared to talk about specific new gallery spaces he had visited and thought about.

The design process took over two years. The building design went through much iteration as Peter thought through the responses of the committee. He consistently managed to find eloquent and sensitive solutions to design requests that were sometimes not fully articulated. Peter was particularly adept at handling the bureaucratic process at UBC. The University was an especially difficult client in those days–it had decided on a kind of Brutalist Gothic in pinkish brick as its standard look for the Main Mall. Besides our own committee, Peter had to meet with another committee that rarely communicated with ours. It was this committee which had the power to give or withhold the final approval of the design and, as I recall, there was resistance. Among the many issues that arose at the final design stage was the roof (Why couldn’t it be flat? Wouldn’t that be cheaper?). I accompanied Peter once to the other committee where he was asked, as a challenge to the design’s supposed lack of a clear “façade,” to name a building without a façade as a precedent. Without hesitation he replied, “The Coliseum.” To the suggestion that some trees “hugging” the building might mitigate the severity of its elevations, he replied dryly, “Hugging?” Peter prevailed with unfailing charm, patience and level-headedness. He also had the support of the donor–Helen Belkin–for his design. That helped a great deal.

In the end, I can say that the building is a pleasure for those who work in it, exhibit in it, and visit it. Peter’s white glazed brick triumphed over the threat of pink brick because it tied the building to the nearby Lasserre and Buchanan Buildings, making a statement about the coherence of the Norman McKenzie Centre for Fine Arts.

Previously, the gallery had been housed in the basement of a (now demolished) wing of the University’s Main Library (now the Barber Learning Centre) where our offices were adjacent to the exhibition space. A window next to the entrance hall meant that we could monitor the gallery without a guard while we worked in our offices. We were always connected to the exhibition space and our visitors. Sometimes, we even conversed with them. Importantly, it was a way of watching our visitors interact with the exhibitions. Peter’s solution to this challenge was the overall openness of the interior of the Belkin Gallery, where the offices were located on an open mezzanine overlooking the gallery entrances.

The idea behind the main gallery was to make it not at all precious so that holes cut through walls or even in the cement floor could be repaired easily. Pivoting walls were basically configured in four ways–at least that was Peter’s instruction to us. He did not envision us using the pivoting walls diagonally. But after a while we did, and found that the space was even more flexible than he had initially planned. After 17 years and over 70 exhibitions, I can say that the pivoting walls function very well. Invariably, shows on tour look their best inside the Belkin. The gallery is a pliable and hardy instrument that can be adapted to many circumstances. It is a very convincing argument for the white cube. Importantly, the building is open to discovering new ways of using it.

Rather astonishingly, the Belkin Art Gallery was the only freestanding purpose-built art gallery in the Lower Mainland when it was constructed. It still is. CA

Scott Watson is the Director/Curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery and Head of the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia.

At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery on the UBC campus, a meticulously designed window appears to reach out toward the North Shore Mountains beyond. Peter Cardew Architects
At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery on the UBC campus, a meticulously designed window appears to reach out toward the North Shore Mountains beyond. Peter Cardew Architects
The intricately hung canopy of the Belkin Gallery. Peter Cardew Architects
The intricately hung canopy of the Belkin Gallery. Peter Cardew Architects
The interior of the gallery space. Timothy Hursley
The interior of the gallery space. Timothy Hursley
Exposed painted steel, grey brick and concrete comprise a sober material palette for the gallery building. Peter Cardew Architects
Exposed painted steel, grey brick and concrete comprise a sober material palette for the gallery building. Peter Cardew Architects
Kelly Wood's photography hangs on the ingenious pivoting walls of the gallery. Peter Cardew Architects
Kelly Wood’s photography hangs on the ingenious pivoting walls of the gallery. Peter Cardew Architects
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