Role Model

TEXT Russell Acton

It was 1987 and I had just received a Bachelor of Architecture degree after absorbing five years of contemporary phenomenological architectural theory at Carleton University. My thesis sought to determine what the floor plan of Fred Flintstone’s ever-morphing house might look like. I was now set to enter the world of built architecture and Peter Cardew was the architect I wanted as a mentor.

At the time, Peter was operating as a sole practitioner. During my job interview, he matter-of-factly stated that he did all of the design in the office. My response was that I certainly hoped that to be the case as what would I know about designing buildings? Apparently satisfied, Peter offered me the job. I would begin work in a week, as soon as approval was received from a client to start a project.

Twenty-one weeks later, I was hired.

During that time, my life savings had run out and my world was topsy-turvy. I stayed up late into the night and slept in until noon. I wasn’t doing anything much more than checking in every week or so to see if Peter had received approval to start. Every time the answer was the same–just one more week!

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and I was offered a position with a prominent local firm. I was given until the next day to consider the offer and went home to think it over, only to find that Peter had left a message on my answering machine. “Could I start work tomorrow?” was the message.

So began my three-and-a-half-year odyssey with Peter, during which time I gained at least double the experience, absorbing lessons learned directly from the master: architecture need not reference other arts to have meaning; design is an ongoing process that never ends; concepts rooted in past projects find life and evolve in new ones; materials, products and systems must be thoroughly understood to realize their full potential; detail concrete to appear heavy and steel to appear light; no more than two pieces of steel should be joined at a single point when welding; treat contractors and tradespeople with respect. The lessons went on and on.

Peter is a very generous teacher. He is demanding yet patient. When I wasn’t sure how to resolve a particular detail, he would sit by my side, pencil in hand, and guide me through a process to achieve the desired result. Peter always explained what he was trying to achieve and why. He finds potential in every aspect of design, and in every type of ordinary building.

I left Peter’s office to pursue a longstanding goal of starting a practice of my own. Within one year I had achieved that goal. I like to think that Peter’s influence can be seen in my own work today.

Over the years, I have passed Peter’s design principles on to others, always letting them know that what I am passing on to them is what Peter passed on to me, not so long ago. 

Those 21 weeks were well worth the wait. CA

Russell Acton is a principal of Acton Ostry Architects in Vancouver.