Peter Cardew took pride in designing “ordinary buildings” – whether an office tower, school, sawmill or house – with an inventive brilliance that often redefined their generic paradigms. Not one to seek the limelight, the Vancouver-based architect was famous among his peers, though less well known to the public. Yet his influence on contemporary Canadian design culture – particularly on the West Coast, where most of his built work stands – is considerable. “He was the architect’s architect,” says Vancouver architect and close friend Gair Williamson, echoing a sobriquet used by many of his colleagues. “We all looked up to him.”
Over his long career, that ethos secured Mr. Cardew’s place in the top tier of Canadian architects. His many honours include a 1996 retrospective of his drawings, appropriately titled Ordinary Buildings, which travelled across the country, and the 2012 Royal Architectural Association of Canada Gold Medal – the profession’s highest honour. When Mr. Cardew died on Oct. 26 at the age of 81, architects across the country and beyond mourned the loss of a powerful force of their profession.
Peter John Alexander Cardew was born in Guildford, England, on Aug. 6, 1939, and grew up in a world fractured by war and uncertainty. His father, an officer with the Royal Air Force, died in 1941 when his Spitfire was shot down in the Second World War. Soon afterward, his mother sent her young son to live at a British boarding school. The disciplined setting offered him the structure, intellectual rigour and sense of independence that he craved, and which would mark his character and his work for the rest of his life.
Mr. Cardew studied architecture in London at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University), graduating in 1964. His first project – a building in Kent for people with disabilities – honed his appreciation of universal accessibility.
He then spent a formative year in Stuttgart, Germany, working for architect Max Bacher, before moving back to London with the intention of setting up a practice there. His plans changed one evening when he met his future wife, Carol Ringwood, a young woman from British Columbia, and travelled with her back to Canada. In 1966, the couple married and settled in Vancouver. They later welcomed a daughter, Savannah, before eventually separating.
In his newly adopted city, Mr. Cardew joined Rhone & Iredale Architects and quickly established himself as a rising star, bringing a new spatial sensibility to conventional rectangular forms. Strongly informed by the works of the British architect James Stirling, in 1978 Mr. Cardew completed his first true masterpiece: Crown Life Plaza, the office tower that marks the visual gateway to downtown Vancouver. Now known simply by its street address, 1500 West Georgia, the triangular high-rise stands on slender columns and a pedestal-like concrete base, set off by a reflecting pool and short waterfall that connects it to the street.
Soon after completing Crown Life Plaza, Mr. Cardew left Rhone & Iredale to start his own firm, and garnered acclaim for smaller-scale but highly innovative buildings. Among them are the 1980 False Creek Rowhouses, whose party walls are designed to multitask as structural supports, privacy screens and acoustic buffers; and 1992 Stone Band School in the Chilcotin, part of a now-shelved federal initiative to provide culturally meaningful schools for Indigenous communities.
He gained renown as a fiercely independent spirit in a profession that is constrained by market and client demands. He kept his Vancouver studio small, often just himself and one associate, which allowed him complete control of the design work, albeit at the cost of building a more lucrative practice. His penchant for hand-drawing and endless hand-revisions, as well as his predilection for deep dives into a site’s cultural history, also kept his output artisanal rather than prolific.
One of Mr. Cardew’s most renowned and beloved buildings is the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, which opened in 1994. The project received the RAIC Governor-General’s and Lieutenant-Governor’s awards, and affirmed Mr. Cardew’s place in the top tier of the country’s architects. The Belkin Gallery enraptured artist-designer Martha Sturdy, who then enlisted Mr. Cardew to design her own landmark West Vancouver home on a precipitous hillside.
He often found ingenious new ways to design on highly constrained sites. His 1999 Odlum Drive live-work studios in East Vancouver created four homes and an interior courtyard, out of one single-family lot. His 2005 Stein Medical Clinic transformed a leftover triangular fragment of a new office tower’s ground-floor space into a serenely efficient and beautiful facility. And his recent conceptual proposal to transform the Vancouver Art Gallery on its current site rekindles new sparks of enthusiasm every time his four-minute video presentation is shared on social media.
Whether as chair of Vancouver’s Urban Design Panel, or on various juries and advisory councils, or with lofty clients or powerful colleagues or close friends, Mr. Cardew spoke with unabashed candour. He disdained what he saw as the current penchant for architectural novelty and new construction merely for the sake of “newness.”
“When people talk about sustainability, they are usually referring to new architecture,” he asserted in a Dwell magazine cover story about one of his renovation projects. “But when you figure that most of the energy that goes into a building comes from the one-time act of construction, you are already ahead when you can keep a building rather than demolish it.”
Mr. Cardew hired and mentored emerging talents such as Russell Acton, whose firm Acton Ostry Architects is now a powerful force in the national architecture community; and David Scott, co-winner with Susan Scott of the RAIC Young Architect Award and recipient of many other accolades. Both credit him for grounding them in the principles of design excellence.
He also inspired legions of students at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) at the University of British Columbia, where he taught part-time for 20 years. “Peter Cardew was an extraordinary man,” SALA director Ron Kellett said. “The architecture he leaves for us is exceptional: beautiful, astute, confident, focused and articulate at every scale.”
Mr. Cardew leaves his daughter, Dr. Savannah Cardew.