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  • PM: an admirable legacy


    Gene Miller

    Victoria owes a debt to architect Paul Merrick for showing what can be done.

     

    THE BIGGEST PROBLEM WITH PRAISE at your funeral is that it comes too late to savour; and besides, regardless whether you’re headed heaven or hellward, the celestial hosannas or the screams of the damned block out other sound. 

    But what about legacy? 

    Legend and $3.50 buys you a latté.

    So, while the guy is still vertical, I want to bring (my) overdue praise to an under-sung local hero, Victoria’s extraordinary architect Paul Merrick. I’d like to shape that praise around his two most conspicuous (but by no means only) Victoria accomplishments: Shoal Point, set on the Inner Harbour’s welcoming southern arm, and Sussex Place, the romantic, art deco-influenced, skyscraper-esque tower behind the original Sussex Hotel façade at Douglas and Broughton.

    Have you ever seen Merrick? He’s a slim man, now in his eighties. There’s less Merrick than there is space around him, and he’s thin enough that, caught in the planes of life, he could just wink out, vanish.

     

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    Architect Paul Merrick

     

    From the Merrick website I find not “We sell the best and service the rest” but some ruminative content beneath the unusual and revealing heading, “Philosophy.” It states in part:

    Community, humanity, culture, history, sustainable future: together, these principles embody the collective spirit and values of Merrick Architecture…we provoke design solutions of lasting substance…it’s about respecting people and our planet—contextual-design architecture that acknowledges its surroundings…architecture embodies the continuum of the human race and what we aspire to…carry the aspirations of ‘craft’ forward…respecting the efforts of all those who have come before….

    Gosh! 

    I’m especially interested in the idea of context. In architectural culture, it’s a strangely egoless word, free of celebrity and starchitecture. It suggests subordination, an ability to still inner professional noise so as to be aware of continuity: in other words, that places embody stories that must be renewed, even amplified, by architectural means. Some people find such ideas constraining; I sense it leaves plenty of room for novelty.

    I think there’s a cliché in our culture that sees the architect (or certain forms of architectural expression) as hero, a noble warrier engaged in some battle against coarse materiality, extracting meaning from indifferent nature itself and bringing forth some great and liberating design.  

    Perhaps in the grip of such thinking, critics of his work, in and out of the architectural profession, fault Merrick for a lack of innovation, a rejection of cutting-edge design, a scarcity of bold new blah blah. I chalk all such criticism up to intellectual adolescence and the confusion of novelty with creativity. I sense in Shoal Point and Sussex Place, and other Merrick projects, enormous creative rigour and control.

    Here is a landside perspective of Shoal Point, the sizable residential project beside the Inner Harbour, undertaken by the innovative, intellectually restless, now-deceased developer David Butterfield. 

     

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    Below the Shoal Point image is a photo of a hillside covered organically with a climbing skin of homes in Guanajuato, Mexico. In one case the contour is exploited; in the other, manufactured; still, the two seem to share an idea. The  building is softened by decoration and detailing (I encourage you to trespass), and by its highly articulated roofline. Shoal Point climbs with terrace-work and a large number of greenhouse-like toppings that soften the building’s significant volume.

     And here is Shoal Point’s harbour-side presentation:

     

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    The Sussex Hotel, on Douglas at Broughton, was in its day a respected residential hotel designed in the art deco style, in the 1930s, by architect Studley Birley. Times and trends change and the hotel eventually outlived its utility. The city was eager to have the historic façade preserved in a redevelopment, and Merrick’s response was to retain the frontage and turn much of the building’s former internal volume into a forecourt for a new office tower designed in an Empire State Building-esque style. The tower is a mere 11 storeys, but manages to feel much taller and to convey a sense of aspiration and machine-age optimism. 

    The Merrick website states: 

    The design was developed to respect and augment the historic 1930’s facade of the Sussex Hotel, The practice worked in close collaboration with the client, public, and Victoria’s City Council to achieve the rezoning. The process proved rewarding to all parties involved and has resulted in what has been described as a benchmark for creative and appropriate design in downtown Victoria.

     

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    And here is another whose name and city are well known to you:

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    Thinking about a streetscape intervention like the Sussex, I’m taken by Robert Jawl’s contention (I paraphrase) that if a developer hasn’t provided for a building’s beauty or design appeal, then he hasn’t met the project’s budget requirements. Many developers act as if the funds needed to make a building attractive are not a project condition, but money stolen out of their pockets. This grudging attitude impacts and compromises Victoria’s urban design culture by setting the bar low and forcing the city to settle for crumbs when it should be demanding jewels.

    Oops! There I go again, on my favourite rant; but let me work my way back to Merrick and to contextual design with this thought: Shoal Point and Sussex Place were not conceits or vanity projects. Each was a business initiative, yet each provided generous room in the budget for Merrick’s extraordinary architectural expression. 

    Other projects benefitting from Merrick’s involvement include Swallow’s Landing, The Cityplace, the Janion, and Aria,  plus a host on the mainland.

    Victoria owes a debt to Merrick for showing what can be done—buildings beautiful on their own terms and as a standard for others to reach for. Think of Merrick not just as an architectural artist, but also a serum injected into the city’s blood stream.

    Could you have too much of that here?

    Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.


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    Kudos to Gene Miller for sounding a deserving fanfare tribute to Paul Merrick and his firm's work - which is even more complex and expansive than covered.

    In Vancouver, Merrick and Associates authored the renovation of Vancouver's headquarters BC Electric tower - now a condo known as the 'Electra”. Additionally they executed an impressive PoMo replacement for the art deco Georgia Medical Building across from the Hotel Vancouver: 'Cathedral Place’. A number of carefully-articulated apartment buildings were added to Vancouver's West End in the 80s and 90s, combining architectural conservation with new design. and more elaborately detailed urban projects, later near the high-rise Yaletown district, including 'the Elan' and 'the Dolche’. 
    Additionally, Paul's legacy Vancouver office, as the locally-associated architectural firm, is currently helping complete a very adventurous new office tower at Georgia and Howe.
     
    Projects which creatively help conserve and sympathetically add to historic architecture, such as Merrick has often done so well, obviously should be a speciality for urbanism in Victoria.
     
    Chris Gower
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