- Gordon Atkins Architecture 1960-95
Most books on architecture feature the 'starchitects' of the big cities and their glamorous projects. So it is refreshing to read a biography of Alberta-based Gordon Atkins, whose oeuvre was as consistently good as his output was modest. This new monograph by fellow-architect Graham Livesey, published as part of University of Calgary Press's Art in Profile series, opens a door onto an 'informal prairie school' of the 1960s–1990s and gives an interesting retrospective portrait of an independent, determined man.
Asked to name an architect from the prairies, I would have said 'Douglas Cardinal' and thought of his Museum of Civilization in Hull and the organic, rooted quality of his buildings. Atkins sprang from the same soil but a different culture: a devout Mormon, he grew up in Cardston, Alberta, and received his architectural training at the University of Washington in Seattle. After graduation and a year working in Winnipeg, he returned to Alberta with the intention of settling in Edmonton. However, as he explained in a lengthy, incisive interview in 2001 with Michael McMordie and Keir Stuhlmiller (general editors of the Art in Profile series), he hated Edmonton at first sight and, without even unpacking his car, headed south with his wife to Calgary. The landscape of the southern Alberta foothills enchanted them and influenced his work thereafter.
He made his mark with residential commissions that reflected the 'need to provide secure and sheltering buildings,' ones married to the rolling landscape and the wind. Many have strong diagonals and starkly simplified shapes; they are more often dramatic than picturesque, and never pretty or cozy. He was the first Alberta architect to win a Massey Medal for architecture, in 1967, for a pair of summer houses in the Columbia Valley of British Columbia. As his practice grew he took on larger commissions: schools, a chapel, two major buildings for First Nations (one of which, the Stony Tribal Administration Building, won the Governor General's Award in 1982), and a dramatic, iconic building that turns out to be an athletic change pavilion in Calgary, which won him a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence in 1981.
The above-mentioned interview that forms the major part of the book's text gives a portrait of a young, ambitious man growing up in a small prairie town, and an extraordinary insight into what author Livesey characterizes as Atkins's 'pragmatic directness.' Atkins believed architects are interpreters, not creators, but he was obviously very forceful about doing a design his way, about not compromising in order to please a client. Although it evidently reduced the number of [End Page 443] commissions he had, he remained steadfast in his determination that the client dictated the program and the architect designed the building. It reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright, who so notoriously directed every detail of his clients' homes, but Atkins said in the interview that Wright was 'the person I would never have wanted inspiration from.' Livesey describes him as a 'challenging architect' to work with.
The book is a softcover, with colour photographs only on the inside front and back covers, and black-and-white reproductions throughout. The introduction by Livesey and the interview are followed by a review of Atkins's buildings in chronological order, presented with a few paragraphs of explanation and analysis. Unfortunately, or perhaps inevitably, his fine-line perspective drawings and plans begin to close up and lose detail with the severe reduction necessary to fit them on the page. Most of the photographs are of acceptable quality, and the projects are presented with enough visual detail, including floor plans, to give a good sense of what he was trying to achieve. But the question is left hanging as to whether he has had an influence that continues in the booming Alberta of today.