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Paul Merrick was born and grew up in West Vancouver, remembering his Ambleside neighbourhood as a “real village,” and remarks on the multi-generational shops that are still there. His grandfather was an engineer on coastal ferries, his father an industrial arts teacher at West Vancouver High and his uncle ran the local gas station. Young Paul played in the surrounding forests, caddied at the Capilano Golf Club, and picked up the wood-working skills that still serve him today in his sailboat design and construction at his East Sooke workshop.
Paul Merrick faced a choice when applying to the University of British Columbia: “There’s not much room for imagination in engineering, so I choose architecture – it looked like more fun.” His natural abilities with freehand drawing served him well as a student, but his real education in design thinking came from one of the School of Architecture’s most charismatic professors. “Arthur Erickson had a Socratic teaching process,” Merrick says, “He showed these magnificent slides of his travels – he took us on mental journeys, talked about pace and place and light.” At the time, Erickson was designing the Filberg House in Comox – his first large house commission – and he shared the evolution of its design with Merrick and his classmates. After third year, he spent a summer working at Ron Thom’s office, working on the details of Massey College in Toronto. Upon graduation, Merrick faced a choice: “I had offers from two firms that were on very different wavelengths. You could say that Arthur Erickson’s office was FM, but Ron Thom’s was AM, and that is what I chose.”
Soon, Merrick was designing small wooden houses in the Westcoast idiom that was Thom’s hallmark. “It’s hard to know where one’s influences come from, but from an early age I had a strong empathy for an organic way of thinking,” he says of these designs. These tendencies are evident in the larger Sciences Complex and Library/ Bridge commissions he was given as part of Thom’s design of the Trent University campus in Ontario, which meet the technical needs of a contemporary university, but retain a sense of handmade tradition. Merrick says: “When Ron put his hand to something, a different kind of light emerged.” After a few years in Thom’s then-Toronto-based office, and some extended travels in Europe, Merrick returned to Vancouver.
For Thompson Berwick Pratt he designed the powerful Brutalist forms of the downtown Vancouver CBC studios, then was project architect for the very different interior renovation and lobby addition for the oncethreatened Orpheum Theatre, which won a Governor General’s Medal for architecture. Merrick designed a sublime house in the forest for his family in West Vancouver in 1972, then a few years later formed his own practice. The range of buildings completed since is remarkable, ranging from the Gothic touches of the UBC Alumni Medical Library at 12th and Heather to the assertive wood structure of the Day Lodge at the Callaghan Valley installations for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Merrick says that one of his most important techniques he used as he built his own architectural practice – which has grown to forty employees in offices in Victoria and Vancouver – is to constantly ask “What is the site asking of us?” He regards the current commission for Westbank on the Sewell Marina site to be one of the great challenges of his career. “Horseshoe Bay has the curious condition of the view being north, the sun to the south,” he says. A breakthrough came with memories of the rural English architecture he had toured with is family in the 1970s, with “buildings one room thick” being the perfect strategy he had sought for this confined site having the additional site conditions of steep forest on one side and harbour on the other. “During design development all the notions were there, but they got pumped up a bit, more texture came in,” says the architect of his Horseshoe Bay design, concluding: “Listen to the land, and it will tell you what it wants to be.”