Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An artist of the natural world

With terraces and granite sculptures, still ponds and cascading waters, Don Vaughan transforms the outdoors

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
Nov. 14, 2007

The workings of Don Vaughan's green thumb are everywhere around us.

If you have strolled the plazas of Expo 86, or tramped the winding waterfront walkways of David Lam Park on the same site; admired the placid ponds of Granville Island, or met a friend at the fountain at the University of Victoria; munched a sandwich in Park Place next to Christ Church Cathedral, or found peace at the Nitobe Memorial Garden; perambulated through Ambleside Park, or sunbathed at Sun Life Plaza; clumped in ski boots through Whistler Village, or sprawled on a lawn at Simon Fraser University; meditated at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden, or contemplated mortality at Ocean View Cemetery, you have been touched by a creation of one of the nation's most accomplished landscape architects.

Few know of him, and, worse, many of us barely acknowledge the planning that created the spaces of our everyday lives.

"People don't see the landscape," he said. "They just take it for granted."

It is the job of a landscape architect to marry aesthetics to functionality, soothing and inspiring a visitor while also handling so mundane a responsibility as drainage. (After all, no one appreciates a flooded pathway, or a muddy entrance.) When it works, as it does so often in his creations, you barely notice.

"Landscape is about space. You're in it," he said.

Mr. Vaughan turned 70 this year. A tall, lean man built like the rower he once was, his hair is white like the froth of churning water. Stray locks spill across his forehead. He has handed over the West Vancouver firm that carries his name to two sons, wading into semi-retirement as a consultant.

For more than 40 years, he has been contemplating the landscape of the University of Victoria, for which he will be awarded an honorary degree today. Mr. Vaughan's vision helped transform farmland and barren grounds into a verdant campus.

Inside the Ring Road, low-rise buildings no taller than the surrounding trees frame a central quadrangle, an open space friendly to pedestrians. It is edged by planted rows of pin oaks. At the library end, a fountain built with funds donated by former lieutenant-governor David Lam has become a meeting place. The fountain shows off the features favoured by Mr. Vaughan - terraces and granite sculptures, still ponds and cascading waters.

Not that anyone would notice, but the fountain is yet another of Mr. Vaughan's efforts to recapture an experience from his childhood, when he lived in Oregon along the Millicoma River on "a piece of land with this beautiful river running through it."

Mr. Vaughan was born into a lumber family based at Coos Bay, Ore. His grandfather owned a logging company. He refused to pay for his son's studies in architecture, so the lad financed his education by working as a longshoreman on the San Francisco dockyards during the Depression. He later returned home to start his own logging firm, where his sons worked in the summer when they were teenagers.

One day, both Vaughan boys were working on the mill pond when one fell off a log and into the drink, his caulk boots quickly filling with water. The other wielded a pike pole to fish him out of the pond. To this day, Denny thanks Don for saving him. Tragedy narrowly averted, the pair were put to work in the mill. . He retired as a rear admiral. "He had an affinity for the water," Don Vaughan says dryly.

Don Vaughan joined the naval reserve, hoping to become a fighter pilot, a dream dashed by hay fever. He wound up instead working on the signal bridge of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.

While aboard the carrier, he read a stack of secondhand magazines featuring the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The articles inspired him to enroll in architecture at the University of Oregon, where he was a member of the rowing team. He was racing to have his photograph taken with the rest of the crew at Dexter Reservoir when he flipped his MG sports car, breaking his back and crushing several bones.

Recuperating from the wreck took many months, interrupting his studies. He wound up in Australia working on a major government building in Canberra, a slow process that convinced him he lacked the patience to be an architect.

He graduated with a degree in landscape architecture in 1965, by which time he had come north to work on two striking projects - a university being built atop Burnaby Mountain, and another on the site of an old army camp just outside Victoria.

One of the more dramatic decisions he made at UVic came when he used an X-Acto knife to cut in half an architectural model made of Styrofoam. He then pulled the two pieces apart. "You create a space," he said. "Now it has a courtyard, an identity of its own."

A favourite project is the Sun Life Plaza at the corner of Thurlow and Melville Streets in downtown Vancouver. In the early 1980s, developers sought to build high-rise towers amid the setting of an urban garden.

Mr. Vaughan wanted to create an oasis in the city. He placed the seating areas below street level, separating pedestrians from traffic, the sound of falling water helping to mask the noise of passing vehicles while luring people into the bowl of brushed concrete. The setting seemed especially to work for the designer, who had long wished to create an urban space in which crowds could gather, yet a solitary figure would feel comfortable.

On one sunny day, he struck up a conversation with a woman in the plaza who was reading a book. She told him it was her favourite spot in the city. He then asked her what she thought of the person who had designed it.

"Never thought of it," she replied. "I just thought it happened."

The exchange seemed to capture his frustration with his profession. He wound up enrolling as a mature student at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design, where he earned a diploma in fine art in 1989. His graduating project was a series of granite cubes set in an artificial tide pool at water's edge at Ambleside Landing in West Vancouver. At least, he thought, people don't take sculpture for granted.

So, the next time you enjoy the reverie encouraged by one of his designs, take a moment to cast a grateful thanks to Mr. Vaughan, whose work is so good you can't even imagine it needed to be done.

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