Paul Merrick
Noted West Coast architect Paul Merrick was responsible for the award-winning renovation of the Segal Graduate School of Business at SFU’s Vancouver campus. Fifteen of his original watercolours, created as part of the design process, are now on permanent display at the Granville Street building.

Paul Merrick: Putting people in the picture

August 15, 2007

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By Susan Jamieson-McLarnon

Merrick sidebar

Creating art and architecture

When Paul Merrick picks up his drawing pen the result is art, and architecture. His 15 original watercolour conceptual drawings for the exterior and interior of the refurbished Segal Graduate School of Business are now permanently displayed in the building. They played a large part in communicating his vision of the project to the local and national business community whose support was essential to its realization.

Merrick's drawings were graphite transferred to watercolour paper and hand-coloured by fellow architects, Ayrie Cunliffe and Bette Adams. "They have what I call 'Bette colours,'" says Merrick.
"It's a palette that is coastal British Columbia, the gentleness of the light, the blue greens, the beige grays. These are the colours used in the glass, the carpets and the wood." Architect Mitch Sakumoto used the images to prepare the detailed architectural drawings used for construction.
"One of the things I always do is put people in drawings because that is what buildings do, accommodate people."
By Susan Jamieson-McLarnon

Simon Fraser University received a wonderful gift from Joe Segal, its chancellor emeritus, and his family: the heritage Bank of Montreal building at the corner of Granville and Seymour in Vancouver.

Segal’s plan was to create a unique centre for graduate business education and research. And for that, the university turned to architect Paul Merrick, a master at combining heritage buildings and contemporary users.
Merrick was educated at UBC and worked in Toronto with the renowned Ron Thom on Expo 67 and at Trent University before returning to the West Coast. "I found that all through my practicing life when I went away I always had this yearning to be back on the coast. It may be the salt in the air."

Along with the university's commission came a set of the original 1915 plans. The next steps were research and ideas. "There are so many parts to put together on a project like this," he says.
"But it is interesting because you have the old fabric to work with. The building was a wonderful thing to respond to because it was so well done in the first place. It is a really good building. Well built, well detailed. It was a time when people took delight in drawing details."

Asked to describe his creative process, Merrick first recalls the words of Arthur Erickson. "It was Arthur, one of my early tutors who, in our second year, used to say 'Hold off presupposing anything for as long as you can. Don't leap to a solution until you understand the problem.' I've always thought that was good advice."
Merrick suggests that developing a vision for a project is not unlike the scientific process. Develop a hypothesis, understand the problem, the variables, and test it against the question. "If it stands up to those assessments it may endure" and be built.

"We spent quite a lot of time exploring what is generally called adaptive re-use, taking the historic building fabric and adapting it to a new circumstance. The building's defining feature is the grand temple hall. It was also the biggest single interesting challenge."

One of SFU's ambitions was to add space to what was already in the building. It was a challenge. It was important to work more useable area into the temple hall without compromising what was there. A balcony-like, mezzanine evolved providing classrooms and meeting space, leaving the huge windows unobstructed and preserving the exterior view. Other new space for policy rooms was created on the top level behind the facades and cornices. The rest of the planning flowed from there: two floors of offices, public spaces and meetings on the main floor, student meeting and study space at the vault level. It all seemed to work.  (see sidebar)

The City of Vancouver took considerable interest in the project, supporting the interior and exterior heritage restoration with a density bonus that translated in meaningful funds to the university.
"We restored the building, in the best sense of the word, to what was there in the first place," says Merrick. The colourful ceiling returned to the original architect, W.M. Sommerville's more restrained intention. Noted architectural historian, Don Luxton, unearthed the fact that black was the colour of choice for the exterior window frames.

Serendipity also entered the mix. The wood and marble stairs of the temple hall "were like an opportunity that was never realized in 1915," says Merrick." The space seemed to call for stairs and they were created. In architecture there is always another answer. There is always another way. Some might be better and some might not."

The Segal Graduate School of Business officially opened on May 5, 2006 and in its first year welcomed over 12,000 participants to university and community events.  Ann Cowan, executive director of SFU's Vancouver campus, worked closely with the Merrick team during the design and construction of the Segal School.  She says "there are many ways to do architecture. There is the person who does the obvious and then there is the person who does the thing that is not obvious and makes the obvious things more beautiful. I think that is the art in architecture. What matters is having that idea, at that moment, in that place and it fits perfectly. Thank you Paul Merrick."

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