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Eldon Beck: Nature as the textbook

click to enlarge Eldon Beck
  • Eldon Beck

The Whistler story is rife with bigger-than-life characters. From Myrtle Philip to Hugh Smythe, from Pat Carleton to Andree Janyk, the list of individuals whose hard work and dedication have contributed to the success of this place is impressive. But few have had a bigger impact on the way we live and play in this valley than Eldon Beck.

Hyperbole? Beaudry embellishment? I don’t think so. For nearly four decades, the California-based architect has been at the forefront of mountain resort design thinking. Combining equal parts soul, whimsy and a profound respect for nature, the soft-spoken Beck has successfully applied his mountain-town vision to projects around the globe. Yet for all his international acclaim, there’s one job that he’s still most intimately associated with: the master plan he created for Whistler’s original village back in 1978.

And he never tires of talking about the principles that animated that plan.

“Good mountain-town design is all about experiencing the senses,” explains the 73 year old. “Successful mountain communities celebrate their environment. They find ways of connecting with their natural surroundings — rather than trying to overwhelm it.” He pauses. Smiles — and I catch just a hint of an old-school elder in his bearded visage. “Nature is a great teacher,” he continues. “All the answers are there. And that’s formed the basis for what I’ve focused on all my life as an architect: How to create the ultimate connection between people and nature.”

Finding ways to nurture that connection, insists Beck, has never been more important than it is today. “What we’re seeing in modern culture,” he says, “is how much the impact of all our high-tech ‘stuff’ is drawing people away from nature. Mountain towns, by their very location, offer a relief valve from the intense technological pressures bearing down on city dwellers. The greatest value we can provide to these urban refugees is a natural setting not overwhelmed by city-inspired designs.”

Funny, isn’t it? Were it not for a fortuitous meeting between Beck and a few Whistler councillors, the pedestrian village that we now all take for granted might have never happened…

So how did an American landscape architect — a lecturer in urban planning at Berkeley, for goodness’ sake — ever get involved in a project in the great north woods of B.C.?

“We have to go back all the way to 1972,” he recounts, “That’s when the firm I was associated with was hired by the town of Vail to create a new valley-wide master plan.” In those days, he says, Vail was being clobbered by vehicular traffic. “The town manager was Terry Minger. And he was quite a visionary. He was one of the first in the country to understand that a mountain town like Vail couldn’t survive strictly as a winter resort. He knew, ultimately, that its success rested on how the resident community developed. And to do that, it had to become a people-friendly, four-season town. His solution was to transform Vail into a pedestrian village.”


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