Eldon Beck: The Brains behind Whistler Village

When Whistler Mountain entered the ski scene during the winter of 1965-66 it was a pretty big deal, but is was still “just” a ski hill. It wasn’t until the 1980s, once Blackcomb had opened and Whistler Village had been constructed that Whistler’s trajectory to international mega-resort was set.

Eldon Beck, an American landscape architect who had made a name for himself working at Vail, Colorado, was the village’s design mastermind, and the Museum has a bunch of photographs and a 2005 oral history with Beck which give some cool insights into this seminal period.

With local developers and the provincial government recognizing that the Whistler Valley had the potential to completely revolutionize the ski world, the Resort Municipality of Whistler was established in 1975, the first “Resort Municipality” in Canada. By this point, plans were already underway for the construction of ski lifts on Blackcomb and a centrally located, purpose-built village to service the twin ski hills.

Designs were solicited, but they left much to be desired, so in the summer of 1978 Al Raine visited Beck in Vail for some outside input:

Eldon Beck back in Whistler, 2005.

Al came to town and described what they were doing at Whistler, and I’d never heard of Whistler. So Al pulled the [existing Whistler Village] plan out and said, “You know, something’s not right with this. Could you take a look at it?” … It was basically a little grid plan. It was like a little city, and a lot of the images felt like a mini-Vancouver… there were major roadways crossing from one side of the Village to the other. There was a pedestrian [spine], but it had these really very heavy duty auto crossings over it. So you can kind of imagine both cars and people running together at critical locations… The land always tells you what to do. In this case, there was a plan imposed upon that. That was the major problem.

Beck’s initial comments were intriguing enough to earn an invite to Whistler to help amend the designs. During this initial visit Beck spent a lot of time walking around, getting to know the lay of the land and paying close attention to sight-lines. At one point Beck climbed to the top of a spruce tree and recognized the potential for a clear view of Fissile Mountain if the Village Gate was designed just right (thanks Eldon!). Later that day he reconvened with the resort development bigwigs in their corporate office:

I don’t know whose garage it was, but we went into a garage, and the Council was there and they were kind of all gathered around and we said hello and shook hands. This was a Saturday morning and they said, “We have a meeting tomorrow at two. Could you have something for us at two.” And I said, “Of course.”…

What I found in a lot of my design process, I kind of load my brain up and then I sleep on it. So at about four in the morning I woke up and I could really see it pretty clearly. So I got up and basically drew the plan and we worked on it then during the morning, but we had it ready for the two o’clock meeting, and presented it. And they all said, “Hey, that’s what we want to do.” It was supposed to have been a modification of the existing plan, [but] it really became pretty apparent that that was not the way to do it.

And so the Village design adopted a completely new course, following Beck’s lead.

This early sketch shows the attention to detail and 3-dimensional layout that went into Beck’s designs.

From these initial sketches further details were hammered out.

Beck (at centre) was hired on to oversee the project’s construction through 1979 & 1980. Village Square, behind the group pictured here, turned out to be Beck’s favourite part of the completed village.

Beck was initially frustrated by the lack of control he was given with the details of individual buildings, but over time, came to appreciate what he had initially considered to be “dozens of mistakes and imperfections.”  The end result was sufficient to have him called back years later to oversee the design of Village North, Main Street and Blackcomb Village as well.

What are your thoughts? Is the Village a masterpiece or glorified mall? Does the consistency of design lead to a comforting or contrived feel?

9 responses to “Eldon Beck: The Brains behind Whistler Village

  1. Sensitivity to “place” and the artful use of sight-lines to maximize the villagers experience of the mountains all must contribute in a big way to the success of the village. Surely, any negative sense of the architecture having been “contrived” will be far outweighed by the “sense of place” provided by a unique architectural style?

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