Tag Archives: Village Stroll

Eldon Beck Comes to Whistler

It is a commonly held belief that Whistler would be very different today if it were not for the influence of Eldon Beck.  Beck, a trained landscape architect from California, is often credited as the visionary behind the Whistler Village, which he began working on in 1978.

In 1972, Beck’s firm was hired by Vail, Colorado, to consult on a community master plan.  The plan aimed to resolve some of the community’s traffic issues and create a pedestrian-centred village.  From 1972 to 1978, Beck worked with Vail as their primary consultant, a time he described as forming the bulk of his early mountain planning experience.

Eldon Beck stands in the centre, discussing the Whistler Village with an unidentified group. Eldon Beck Collection.

By 1978, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) had spent three years discussing, consulting, planning, and working hard on a town centre to be built on what had been the dump.  The site and funding, from both the provincial and federal governments, were secured; the RMOW, however, did not yet have a final plan for the site.

Terry Minger, who had been the general manager of Vail and would become the president of the Whistler Village Land Company, introduced Beck and Al Raine, the provincial appointee to the Whistler municipal council.  Though Beck described the existing plans for the town centre as a grid plan “like a little city” which “felt like a mini-Vancouver,” there were parts of the council’s plans that excited him.  They wanted to build a pedestrian village (the early plans included a pedestrian spine that was intersected with vehicle crossings) with lots small enough that they could be bought and developed by local developers.  Beck was asked to come take a look and modify the plans, which he felt imposed a building plan on the natural environment rather than letting the land guide the plan.

The Whistler Village under construction, under Beck’s watchful eye. Eldon Beck Collection.

Beck first arrived in Whistler in September 1978.  According to him, his first impression of the area was not of the mountains but of being overwhelmed by the fragrance of the forest.  It was cloudy, as can often by the case in September, and Beck had to trust Raine when he “swore up and down there were mountains.”

The weather did clear up and Beck was able to gain an idea of the site’s natural surroundings, though the site was somewhat overgrown and some of the sightlines were hard to make out.  To get a good view of Fissile Peak, Beck decided to “elevate” himself, or climb as high up a tree as he could (he later claimed this blew Raine away and ensured he got the job).  As he remembered it, he was then taken to someone’s garage where he was introduced to the council and asked to come up with something for their next meeting.

Eldon Beck and Drew Meredith speak at the event on the development of Whistler Village in 2019.  Whistler Museum Collection.

In the foreward to Beck’s book Edges, Raine claimed that the Village Stroll and some of the buildings of the Whistler Village began to appear on Beck’s sketch book within the next 24 hours.  His plans were presented to council three days later and quickly endorsed.  What was supposed to have been a modification of the existing plans had become a wholly new design.

Beck’s visit to Whistler in 1978 was the first of many (he was most recently here last October, when he participated in a speaker event on the development of the Whistler Village) and the beginning of a longstanding relationship with a town he describes as “a happy place.”

Whistler Junction: The Village that Wasn’t

With Whistler Village now firmly established at the base of Whistler Mountain it’s hard to imagine the town centre anywhere else.  Whistler without Eldon Beck’s plans, the Village Stroll or Skier’s Plaza would be a very different experience for visitors and residents.

Before the Resort Municipality of Whistler was formed in 1975 there was already talk of creating a centralized commercial centre for the area, but opinions differed on where to locate it.  Both John Taylor and Norm Paterson believed the centre should be built on their own properties.

Jordan’s Lodge on the shores of Nita Lake, a potential site of the Whistler Village.

Taylor had bought the Jordan’s Lodge property (now Nita Lake Lodge) and proposed building the centre near the Creekside base of Whistler Mountain.  Norm Paterson and Capilano Highlands Ltd. had already developed much of Alpine Meadows and Emerald Estates and proposed building a central town site on the shores of Green Lake.

Paterson’s town centre was first announced in the Spring 1969 edition of Garibaldi’s Whistler News.  Five years later, on September 21, 1974 he and Tom Wells of Imperial Ventures shared their model with the public.  From their plans it is possible to imagine a very different Whistler.

A rendering of the pedestrian mall of Whistler Junction. In some ways the plans were similar to the Village we know today.

The development, called “Whistler Junction”, was to be located on Green Lake, bordered on one side by Highway 99 and on another by the railway tracks.  The entirety of the town centre would be located within the current site of Nicklaus North.  This plan had some similarities to the village we know today.  For example, it included shops, restaurants, plazas, cafes, hotels, commercial and civic buildings and multi-dwelling residential units, all accessible by foot.

Parking would be located on the edges of the development.  Some underground parking would also be located at the transportation terminal on the railway that would service both rail and bus passengers.  This terminal was to be connected to the shopping and residential areas via an overhead walkway.

The Whistler Junction train and bus station.

At their presentation the developers stressed that the natural setting would be disturbed as little as possible.  Wells pointed out that “as many trees as possible would be left standing” and that “the plan is drawn around these and the other natural features.”

With a lakeside location, it’s no surprise that water was to feature prominently in the design.  A lagoon and waterways were to be built into the site, not completely unlike the river that runs through Whistler Village.  A pier would be located at the lagoon and a boardwalk would be built along the shore of the lake.

The townsite master plan for Whistler Junction, showing the proposed lagoon, rivers and boardwalk along Green Lake.

Unfortunately for Paterson and Wells, the provincial government had frozen all commercial development in Whistler in 1973, a year before they unveiled their model.  In 1974 a report by James Gilmour of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs’ planning services department recommended a single town centre located on the central dump and a new form of municipal government.

When the Resort Municipality of Whistler was created, the new council supported a plan to build a town centre at the recommended site of today’s village.  Paterson, Taylor and other members of the Whistler Development Association continued to push for their own vision but the province ultimately approved the central location we see today.

Creating the Consummate Ski Village

Building on the post from two week’s ago which examined some of the key influences that informed landscape architect Eldon Beck’s design for Whistler Village, now we will delve deeper into some of the challenges and happy surprises that came to light during the actual construction of the village.

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As Beck recalls, though he had a lot of support and leeway in crafting an initial design true to his personal vision, getting it built was a different story.

Probably the biggest [challenge] was that the various designers with their projects, the architects, were used to doing stand-alone buildings… The requirement that they subordinate their individuality to the totality of the Village was really hard for many to comprehend. We’d set it up, and that’s why we required models. We wanted to see how the models would fit together. We’d get one model, stick it by another, you’d see it didn’t match. We’d talk with them and say, “Can’t you make your roof form fit, can’t you make this happen?” We lost all of those battles.

My first reaction when they were built was to walk around I got probably 40 or 50 slides of mistakes. So I took pictures of all these things that didn’t quite fit. A couple of years later I did the same thing and said, “Well those are really pretty nice.” It was almost the mistakes of not fitting that became human. It was more real and more human because of the imperfections rather than controlled perfection. It was interesting. I had to flip my mind around and say, “Oh, that’s kind of neat.” That really looks like [several] people did it instead of being totally controlled. But that was the big one. Their understanding that they were subordinate to the Village totality was hard for most designers to comprehend.

And so in his typically philosophical manner, Beck learned that relinquishing some control could actually enhance his vision.

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However, not all the unplanned changes pleased him. One notable concern he continues to raise is the impact of some of the larger buildings in the village:

I have not been consulted on any of those. I’ve been consulted on most new things in the Village, revisions within the Village… The problem with the big buildings, when they become vertical, they lose the relationship with the pedestrian level.

Independent-minded builders and excess verticality weren’t the only unforeseen challenges to attaining Beck’s vision. In late 1981, as the village was mid-construction, a massive recession brought much of the work in progress to a halt. Though the provincial government bailed out the village construction, the building environment changed substantially. As Beck recalls,

It is interesting ‘cause it was almost the opposite to the question on over-planning… The controls were eased thinking that by golly if someone can come in and build something, go right ahead. Don’t worry so much about the regulations. So as dearly as I love Al [Raine] and Nancy [Greene], I think that the roof form on their building [Nancy Greene Lodge] was absolutely wrong. And I think it was at that point the Carleton Lodge was built. And I think that violated one of the early premises that that was the town living room. In early plans it was a two-story building, low in profile, so that when you came up the street you could see the mountains. Instead it became a big old block at the end of the street. So the whole west side of Village Stroll I thought was pretty badly compromised by that period of time.

Still, Beck is very satisfied with the final outcome. We’ll conclude with some of Beck’s favourite aspects of the village, as recounted two decades after its initial construction:

Probably the thing that’s most consistent actually is the spatial framework, the pedestrian framework of the Village has really survived. It was organized around views, so as walk at the end of the place, you see a mountain. So the structure of the Village really grew out of that view. That has remained and I think that’s been the thing that’s made it really work very well.

I think Village Square is superb. The scale is right, the life is right, it really works. From there going back, Skier’s Approach to Village Commons, I think that’s probably one of the nicest sections in terms of scale… So I keep pointing back to that one section, saying that’s really what the objective was. I think Village Square is a magical place, it really works well.

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