Our Campus: UBC’s campus is Gerry McGeough’s canvas

It’s been said that architecture is a form of art that we can’t ignore. The buildings that we inhabit and the structure of our communities undoubtedly influence the ways in which we interact, learn and live. This can certainly be said for UBC’s campus, which, despite being seemingly ridden with endless construction, is a hidden Mecca for strategic design and community planning that aims to unite students and faculty alike.

Although you may not recognize him by name, if you’ve ever stepped foot on any of UBC’s three campuses, you’ve taken in the art of Gerry McGeough. As UBC’s chief architect and Director of Planning and Design, McGeough has spearheaded the vision behind UBC’s structural design and community planning.

Originally from Calgary, McGeough began studying architecture at McGill University after he was inspired by the historical complexities embedded within the architecture of the European cities he visited while travelling through Europe when he was 18 years old. Upon completion of his undergraduate degree, McGeough worked in Montreal for numerous years, focusing on inner-city developments. McGeough ended up completing his master's degree at Columbia University, in the School of Architecture and Planning and Real Estate Development.

“I’ve moved from buildings as sort of being objects, that are things, to them really being these vessels that need to nurture the community. They need to have a looseness so that they can evolve over time and really support the changing needs of that community. So what I like in architecture is that it’s very generous in its nature,” says McGeough.

Eventually, he ended up in Vancouver, where he worked with the city of Vancouver planning department for 15 years. His work with the city consisted of neighbourhood revitalization, particularly in the Downtown Eastside, as well as in Gastown, Yaletown and Chinatown.

Throughout his time working at UBC, McGeough has sought to design a community-oriented campus that “celebrates the users within them.” Buildings such as the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, the Earth and Ocean Science Building, and the new bookstore are all examples of the way in which this goal is accomplished. With large, open spaces and plenty of windows, these buildings were designed to invite outsiders inside, creating accessibility to the resources within these buildings.

“It’s more about showcasing the people versus the building -- rather than saying 'look at me I’m a cool-looking building.' It’s trying to revitalize the heart of the campus into a place that you really want to hang out in versus just coming and doing your studies.”

The architecture on UBC’s campus has been designed with specific ideologies in mind, which are reflected through various structural channels. “There was some reflection on campus planning about a year and a half ago, and there was a distinct shift to look more to vision based planning and design versus issues based…that’s about getting all the key people in the community to think about what we would like, what are our needs and wants and aspirations, and what does that look like. We use that to draw decision making on how we plan and design our places.”

McGeough has focused his urban design on campus to reflect the values that UBC has retained throughout its strong history. One of said values is what McGeough calls the “pioneering spirit” of UBC. This value is channeled through architecture in the form of student involvement in the planning and design of new buildings. The new SUB, for example, was fully funded by the AMS, allowing students greater autonomy over the spaces they inhabit.

Suffice it to say, UBC is a massive campus, and managing the space is a feat to be proud of. With creativity and intelligence, McGeough has managed to turn campus land into something meaningful, from which all inhabitants of our community can benefit.