Victoria autobiography chronicles big achievements of a small-town architect

Ben Levinson was a self-styled “small-town architect.” That’s the title of his new self-published autobiography, created to coincide with the upcoming exhibition of his sketches at the Community Arts Centre gallery at Cedar Hill Rec Centre.

Levinson wasn’t one of those jetsetting celebrity architects who designs opera houses and art museums. He’s the patient fellow who has worked through all the time-consuming phases to create the useful buildings that surround us. Just flipping through his book you notice his imprint on Cubbons on Cook (a combined lumber yard, hardware store and senior citizens centre), the Gordon Head Elementary School additions and the municipal hall of Central Saanich. Oxford Foods, the Cowichan Pumping Station, the interior of the Shah Jahan restaurant — no job was too big or too small, and that’s just the way Levinson liked it.

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This autobiography is, like the author, boyish and revealing. He tells us it all began with a Tinker Toy set — “my nickname was Tinker,” he admits. He takes us with him as he sets off from Medicine Hat, Alta., with a portfolio of summer sketches under his arm, bound for the University of Manitoba faculty of architecture in Winnipeg — the big city! “My heart was racing. I was going to become an architect!”

His education is explained in detail, for the book is meant to be an inspiration for youngsters who might become architects. The hundreds of tiny black-and-white photographs really don’t do justice to his efforts and, as Levinson readily admits, the days of drafting with a T-square and a sharp pencil are long past, so the book’s utility is limited. From my point of view, the tales he tells of his courtship and marriage to Carla, and their young lives together, are the best part. But then, I’d like to read the autobiography of everyone I know.

As an eager young professional arriving in Victoria in 1966, Levinson worked with Siddall Dennis Architects (UVic’s Craigdarroch Residence), Alan Hodgson Architect (“Alan was old-school and demanded a lot”), and Wagg and Hambleton (Oak Bay Library and Monterey Centre) before hanging his own shingle. Though he has plenty to say about designing buildings, he spent more time putting on “the many hats of the architect”: draftsperson, accountant, sociologist, landscape designer, art collector, volunteer and philanthropist. Special skills are called into play when working on religious buildings (Temple Emanu-El) and heritage buildings (St. Ann’s Academy).

In particular, Levinson enjoyed the work of the “architect inspector,” carrying out onsite inspections for clients on the buildings that he designed, and examining the construction performance for others. This led him into the area of “forensic architecture” as an expert witness in legal cases.

“When you are an expert in review of circumstances such as: slip and fall, failures of materials, review of specifications, injuries on site and review of costs to build, there is never a dull moment,” he writes.

I know the Levinsons as patrons of the arts. Carla, a musician and gallery owner, was always accompanied by Ben, usually in one of his over-the-top sweaters. From their mentors, Murray and Frances Adaskin, they learned to maintain a line item on their budget for art purchases. “Neither of us smoked and we drank sparingly,” Levinson said. “The money we would have spent on cigarettes and booze went into our art fund.” As a result, they live surrounded by beauty and have made good friends and wise investments.

Throughout the book, Levinson advances community values. His work as the responsible party in the design of our built environment has necessitated endless meetings with clients, municipal councils and the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, and he has acted as an educator in schools and on television. His creative instincts are always tempered by the demands of patronage and consensus.

It’s a healthy and well-balanced way of being and, as a result, in his retirement Levinson is a happy man. The Levinsons spent a few years of building and rebuilding a stilt home of the tidewaters of Cowichan Bay, and have since returned to Victoria and an exercise in condo living. I suspect that, now that all that biographical material is in print and off his desk, he and Carla are ready for further adventures, giving him plenty of subjects for sketches like the ones soon on show at the Art Centre at Cedar Hill.

Small Town Architect: sketches and book launch by Ben Levinson, the Arts Centre at Cedar Hill, 3220 Cedar Hill Rd., Sept. 12 to 24, daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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