Architect Robert Burgers, a West Coast Legend, Passes Away
“He was a robust, loveable person who didn’t seem interested in architectural fad or fashion or fame—just on improving people’s lives.”
Robert Burgers, one of Western Canada’s leading residential architects and a fixture in the pages of Western Living for the past three and half decades, has died. A master of difficult sites, and a committed modernist during long periods when that was a minority taste, he was an architect’s architect whose work exceeded his reputation. “He was a robust, loveable person who didn’t seem interested in architectural fad or fashion or fame—just on improving people’s lives,” says architecture critic Adele Weder. “And he did beautiful work.”
Burgers was born in 1937 into a prosperous family in Antwerp, Belgium, which adjoins the Dutch border. He attended a boarding school run by the Jesuits, then studied at the Delft Institute of Technology, which remains one of the world’s leading architecture schools. There he was introduced to his future wife, Marieke Wiegman, who was working at the time in public relations, but later studied interior design and joined his practice as a design partner, collaborating with him on virtually all of his residential projects.
After graduation in 1964, followed by mandatory military service, he joined an authority restoring Paris landmarks damaged during the Second World War. It was a plum position, but with the Cold War at its height, the couple decided that they wished to live as far as possible from potential harm. Australia was just too far, so they settled on Canada, arriving by ship in Montreal in time to catch the end of Expo 67, then taking the train across Canada to Vancouver, where they decided to stay.
Burgers soon joined a firm specializing in the design of high-rises, remaining with Buttjes, Burgers and Sammarco until 1980, when he and Marieke launched their own firm. By then they had already designed and built four houses for themselves—a number that would ultimately reach 12, all of them in West Vancouver except for the first, which overlooked the Capilano River on the North Vancouver side. “Twelve houses in 50 years—that’s not so many,” Marieke says today.
Those personal houses followed a pattern that would be seen in much of their work, that of finding a way to build on sites that others had given up on. “Robert would be off looking at something with a client, and I would get a phone call,” says Marieke. “He had found a lot that nobody was buying because it was too difficult.”
Carolann Rule, who published several Burgers homes while serving for two decades as Homes Editor and then Editor of Western Living, believes those personal homes served as laboratories for ideas that would later show up on homes designed for clients. “There was always such an understanding of how everything had to work together,” she says. “They were always modernist and minimalist, and they were always of this region.”
Burgers’s personal experience with those difficult sites perhaps also played a role in the emphasis he put on indoor/outdoor connections and the importance of natural light. Several of his houses hung from the edges of north-facing cliffs, and he was adept at turning them into what he called “light-gathering machines,” with multitudinous skylights and double-height areas that would enable sunlight to penetrate deep inside the home.
The Burgers moved into their twelfth North Shore home late in 2016. When Rule last dropped in to see the couple, they were deep in conversation over the tiniest of landscaping details. “At their ages, and after so long, to have so much passion for the choice of material and finish for an outdoor planter,” she says.
With mom and dad looking over his shoulder, the Burgers’ son, Cedric, designed that twelfth house. Cedric now runs Burgers Architecture and has become as regular a fixture in Western Living as were his parents, while the couple’s two other children, Bobbie Burgers, the painter, and Alex Burgers, a project manager, have also landed in related fields. That’s hardly surprising, given that there was no TV in the Burgers household, replaced by an imperative, says Cedric, to make things. “We drew, we painted, we sculpted.” Meantime, design was a constant focus of conversation, and at dinner time a roll of sketch paper was always present so that ideas could be sketched out.
Perhaps strangely, agree Cedric and Marieke, Burgers’s last house would prove to be his most traditional design, still simple and spare, but with a distinctly Dutch appearance. And instead of the usual cliffside, there is an orchard and a kitchen garden that hearken back to his childhood on one of the flattest landscapes on earth.
The couple moved in just weeks before a long illness forced Burgers to a hospital bed. “He felt he’d done his job,” says Marieke. “It was his final house.”