Raoul Robillard was born in the Normandy village of Goulet, France and immigrated with his family to western Canada in 1905. Arthur Robillard, Raoul’s father, was a master gardener, and as a boy, Raoul was his assistant and translator. In 1912, when the two visited the future site of the University of British Columbia with the B.C. Premier, 15-year-old Raoul was asked to scale a large cedar to describe the vista to Howe Sound… a sighting that would decide the site of the first buildings at UBC.
Working with his father on many of Victoria’s grand gardens, Raoul demonstrated a talent for design, which was quickly noticed by renowned architect Samuel Maclure. Maclure took Raoul on part-time when he was a student in landscape architecture (1912-1917), and he recommended Arthur to his wealthy clients, including Jennie Butchart, the remarkable woman who owned an old, 25-acre limestone quarry, and envisioned a sunken garden in its place.
Raoul, with his father, began working for the Butchart family as a student (1911 – 1914), but he would ultimately become the landscape architect credited with designing a significant portion of Jennie Butchart’s Sunken Garden, the pièce de résistance of the world-famous Butchart Gardens. The Sunken Garden, writes Professor Ron Williams (Landscape Architecture in Canada), was “a unique tour de force through its dramatic composition, impeccable maintenance and stunning colour effects.” The project, completed in 1920, took 250 workers over two years to complete And remarkably, a century later, its western side still follows Robillard’s original design.
Robillard became a consummate creator of some 1500 estate and residence gardens over his 70-year career. After serving in World War II and moving to Vancouver, he worked on a variety of commercial projects at the heart of the city, including the Bentall Centre, and – with architect Arthur Erickson and landscape architects Cornelia Oberlander (LINK) and Kenneth Morris – the massive three-block-long complex of Robson Square and Courthouse. Robillard served as horticulturist/consultant in creating the masterpiece, a three-dimensional urban park incorporating landscaped terraces, waterfalls, dense tree planting, rooftop reflecting pools and early green roofs. The project was recognized with the American Society of Landscape Architects Award of Excellence in 1979 for “its extraordinary integration of landscape architecture with architecture.”
In June 1980, the BCSLA honoured Robillard with a specially created silver medal: “To Raoul Robillard for the legacy of enhancements and improvements to our landscape over these past 70 years.” Today,in his memory, the BCSLA funds a scholarship awarded to a graduate of the UBC School of Landscape Architecture.
For further reading:
“A Look Back at the People Who Made Beauty,” by Tara Culham. BCSLA Annual 2004 Membership and Firm Roster, 40th Anniversary. Volume 6, No. 1. January 2004.
Raoul Robillard, BCSLA Annual 2004
1-4: Courtesy of Butchart Gardens
1. Site of Butchart Gardens, The Sunken Garden, Cement Plant around 1918.
2. Postcard, Sunken Garden Mound, circa 1920s, designed by Raoul Robillard.
3. Postcard, Sunken Garden, 1925-30
4. Postcard, Sunken Garden Mound, circa 1960s, designed by Raoul Robillard.
5+6. The Sunken Garden, today. Courtesy Ron Williams
7. “The ideally conceived project,” by Raoul Robillard. An original document from the files of Kenneth Wilson, published in Annual BCSLA Membership and Firm Roster, 2004.
8+9. Quote from Raoul Robillard