Polygon Homes chairman Michael Audain, a Victoria College student from the Lansdowne era, makes an art of new home development.
OVER A CENTURY AGO MICHAEL AUDAIN'S GREAT-GREAT-GRANDFATHER, Robert Dunsmuir ordered construction of one of Victoria’s most distinctive landmarks: Craigdarroch Castle. Five generations later, Audain has built his own legacy. The chairman of Vancouver-based development company Polygon Homes has led the construction of thousands of homes. And while modern architecture might not have quite the same character as Craigdarroch, Audain has ensured that his company’s developments have their own aesthetic appeal—by incorporating public, homegrown works of art.
Walking into Audain’s office, one instantly senses the Victoria College alumnus’ love of the form. Abstract paintings line the hallway leading to his work space. Across from his desk, Queen Elizabeth’s II’s eyes seem to glimmer from the Andy Warhol portrait that hangs on the wall.
“Great artwork has a magical quality to it,” says Audain as he sits back and closes his eyes to speak. “Norman Mailer wrote that if you have the privilege to live with a great artwork, it enriches your life and broadens your horizons.”
Audain’s own horizon spans from BC—where his family has lived for generations—to Asia and beyond. He’s visited every Asian country except Bhutan, and has homes in Japan and Thailand. He’s lived in France, New York, Hong Kong, London and Toronto. At 17, he rode a bus from Victoria to Mexico City to see the works of the Mexican muralists of the 1920s: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo.
But of all the places he’s experienced, Audain is most comfortable at home in BC. “I love to go out into the woods and know every plant and animal that lives there. You can put a fishing hook in the sea and know all about the fish that you catch—or don’t catch. I feel totally comfortable, totally at home.”
Audain considers himself “a bit of a BC nationalist,” a belief stemming from his family’s deep roots in the province beginning in 1851, when Robert Dunsmuir arrived in Fort Rupert (near Port Hardy) from Scotland. Before his death in 1889, Dunsmuir had become the wealthiest (and most controversial) man in BC. He developed the rich coal fields near Nanaimo, strictly resisted attempts to unionize his workforce and received a lucrative federal contract to build the E&N Railway. Audain is connected to Dunsmuir through his son James, who served as the province’s premier and lieutenant governor. James’ eldest daughter, Sarah Byrd Audain, or “Byrdie”, was Audain’s grandmother.
Born in England, Audain moved to Victoria at age nine. Growing up, he remembers boxing with sailors from the Esquimalt navy base. He trained three times a week with the Victoria City Police Boxing Club, and traveled to tournaments across the Pacific Northwest. One year, he was the only non-Aboriginal boxer invited to fight in the Buckskin Gloves tournament.
Attending Victoria College in 1959-60, he crammed two years of academics into his time at the Lansdowne campus (now the home of Camosun College). He also held a part-time job at Butchart Gardens. “I was fairly busy at the time, and sometimes I wonder how I could have done everything…but then I recall: I didn’t have a girlfriend.”
When Victoria College and the residents of Greater Victoria started a community campaign to bring a full-fledged university to the city, he joined a “one-night blitz” fundraising challenge. Each student was given three names and addresses, and set off to solicit donations. Audain collected $1,300 from the two people he visited. The first, a shipyard worker in View Royal, was fixing his furnace at the time. Audain interrupted his work, and after hearing his pitch, the man wrote a cheque for $1,000.
He worked a variety of jobs—social worker, agricultural economist, housing policy consultant—before settling at Polygon in 1980. Audain likes to think of Polygon’s high-rises, townhouses and single-family communities as frames for public artworks. He says his company was the first developer in the province to use original artwork in its model homes. Most recently, it commissioned First Nations artist Ray Natrall to carve a traditional hunting canoe at an apartment development in Port Moody.
These days, he devotes as much as half of his time to cultural matters. With his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, he manages the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts. Established in 1997, the foundation has donated more than $4 million to the arts in BC and Canada. Audain has served on the board of the Vancouver Art Gallery, and was its president for two years. For him, supporting art is a way to feel connected.
“I’ve always been interested in understanding a nation or region through its artwork. My view is that art is something for everyone, that it shouldn’t be the preserve of the bourgeoisie who can afford to hang an important picture on their walls. I think art animates communities and adds to the quality of urban life.”