Posts Tagged ‘modernism’

“Coast Modern” – film screenings in Vancouver this week

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

This film has been very difficult to see, consistently selling out (I saw scalpers at the last showing). The Vancouver International Film Fest is hosting this new set of screenings, based on the popular demand. Tickets are selling quickly so if you want to go, buy now.

This film needs to be seen on the big screen. Its comprehensive footage of beautiful westcoast modernist architecture was shot in HD and is worth seeing large. If you’re in Vancouver, don’t miss this. There is interview footage of the recently departed Julius Shulman – it’s worth seeing for that alone.

The filmmakers are friends of mine. It has been fun to watch the film come together and quickly win so much popularity. It shows that there’s a deep appetite for both a sense of our own architectural history as well for a more smaller, more beautiful style of house, houses with greater architectural integrity than we generally see in the current environment.

Architect Ron Thom’s Boyd House is for sale

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

These photos of Ron Thom’s Boyd House are from the blog Architecture Wanted which provides a good introduction to this house. Also see a great post by Cam McLellan on his Vancouver Lights blog and an article in Western Living by the house’s current owner, Kerry McPhedran. I can’t improve on what these three have already written about this excellent building.

For those who don’t know, Ron Thom was one of Vancouver’s pre-eminent modern architects in what now seems to be the golden era of architecture in this city. He produced many superb modernist post-and-beam houses in Vancouver, particularly in West Vancouver which is locally famous for houses built in that tradition. Writer Douglas Coupland lives in the same area in a Ron Thom house not unlike this one.

The Boyd House, built in 1954, is a great example of  this westcoast modern architecture, and fortunately it hasn’t suffered bad renovations. Noted architect Russell Hollingsworth was hired to do one of the remodels, for example.

The house is currently for sale, and the owner is very concerned that it be sold to someone who actually cares about it. There are far too many small and large developers demolishing modernist houses in Vancouver, and replacing them with unsustainably large houses of poor architectural quality.

Real estate information is here. I’m told there may be the opportunity for infill here if the original house is maintained. The municipality of West Vancouver seems to be running a pilot project to encourage this, which is fortunate. I hope the house goes to someone worthy of it. We don’t have enough of these well-designed houses to see any of them demolished.

See another Thom house here.

Perfect chair

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

When humans apply this much care to designing things, it makes me almost teary. This chair is a life-raft on a tidal wave of mass-produced cynicism. The person who made this chair was doing something so careful it’s almost spiritual.

The designer is German architect Hans Luckhardt (1890-1954), well known for designing steel tube chairs in the 1920s and 30s. He (along with his brother Wassili) was at one time a top international architect, and his skill is evident in this chair. Apparently the chair is extremely comfortable despite its minimum of materials.

Thanks to the Chair Blog for these excellent photos.

Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Taliesin West

Photography is only minimally allowed at Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter house in Arizona, Taliesin West, so most of these photographs are only exterior shots. I confess I’ve always been less impressed by FLW’s work that most are, so this post is not in praise of FLW or Taliesin West. I visited the place only experimentally, to see if it would change my mind, and though I was hoping it would,  it really didn’t. It’s an interesting place, an odd place, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by its architecture or interiors or design. So much has been written about Taliesin West already that I’ll just offer this potted version: FLW had been to Arizona for work, enjoyed it, and when he began to ail in the Eastern winters his doctor prescribed months in a dry climate and Wright decided to winter in Arizona thereafter. He set up a “desert camp” near Scottsdale and over the years slowly transformed the tent camp (with the help of a lot of slave labour by students) into a built structure. This is how he derived what later because the “desert style” he was famed for, and spawned sprawling ranchers all over American cities and suburbs.

The rooms are odd, with entrances so low you must stoop and. Wright used pony walls or sharp corners at room entrances to produce unexpected room vistas. Much of the furniture is built in. The living room was built to accommodate fairly large parties and encourage conversation while providing a view of the desert.

Wright tried to work around the angle of the sun and the sun’s heat. In doing so he somewhat reinvented the wheel, for of course this is not the world’s first desert friendly structure, but his innovations vastly influenced building styles in American’s Southwest, South and California. You can read more about Taliesin West here.

I’m not sure exactly why I find Taliesin West somewhat off-putting. It was built with local rock, among other locally available (if not local) materials, but all of the beams of imported Douglas fir are painted a sort of awful reddish brown that is all too familiar now if you’ve ever seen 70s tract housing. The whole complex is built on an obsession with the 30-60-90 triangle, which is not only deployed in roof angles but in very deco-flavoured design components including the furniture. There’s a certain pointiness to everything that I suppose is meant to mimic desert shapes, shapes I nevertheless didn’t identify in the surrounding hills. The triangular deco is juxtaposed with other decorative elements including the Chinese, constructivisim, Egyptian-tinged moderne and that same sort of medieval hobbityness that you see in the original Taliesin and his other houses. It’s as if FLW didn’t have faith in the simplicity of his “new” architectural form and needed to explain it through decorative historical reference.

As a textile person I’m always wary of the inattention to fabrics and surfaces, and the cheapness, thinness and clumsiness of the upholstered built-ins and furniture just suggest a failed concept of comfort. His celebrated “origami” armchair, each made from a simple sheet of plywood, is awkward and uncomfortable, as are the rooms in general. Bedouin desert camps seem far more comfortable than this. The manicured green lawns in the desert, and an angular over-slick pool, just suggest resistance to the environment rather than Wright’s much-discussed sensitivity to the landscape. Methinks the exaggeratedly rough mortaring of the local stone doth protest too much. The traditional European-style sculptures in cast bronze plonked everywhere are either an apology or corrective or I am not sure what. Parts of the place seemed a distracting, uncomfortable jumble verging on kitsch.

My sincere apologies to those whose architectural pantheons FLW presides over. I may just be trapped behind a giant wall of aesthetic prejudice built inadvertently by the commercial developers who subsequently riffed off Wright in lazy tract settlements all over America.

I have tried to photograph the place as flatteringly as possible, to make up for my criticism.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Above, a classical bronze sculpture half out of Lord of the Rings, plonked next to standing rock cemented into odd rock plinth. Below, quite a lovely red Chinese door oddly mixed into local rock somewhat swamped by rough mortar. I admit I like the triangular glass surround for that door. But of all FLW’s reds in the complex, that Chinese red was the only one that worked for me, and for me colour is inordinately important.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Above, the dinner cabaret room. Supposedly built for comfort but I didn’t find it that way. Its acoustics however are absolute genius. No parallel walls to produce sound reflection or any phase cancellation. Just superb. Apparently FLW’s wife used it to her advantage, being able to hear all whispered gossip at every table, or so our guide told us.

Taliesin West

Above, brutalist, concrete round window decorated with multiple chinoiserie.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Above, an illegal shot showing the interior of the drafting room, jammed full of the desks where FLW’s students laboured. Below, my favourite object at TW: a doorknob in the bathroom.

Taliesin West

Coast Modern Film – Fundraiser on July 28, Vancouver

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

If you’re in Vancouver on July 28, and are interested in the vernacular modernist architecture of our region, buy a ticket for this event. Ouno is hosting this fundraiser to benefit the completion of the film Coast Modern by my filmmaker friends Gavin Froome and Mike Bernard. This film has been widely and eagerly anticipated; it’s the first comprehensive film on the particular form of architectural modernism found on North America’s Pacific coast (from British Columbia to Southern California), and it includes interviews with key figures who are now no longer with us—Julius Shulman and Vancouver’s Abe Rogatnick. The film’s completion was slightly delayed by an early switch to HD format, a smart decision considering the content. Attend on Thursday July 28 and be part of this valuable historical project. Even better, buy the higher level of admission with an artist print poster! You will be supporting a good cause. Trailers/footage will be projected at the party.

Some quotes from the Coast Modern film:
“Expressive form, absence of ornmament, new materials—all of that to achieve built forms that invited new ways of living.” —Russell Baker
“On the west coast, including Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Franciso, there always has been a greater respect for nature.” —Barry Downs
“Any way you can break down that barrier between indoors and outdoors, with the comfort of being inside but the feeling of being outside, that’s really what it’s all about.” —Dion Neutra
“The smaller they are, the more beautiful they are.” —David Netto
“Using the materials and relating to the climate, creating beauty that is unique to that setting.”
“Find the beauty in your own times.” —Abe Rogatnick

From the Coast Modern site: “Intimate interviews and unprecedented access to architects in the film include Barry Downs (Vancouver), Fred Bassetti (Seattle), Hernik Bull (Berkeley), Ray Kappe (LA), Michael Folonis (Santa Monica), Dion Neutra (Los Angeles, son and partner of Modernist pioneer Richard Neutra), Barbara Bestor (LA) and others.” Houses are featured by architects including Ron Thom, Edward Killingsworth, Fred Hollingsworth, Richard Neutra, Barry Downs and Arthur Erickson.

BC Hydro now and then – what happened between 1955 and 1991?

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

The Electra

The Electra

BC Hydro Building, Vancouver, BC

“Compare and despair” is good advice, but I can’t help it. Here are two skyscrapers designed for the same public corporation, BC Hydro. The first, shown above, is a modernist beauty in the international style by Ned Pratt and Ron Thom of Thomson Berwick Pratt, 1955. It was Vancouver’s first skyscraper. It became the  first commercial building in the city to be designated heritage, and now it’s a condo tower which, as soon as it was converted, sold out in 8 minutes. The second tower, below, is a commercial bit of 1980s-style eyesore by Musson Cattell Mackey Partners, built 1991-1992. I cannot express just how deeply I dislike this latter building. Maybe it’s the blunt blankness of the exterior done in two tones of bandaid, topped by a faux greenhouse that looks as if it belongs in a suburban mall and what’s worse, the roof’s shape (badly) mimics the corporate logo in some sort of belated postmodern gesture. Also, the proportions of the window grid are, to my eye, clumsy and uncomfortable for no good reason. They are either too big or too small for the scale of the building. The cladding and the overall form are odd too; they seem to want to mimic earlier local stone or brick-clad buildings, which is just dishonest and awkward on a steel frame and glass building (and which is probably the key to its poor window proportions). The building is trying to be too many things at once and inevitably failing at all of them. I spend a fair amount of time in the art centre housed in the pleasant little Del Mar Inn that this building looms over, and every time I go there I try not to look up. How did this unsightly design get passed by the city’s design panel? And it’s not a one-off; there are many others like it by this firm and others.

Curious fact: Today, thirty years later, the Wikipedia entry on BC Hydro features a photograph of its 1955 building, but not its current headquarters. It would be interesting to find out who made that choice. Maybe the company itself knows it made a mistake?

Note: You may have noticed that I have re-run two of these photos from other recent posts on completely different topics – George Riste’s Del Mar Inn, and the architect Ned Pratt. Those earlier posts are what sparked this comparison.

Photos above from Heritage Vancouver, Robert Ciavarro, Jason Vanderhill. Below, photos by Shallom Johnson and Geoff Peters. Thanks to the photographers. Click on photos for more information.

Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide

What actually happened to architecture between 1955 and 1990, and why? Not a rhetorical question. If I had to answer it I’d say that developers is what happened, the corporatization of architecture and the concomitant loss of vision, and the triumph of a provincial mindset pathetically trying to be “world class” but having entirely incorrect ideas about how to achieve that.

Internationally renowned Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson once told the Vancouver Sun newspaper: “There are a few attempts to put up good buildings, but mostly the plan is to get something up and get what you can out of it… I blame the city government for this, to a large extent. They have no respect for the consequences. Any building can go up, with any finish. There are no teeth in the design committee [at city hall].”

And: “In those countries with centuries of a craft tradition behind their building methods, techniques are tightly coordinated under the direction of the architect…. Nowhere has specialization penetrated so deeply into the building professions as North America.” What he seems to be talking about here is the dilution of architectural vision thanks to the increasing autonomy of engineering and other departments.

And taking a longer historical view he said “The Achilles heel of the Americas was the lack of cultural confidence typical of new settlers… We settled this continent without art. So it was easy for us to treat it as an imported luxury, not a necessity.”

BC Hydro building

Here’s a window grid handled better: Arthur Erickson’s MacMillan Bloedel building of 1965. Click on link for more images.