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West Coast Architecture Celebrated in Gorgeous New Book

The West Coast Modern House is a tribute to Vancouver’s iconic residential architecture.

You’ll want to make room on the coffee table: The West Coast Modern House is architectural eye candy for the modernist set, a celebration of the gorgeous mid-century homes that garnered international acclaim and inspired a new generation of designers.

We’re a little bit biased, of course—a majority of the homes featured in this compilation are from the archives of Western Living (or Western Homes and Living, the original incarnation of the magazine).  But the thoughtful essays and historical notes in this tome prove that it wasn’t just our original editors who thought these designs deserved some recognition.

We caught up with editor Greg Bellerby, the curator and gallery director who compiled this collection, to chat about Vancouver’s architectural legacy and the enduring appeal of modernist design.

The two bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, and large activity room revolve around the central brick core.

WL: What is “West Coast style” modernism, exactly?

I think there’s a unified look up and down the West Coast that’s different from the east. We use more natural materials and source natural materials. Maybe not in LA—there’s more steel and concrete—but here, certainly, it’s the local woods. Fir and cedar typifies my idea of what a Vancouver home is. There is this closeness to using local sourcing materials, lots of wood, both inside and outside, and using, really exploiting, the building technique of post and beam. And integrating inside and out. We’re lucky to have mild winters, so we can exploit that possibility. 

WL: What was it about the post-war period that inspired this style of housing?

It was right after the war, and people were ready for a change. People had really buckled down during the war, and weren’t able to move forward, so once it was over, there was all this pent-up energy about wanting something new and different…wanting change. After the war, people wanted to get on with their lives and have families, so there was a big need for new housing. And new technologies had been developed during the war, so that was part of it, too. They wanted something new and modern, and this is what got created, and we’re the benefactors of it. I think the legacy of modernism post-war is that it still is relevant today, and it’s still satisfying for people to live in a modern house.

This small but efficient 1000 square foot home featured an open plan with spacious living and dining rooms and large windows with views to the harbour.

WL: Does this style have influence on contemporary homes?

I think it’s quite strong amongst a certain group of architects. There are some who like to relive the glories of the far far past, craftsman houses, but there’s a core group of younger architects who have grown up with the idea of West Coast modern houses. For me, it’s almost like there are three generations. There’s the original group, with people like Fred Hollingsworth and Barry Downs. Then there’s the second generation, people like the Patkaus or Peter Cardew, who make way for a third generation, made up of Battersby Howatt, Javier Campos, D’arcy Jones, Clint Cuddington, and the like. Their work is an updated and contemporary version of West Coast modernism, but they’re still looking at the values from those houses from post-war era… the use of space, the use of materials, and those ideas are still being utilized conceptually. They may be using more sophisticated materials and techniques, but they’re looking at those spaces the same way. 

WL: Are we entering another important period of architectural history?

In terms of architecture, things move rather slowly. It takes decades for things to filter through, to say that we’re entering a new period. We’ve been in transition I think… there is a younger generation of young families, who are looking to contemporary architecture. Maybe their parents grew up in modernist houses, so their grandparents who would have originally been the owners, and there’s kind of a looking back and fondness for the kind of lifestyle people had in the ’50s and ’60s. Modernist houses were designed to support family living, and there’s been a revival of that. It’s looking at this idea of families being together—they don’t have to live in their separate silos; you don’t send the kids to their bedroom anymore. There’s the family room, the kitchen, the dining room, it’s one large unified space where people live and spend time with their kids and support them and feed them and nurture them. I think there is a younger generation that’s looking for spaces that support that idea of family living, and they’re looking for architects to be able to design and build in that way.

Architect Kenneth Gardner designed an elegant rectangular two-storey form that sits above the flat, semi-rural landscape.

WL: What’s your favourite house in this book?

Fred Hollingsworth created these neoteric houses… that’s another name for “modern”. He designed them as speculation houses for the developer of the Capilano Highlands. They encapsulate all the great ideas about modern houses. They are post and beam. The living spaces are turned away from the street to the back of the house, so a family room and living room have a patio out into the backyard, where you could have outdoor activity but not at the street where all the cars are— that was kind of a new idea. They’re built with a central core, which has a fireplace that looked into the living room, and the house kind of revolved around it.

Fred designed them so that each family could easily alter the plans. He built about 20 of them. Some of them still exist. The one in the book, the Rasmussen, was an early house.

I also love the Gardner House, down on Southwest Marine Drive. I love it because it was was so innovative, using new technologies—they poured the concrete slab on grade and then lifted it up with hydraulic jacks to become the second story. It’s called a lift slab house in the magazine. It’s a very elegant, simple, modernist house, quite unique in terms of the technology. It’s fun to drive by and walk by.

WL: Are there any major homes missing?

It’s not a definitive book. I thought at one point that it would be the definitive survey of West Coast modern houses, especially the post-war period, but I found as I delved more and more into it, there came to be so many examples of great houses and there just wasn’t room to show them all. There were architects that weren’t in the book that weren’t or couldn’t be. I hope there will be another version that will unearth more great houses. It’s a rich history, they’re wonderful houses. Vancouver was recognized nationally and internationally as a leader at a time and acknowledged for its residential design. It was a very exciting time, I think. 

Click below to launch a slideshow of some of the spaces feature in The West Coast Modern House.

Photos and captions courtesy of Figure 1 Publishing. 

Click on image to view gallery



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