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Essays

Early Influences & Development

Local designers wishing to design in a "modern" style in the early to mid part of the last century were principally influenced by two schools of design - the International Style from Europe, and the Prairie School of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Many of the designers originated or were trained in Europe or the east coast, so had direct contact with architects building in these styles, and the buildings that were constructed.

The International Style originated in Europe following the mass destruction of traditional buildings and institutions in the First World War. North America, suffused with confidence after the war, and having escaped destruction on home soil, continued to build through the 1920s in a myriad of traditional period revival styles, with little reference to modernist theory. The situation changed with the Great Crash of 1929, when a new, grim economic reality set in. A crisis in public confidence triggered an exploration for new ways to build, with technology seen as a potential saviour. The Bauhaus School of Design, which operated in Germany between 1919 and 1933, was influential, and its theories were spread by a number of European architects who moved to North America to escape Nazi persecution, including Walter Gropius (a past director of the Bauhaus) and Mies van der Rohe (who coined the phrase 'less is more'), bringing with them new ideas of a modern architectural order. One design truism emerged pre-eminent - that architecture, like engineering, should be based on structure and function rather than ornamentation.

International Style buildings were rational and functional in structure and appearance, and were based on the use of flexible open floor plans. The structure was generally conceived of as a 'cage' or 'skeleton', enclosed by a membrane-like 'skin' or curtain wall. The building was perceived as an enclosure of volume, with minimal surface detailing that would otherwise detract the eye. Symmetry was abandoned in favour of balance and regularity. Buildings designed in the International Style displayed smooth wall surfaces, flat roofs, windows set flush with outer wall surfaces, and horizontal, asymmetrical massing. Windows were arranged in horizontal bands (called ribbon windows) interspersed with floor to ceiling windows and doors that often opened up the inside to outdoor views and terraces. These bands of windows, which often wrapped around a corner, and cantilevered elements gave these buildings a distinct horizontal emphasis. The new architecture also embraced the progress of modern technology, and for the first time acknowledged a relationship with automobiles. The International Style became the standard for large projects such as office buildings and multi-family housing developments, although the best local examples were adapted to suit local conditions and aesthetics.

Local designers were also strongly influenced both by the aesthetics of traditional Japanese architecture, and by the "Prairie School" work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, often imitating or adapting his designs in their own residential designs. The Japanese influence was partly derived through the influence of Wright, but also through a recognition that the West Coast was no longer just an outpost of European culture, but was also part of the vast Pacific Rim. Wright's work was especially influential, both through his original influence on the International Style architects of Europe (his early work, published in Germany in 1910, was a touchstone of the style) and through his later residential work, beginning with a startling series of modernistic houses in the 1930s such as Fallingwater, and his later geometric and low cost housing models. His 'organic' architecture blended simple methods of structural framing and the use of natural materials with a formal, Japanese-inspired discipline and open floor plans. Wright's flowing use of space and inventive sculptural forms ultimately was more appealing to West Coast sensibilities than the hard edges of the International Style.

Local artist and teacher B.C. Binning helped to spread modern design styles to British Columbia by inviting leading architects to lecture in Vancouver, among them the noted German architect Richard Neutra, who had settled in California, and visited Vancouver regularly in the 1940s and 1950s. Neutra demonstrated the possibility of a regional west coast expression, and spoke of the mysteries and realities of sites, and of houses that responded to local climate and light through the use of extended planes and surfaces, and reflections from glass and water.

In the late 1930's, local designers Peter Thornton, Robert Berwick and Ned Pratt became increasingly radical in their approach to design, and fought with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation for the approval of mortgages for houses with flat roofs; at the time the CMHC vetted all designs for which a mortgage was required, and had ruled that flat roofs, although safe, were not aesthetic. Peter Muschamp Thornton circumvented this by building his own house in West Vancouver without a mortgage. This simple and unornamented cube was well ahead of its time, and set a precedent for many to follow.

These ambitious modern buildings were constructed in accordance with high-minded social ideas and ideals - this was to be the beginning of a new, modern way of life. The new School of Architecture opened at the University of British Columbia in 1946, with Fred Lasserre as first Director. A number of notable exhibitions promoting modern design were held at both the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Community Arts Council, most notably the latter's 'Design for Living' held in the Fall of 1949.

'This issue will be a surprise to many people who were not aware that a fully fledged modern movement was to be found west of the Rockies. It would be false to think that it was confined to only domestic buildings because schools, libraries, factories and other buildings in the contemporary manner have been built of a standard of design perhaps not equalled and certainly not surpassed, in the rest of the Dominion. In the domestic field, British Columbia leads the other provinces.... They have proved to their clients present and future, by outward and inward visible signs, that the modern house is the only house for a modern family in British Columbia. Nowhere else in Canada has that proof been given.'

R.A.I.C. Journal, #24, June 1947.



BC Binning Residence

Essays

- Early Influences & Development
- The West Coast Style
- The Massey Medals
The West Coast Regional Style of Domestic Architecture
- Vancouver's Recent Landmarks
- Burrard Street Corridor
- The Early Local House Designers
- Bibliography