Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bring Them Down?

In this weekend's New York Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff poses a bold suggestion: seven buildings he feels should be torn down. Titled "New York City, Tear Down These Walls", Ourousoff explains that beyond just aesthetic offenses, buildings like Trump Tower and Madison Square Garden/Penn Station made the grade due to a complete lack of relationship to their surroundings or because they negatively impacted important views. 

Which made me wonder, are there any buildings in Vancouver that deserve a similar review? Does the new Shangri-La protrude a bit too high on the city's skyline? Is there a certain commercial tower that's overly disconnected from it's surroundings? Does the Canada Post Office on Georgia Street fit the bill? I happen to like it, but that's a different story.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


The Contemporary Art Gallery is currently showing the Clip/Stamp/Fold exhibit until November 9, 2008. The concept originated with architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina at Princeton University's School of Architecture and is based on the reappraisal of 'little' architectural magazines from the 1960's-1970's. As the show has travelled to Montreal, Germany and London, effort has been made to build exhibits out of local magazine collections, thus maintaining the general idea, but varying the specifics. If you haven't seen the show, it's well worth a visit, both for the broader themes of the exhibit as well as the excellent local content, co-curated in Vancouver by Adele Weder.

In addition to the exhibit there are a number of talks scheduled in the coming weeks that should prove worthwhile:

October 2, 7pm: Peeroj Thakre, Response. CAG, 555 Nelson St.

October 14, 7pm: Beatriz Colomina, Curator's Talk. C300 Theatre, UBC at Robson Square, 800 Robson St.

October 15 7pm: Ian Chodikoff, Bo Helliwell, Sherry McKay, Panel Discussion. Inform Interiors, 50 Water St.

October 30, 7pm: Trevor Boddy, Response. CAG, 555 Nelson St.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Vancouver Lights Travels: Montreal + Ottawa

Vancouver Lights Travels is a semi-regular feature detailing travels outside the Vancouver area, which is usually the focus of this blog. Following is a loose record of a number of buildings visited in Montreal and Ottawa this past summer.

First up was Montreal. There is excellent design all through the city, both contemporary and historical, not the least of which is the subway/metro stations. The original line's stations, completed in the 1960's, feature a great deal of artwork that was commissioned integral to the construction - a fine example of fruitful artist/architect relationships. Forty years on, some pieces have aged better than others, but all display an effort to elevate the subway riding experience and a few stations are a genuine pleasure to spend time in, largely due to the artwork and design. Featured Quebec artists include: Robert LaPalme, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Marcelle Ferron and Jacquest de Tonnacour among others. The photos below are of Jean-Drapeau Station.

Also on the itinerary was a requisite visit to Habitat '67. As with any structure this age, the buildings are showing signs of wear and are in need of what looks like ongoing repair. One wonders how the broad range in Montreal temperatures and weather has affected them and whether their unique method of construction has resulted in increased maintenance issues. That said, Habitat's cascading forms still possess an arresting quality, despite the waves of development in architecture over the last decades and despite the fact they never succeeded as mass-produced units as was originally intended.

Next up was Ottawa Station, designed by John B. Parkin & Associates in 1966. The train station won a Massey Medal for Architecture in 1967 and was also given a Landmark Award by the Ontario Association of Architects last year. Travelling through the station, it's easy to see why. Though some small changes have been made over the years, the station still feels like a cohesive statement. There have been no ungainly additions or radical reworking of interior spaces. It's just a train station, built in the modern idiom that happens to function very well, even after 40 years. As Silvio Baldassarra, VP of NORR, the firm that succeeded Parkin and Associates said in interview in the Ottawa Citizen, "the building is still true to its original intent and design using very few materials and colours".

Finally, following are a few shots of the Museum of Civilization. Designed by Douglas Cardinal and completed in 1989 in Gatineau, Quebec, the museum shows Cardinal's trademark style of undulating forms. Having seen it before only in photographs, it had seemed somewhat impenetrable, however the reality is a building that serves its purpose well and brings a sense of prairie undulation to the nearby nation's capital.

Lastly, in the spirit of the Montreal Metro system, here is an article by Mark Kingwell that appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday September 20th on the merits of exploring cities by subway:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mayhew Residence

One of Ron Thom's earliest houses is on the market. The Mayhew Residence in Victoria, BC was built in 1950, around the same time as the Copp Residence in Vancouver. It's a one storey structure nestled into a site that gently rolls down toward the water, now surrounded by mature and yet still meticulous landscaping. The house looks to be in excellent shape for it's age, largely unaltered except for a small addition done in the mid-1970's that was commissioned by the Mayhews - who occupied it from the time it was built until last year - to expand the master bedroom.

Unique features include a 'pinwheel' floorplan (possibly influenced by Neutra's work, as Doug Shadbolt points out in his book,
Ron Thom: The Shaping of an Architect), a butterfly roof that runs along one wing of the house, admitting southern light into the kitchen and service areas, and copious glazing along the side of the house that faces the water. It is a very private site, virtually hidden from the street on high bank waterfront. The house itself is perhaps less involved and more orthogonal than Thom's later work, but it's spare post and beam structure nonetheless displays a sensitivity to site, quality of light and spatial arrangement that were to become his trademarks.

Friday, September 12, 2008

WV Modern House Tour, Part II

Also on the house tour was the Forrest Residence, designed by Ron Thom and Dick Mann. The present owners renovated the house sympathetically to the original vision, keeping much of the original detail intact. The largest change was in the kitchen which was completely redone. Additionally, there are some areas where cedar siding was replaced with drywall. The house sits on a stunning site that looks out over the city of Vancouver and the Straight of Georgia and is a structure worthy of its site.

The defining feature is the spreading, wing-like roof lines that follow the lay of the land as it descends to the front of the property. While the roof is supported by steel beams and trusses above sand-floated stucco ceilings, copious glass is used on many exterior 'walls', resulting in the feeling of the roof floating over the house.

In the spirit of much of Ron Thom's most nuanced work, areas of the house vary quite distinctly between light and dark. The south facing side, containing the Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen and Master Bedroom all receive southern light that is tempered by generous roof overhangs while the bedrooms on the north side of the house, facing into the rising forested hillside, are darker and more contained. This 'darkness' is a key aspect of Thom's modulation of light within structure.

West Vancouver Modern House Tour

On July 12 the West Vancouver Museum and Archives held their annual tour of Modern homes. Following are some photos taken at perhaps the most high-profile house to appear on the tour, the Binning Residence. Though much has been written recently about this house, given it's state of limbo after Jessie Binning's passing last year, it's worth revisiting.

The house remains, save for a few small alterations by Jessie, largely as it has for the last 60 years. It has a ship-like feel in it's economy of materials and space and the built-in cabinetry is simple but well-crafted and remains in excellent shape. The ship analogy is not surprising considering Binning's sailing experience in local waters, as well as his fascination with seascapes and the assorted motifs.

The landscape has grown over the years so that the house - which was designed to work sympathetically with the site in the first place - is virtually enveloped by lush greenery. The house is also remarkable for it's scale and size. On the inside, in addition to thoughtful built-ins, the footprint of the house is sparing and the rooms are small. The only sense of expansiveness is in the main hall that runs up to south facing clerestories and in the doors that open onto the patio and view out towards the water. This modulation of space helps create a house that is tranquil, welcoming and unpretentious and above all, representative of architecture on a human scale.