Modernism on the West Coast and Beyond

Modernism on the West Coast and Beyond

Reviews: Exhibits

Modernism on the West Coast and Beyond

By Colleen Humer
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  • Ron Thom and the Allied Arts
  • West Vancouver Museum Ÿ 
  • Vancouver, BC Ÿ 
  • July 5 to September 21, 2013
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  • Gardiner Museum Ÿ 
  • Toronto, ON Ÿ 
  • February 13 to April 27, 2014
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  • Trent University Ÿ 
  • Peterborough, ON Ÿ 
  • August 7 to October 22, 2014
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  • Photography and the West Coast Modern House
  • Emily Carr University Ÿ
  • Vancouver, B.C.
  • Aug 7 to Sept 5, 2013
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  • Coast Modern: Three Generations of Inspired Living
  • A film tracing the roots of West Coast Modern Architecture
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The exhibitions Ron Thom and the Allied Arts, (figs. 2 & 4), on display at the West Vancouver Museum, highlights in its selection and juxtaposition of objects and architecture, the “art of architecture” 1 in the work of architect Ron Thom, (figs. 1 & 3). And it is this art of architecture that is ultimately also the subject of both Photography and the West Coast Modern House, at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University with the film Coast Modern: Three Generations of Inspired Living, produced by Leah Mallen of Twofold Films. The Charles H. Scott Gallery at Emily Carr displayed a room of poster size photographs of west coast modernist homes. From the 1930’s, through to the present, in both black and white and color, these images demonstrated the transparency to the landscape of this particularly site-specific architecture. Similarly, Coast Modernexamines modern homes from the 1920’s to the present, from Los Angeles, to San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. In every case, the focus is on the integration of the building with the site, the extraordinary symbiosis of architecture and nature.

Ron Thom, (1923-1986), is one of the most prominent architects to come out of Vancouver, B.C., Canada, in the mid twentieth century. He created award-winning buildings in British Columbia and in Ontario. There is one monograph on Thom, written by his friend and colleague, architect and former director of the school of architecture at the University of British Columbia, the late Douglas Shadbolt. New work on Thom is thus long overdue. The exhibition, curated by Adele Weder, who is also the author of its accompanying catalogue, begins the process of refamiliarizing us with the work of Thom, and will travel, appropriately, from Vancouver - the site of so many of Thom’s poetic residential projects, to Toronto’s Gardiner Museum, a stone’s throw from Thom’s much celebrated Massey College, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013 and then on to Peterborough Ontario’s Trent University, designed by Thom and celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014.

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The exhibition’s organization reflects the diversity of the work both in location and conception, with one room devoted to the homes of the west coast and to Thom’s art and music. The second room showcases the university projects of Ontario, but curator Adele Weder has also included west coast homes in order to show the interconnections between the realms of art, and domestic and university architecture. The West Vancouver museum is small, but the Thom exhibition, designed by the Vancouver firm Public: Architecture + Communication, is satisfying and comprehensive. Upon entering, before any visual information can be processed, one smells wood – the smell of the west coast. The rooms of the museum have been built out, in the diagonals of Thom, using plywood, that ubiquitous west coast product so key to the creation of Modern architectural and artistic production on the west coast. The smell of the west coast – wood, air and water is unique, and that the exhibition designers remember our sense of smell is wonderful and subtle, because this is an art and architecture powerfully of the senses. In terms of this exhibition design, Weder collaborated  with Public: Architecture + Communication (Susan Mavor, Brian Wakelin, Courtney Healey and Laura Killam) and credits these designers for the idea of deploying wood.

Ron Thom began as a painting student at the Vancouver School of Art and the exhibition treats includes several of his paintings and we see an artist’s sensitivity to a stimulation of all the senses in his architecture as a total work of art, orgesamtkunstwerk. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work is evoked in both the exhibition and the film, Coast Modern, Thom believed one idea should control all aspects of a design from the built form right down to the cutlery. At Massey College, for example, Thom chose and ordered the specific cutlery to be used in the dining hall. Additionally, he designed furniture, lamps and commissioned ceramic artists to create ashtrays, and examples of each are on display in this exhibition. I was personally delighted to see beautiful pencil, hand drawn, plans for Massey College by Ron Thom; their quality and detailing underlines the connection to the work of Wright, (fig. 5).

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Massey College is a designated heritage building and this year it received a Prix de XXe siècle award from the Heritage Canada Foundation. The jury commented that, "Massey College is a skillful and humane interpretation of Arts and Crafts sensibilities in a modernist idiom. It is remarkable for its seamless integration of exterior and interior design, including the rich detailing of its custom furnishings and fittings. It has aged well, and is one of the University of Toronto's most treasured modern buildings." 2 The buildings designed by Ron Thom at Trent University, likewise, have received multiple awards and are the focus of various programs aimed at their ongoing care and protection, (fig. 6).

As critic Trevor Boddy points out in the film Coast Modern, inhabitants of the coast live in a “blessed zone,” 3 which allows a lifestyle where boundaries between inside and outside are blurred, (fig. 7). Thus the smells of the out of doors, the feel of the air and warmth on your skin, the small and large, secret and framed views of water, mountains and trees, these are constants of everyday life. When Thom was designing house in Vancouver, doors and windows were left open, air conditioning was rare, bugs, random cats, dogs, squirrels and other wildlife come in. Even in Vancouver, where people sit outside under sun umbrellas during intermittent rains, the house takes on a sort of tent-like quality, sitting lightly on the land with the landscape moving into and through it. Unlike those modern houses that Robert Venturi accused of being diagrams, “of an oversimplified program for living,” 4 the modern houses of the west coast, respond to the way people want to live.

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But in 2013, as Boddy point out, “McMansions” have become the norm and many of Thom’s houses in Vancouver arethreatened with demolition. Property values in West Vancouver have risen to the point where the structures on the property are often assessed as having little or no value. Owners, hoping to maximize their investment, typically knock down existing houses and replace them with the biggest possible structure. Thus the original modest, restrained homes by Thom and similarly minded architects are now under pressure exactly because of their restraint. 

The three exhibitions clearly remind us of the beauty and value(s) inherent in the modern house of the west coast. The Thom exhibition balances this against his university work. One would hope that this examination of the houses, would lead to also to their protection, if necessary, via heritage designation. As Adele Weder states in her introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, “roughly a half century after their construction, these university buildings and houses continue to serve their original purposes, sheltering their inhabitants and delighting the eye: a testament to the enduring value of the art of architecture.” 5

  1. Adele Weder, editor, Ron Thom and the Allied Arts, (West Vancouver, B.C.: West Vancouver Museum, 2013), 3.
  2. Heritage Canada Foundation Prix de XXe siècle jury, 2013.http://www.heritagecanada.org/en/get-involved/awards/2013-awards-recipients
  3. Trevor Boddy, Coast Modern: Three Generations of Inspired Living, Twofold Films, documentary drama, Leah Mallen producer, 16:30.  http://coastmodernfilm.com/
  4. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966, reprint, 2002), 17.
  5. Weder, 3.
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