Midcentury West Coast modernism comes alive in Selwyn Pullan book
Selwyn Pullan: Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism is just the book for retro-interior-design fans to display on their curvy Danish teak coffee tables. But it’s also a remarkable reminder of how livable the style—so often coldly reinterpreted in 2012—could be. The new publication (put out by Douglas & McIntyre) brings alive an era known to most only through vintage-furniture-store remnants, and celebrates the West Coast as the centre of the midcentury-modernist movement.
In the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, Pullan photographed architecture and interior design as it thrived in Vancouver and particularly on the forested slopes of the North Shore. His photo spreads would appear in magazines like the popular Western Homes and Living, celebrating the clean lines and post-and-beam looks of a new wave of architects here—people like Arthur Erickson, Barry Downs, and Ron Thom. Pullan, now long retired and in his ninth decade, was never as well-known as those names, but his work was recognized as integral to theirs. At the same time, the photographer was making these building designs seem accessible to an upwardly mobile readership.
“Midcentury modernism, which started in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, actually became a viable building form post–World War II. We needed houses and we had the land and the wealth,” explains architectural writer Adele Weder, who has written a section of the large photo book. “Selwyn Pullan made it acceptable; he made it middle-class. It wasn’t strange and weird; it was appropriate with this climate. He made it not what it is today, where it’s a bit fetishized or high-fashion. It was something very beautiful and very desirable, and attainable.”
The book is bursting with sleek, richly lit exteriors of architecture in its surroundings—from a dramatic 1955 shot of West Van’s Porter residence, all angles and glass amid trees, with a rushing stream in the foreground, to 1966’s Kennedy residence, a modular stack of cedar shakes shot from below, so that it seems to rise right out of the rocky cliff. “Architecture is distinct in that it’s an unmovable art form and the only way we can appreciate it, other than making a pilgrimage to it, is for it to be captured in a photograph that crystallizes it,” Weder says, stressing that Pullan was in the vanguard of the new art form. “This photography is not just a passive documentation; he has to get inside the architect’s mind and feel where the space is going.”
As for the book’s interior shots, they’re a design geek’s dream, showing Eames and Barcelona chairs in their original settings; authentic retro colour combos like golds, greens, and orange-y reds; and spectacular modernist ceramics and artworks on teak coffee tables and over rectangular fireplaces. Midcentury fans will note many room accents you don’t often see in contemporary spins on the style, from coloured carpeting to cedar shakes.
But what sets the book apart is the way it shows families living in their sleekly modernist homes. In one shot, kids prepare Christmas decorations by a turquoise-tile fireplace; in another, a couple play chess in their slanting, post-and-beam loft, with its view of the sunset beyond the trees; and in an outdoor image, two boys toss a football by a perfectly circular concrete pool. Pullan celebrates midcentury modernism as it was intended to be used here.
“Most architectural photographs have no humans in them and you can feel the human presence in these: he insists on flowers or foliage that a lot more pure architectural photographers are loath to do,” Weder explains. “The way he lights and frames them, they feel cozy.”
Kiriko Watanabe, assistant curator at the West Vancouver Museum (which has exhibited—and championed—Pullan’s work), searched through thousands of photographs with Pullan in his North Shore studio and house to find the shots for the book. And she, too, became fascinated with the humanity and warmth he brought to his architectural shots. “In the book we feature people in their own houses, and Selwyn told me just the other day he’s glad the book carries that impression,” explains Watanabe, who also contributed an essay to the book, as did heritage expert Donald Luxton and architect Barry Downs. “You might see a cat in the photo, and if you look even more carefully the cat that you see as a tiny dot is actually looking at Selwyn.…It’s really cute when you find these details, and that’s one of the things I tried to do going through the negatives. It was partly his own personality and creative approach, but also it came from his own extensive training in art and design at the Art Center in Los Angeles.”
Watanabe also drove with Pullan to the original sites of the buildings he shot from the 1950s to the 1970s, only to discover many of the homes had been either modified beyond recognition or demolished—like the Shadbolt home designed by its famous residents, Jack and Doris, and shot by Pullan in 1956, which met with the wrecking ball in 2004.
And that is the sad fact about the new book: it is, in many ways, a chronicle of loss. Because of the way Vancouver’s real estate has evolved, people feel compelled to squeeze ever-bigger houses onto our ever-more-expensive parcels of land—and little money is left to fund a unique architectural vision.
Still, Weder points out there are some homes in the book that have been lovingly maintained, including West Van’s multilevel marvel, the Forrest residence.
Perhaps Selwyn Pullan will give people a new appreciation for the modernist architecture here. “Now that the book is out, it makes Vancouver and the North Shore proud,” Watanabe says. “It’s the legacy of not just architects, but designers and artists, and those people who commissioned the architects to build these houses. You see how beautiful B.C. is and how the houses are part of where they live. I think the drive that kept me going was really the love of the West Coast.”
On top of being a celebration of B.C.’s take on modernism, Pullan’s book carries messages about what we have lost, and how we can live better. Today, we tend to put space above all other concerns, but midcentury modernism spoke to the beauty of simplicity and simple living—even though the homes, unlike today’s, had a lot of personality.
“These houses had one bathroom, two or three bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and that’s all you would need. And he would show it as a good life,” Weder says of Pullan. “He’s expressing the beauty of not sheer volume, but design.
“That’s the danger with neomodernism and the whole Dwell magazine phenomenon: that we could get too obsessed with the visual trappings of modernism without really understanding the primordial values of what Selwyn Pullan captured. These houses are easy on the eye. But they’re cozy. You don’t feel like you have to wear Prada shoes to walk through them.”