DOXA 2012: Coast Modern revisits the beauty of West Coast modernist homes
If home is where the heart is, what happens to the heart when the home is radically reinvented?
Architects found out some of the answer to that when they developed one of the 20th century’s most handsome domestic innovations: the modernist home.
In light of neomodern architecture’s current revival of modernist principles, the one-hour documentary Coast Modern provides a timely historical survey of some of the most stunning examples of modernist homes from California to B.C., including the Watzek House (Portland), Arthur Erickson’s Smith House (West Vancouver), and more. Douglas Coupland, architect Matthew Soules, urban designer and critic Trevor Boddy, and numerous other interviewees explain how and why this architectural movement evolved its own distinct character upon our western shores. (The film premieres at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on May 8 at Vancity Theatre, and will air on Knowledge Network in the fall.)
Mike Bernard, a local director and designer with architecture in his blood (his uncle is Ned Pratt of the architectural firm Thompson Lloyd Pratt), collaborated on the film with his longtime design-school friend Gavin Froome, an art director and music producer.
Coast Modern directors Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome. Photo: Martin Tessler.
By phone, Bernard says they honed their focus on the home because it provided a consistent form for comparison and contrast between cities, “almost like a science experiment”. Another reason was the inherent emotional hook.
“I think people feel such a heart-and-soul connection to what a domestic space is, to what home is, that any variations, or any playing with it, or pushing the envelope, or reimagining, really seems to strike a chord with people,” he says. “Like you can sit in a café that’s designed in a certain way or an office space, but when you imagine waking up somewhere or going to sleep or basically framing your memories in something, a house just seems to be the most eloquent voice to all the principles that those guys were putting forward.”
The movement liberated architects from the constraints of symmetry and utilized minimalist principles to strip away ornamentation and detail, to focus on the expression of structure. Yet while modernism originated in Europe, West Coast North American architects infused it with their own contrasting approach towards nature.
“Modernism, in its really early roots, was introduced as a response to really dark, enclosed housing that had a lot of disease associated with it…and this idea of space and light…were actually antidotes to what was a very serious disease [tuberculosis] that was circulating,” Bernard explains. “So this idea of opening up spaces and bringing more clarity to things, and also letting the outside world in, definitely started in Europe. But they treated it differently. It was sort of nature’s out there, and it’s to be looked at…whereas on the West Coast…this idea of integrating with the land was much more welcome as a notion and really siting a house properly and letting water features flow through them, and really trying to blow those boundaries between indoor and outdoor….”
Architect John Cava points out in the documentary that the Pacific Northwest, in comparison to Los Angeles and San Francisco, was somewhat “insular” and “provincial” when modernism took root. Those qualities, however, forced architects to turn to local resources, thus adapting modernism’s tenets to our unique characteristics.
“Some of the best versions of modernism…have come when people look to the local environment, to the history, to the climate, to the culture….Any time something’s imported wholesale and it’s completely emulated without regard for local conditions and materials and things, it doesn’t usually end up being very interesting, or relevant, I think.”
Although the Pacific Northwest lacked the glamour and economic draws that southern California did, as the documentary points out, our region also didn’t face the same pressures.
“We were kind of off the hook, in the sense that we didn’t have to conform to the ideals from another city, whereas San Fran, L.A., they feel like the world’s eyes are on them a bit more,” Bernard said. “They [Pacific Northwest architects] were, in a way, free, because of the lack of spotlight, to do their own thing. It’s almost like you’re kids building a fort in the woods.”
Ultimately though, modernist homes failed to gain popularity. Figuring out why, however, resulted in Bernard and Froome fielding numerous theories.
“One of the big questions…was trying to figure out how come it didn’t fly?...We ended up with a bunch of different responses, everything from it’s hard to sell people on dramatic change to the idea that people started associating modernism with towers and with banks.”
Nonetheless, Bernard said that he discovered that home owners of modernist houses were more than willing to open their doors for his film project and share their thoughts about what they appreciate about them. With such a surplus of great material, Bernard says they inevitably had a tough time whittling down five years of work on the film to one hour. However, design aficionados will be pleased to know that they’re hoping to post the extra interview material edited out as videos on a map on their website by June.
You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.