Who is Daniel Evan White? That’s the first question many people in the design community asked themselves when it was announced that the Museum of Vancouver and the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture were teaming up to curate the first-ever retrospective of the Vancouver-based modernist architect, entitled Play House: The Architecture of Daniel Evan White.
Since its successful rebranding in 2009, the Museum of Vancouver, now known by its MOV acronym, has gone from musty-fusty repository of the city’s Victorian past to an increasingly relevant—some might even say cool—cultural touchstone. From bicycle culture to sex to John Fluevog’s high heels, MOV has striven to highlight unique and relevant flash points in the city’s culture, as well as some of its unsung heroes.
“Daniel Evan White is like when we had our Tobias Wong exhibit,” says Museum of Vancouver curator Viviane Gosselin, remembering 2012’s posthumous look at the hugely influential and internationally recognized Vancouver-born artist-designer and enfant terrible of the contemporary art world. “People were asking, ‘Who is he?’ He was so important all over the world and virtually unknown where he was born. Now they know.”
White may not carry the cachet of an artist of Wong’s stature, but the idea of introducing him to a hometown audience possibly unfamiliar with his work is the same. Despite a career spanning five decades, White and his work have been eclipsed by that of his former mentor and eventual colleague Arthur Erickson. The embodiment of the “starchitect”, Erickson was as famous for his extracurricular exploits as he was for buildings like the Law Courts in Vancouver; the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.; and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. While Erickson was jet-setting around the world, palling around with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the heady ’70s, and generally boosting his public profile with a personal love of decadence that belied the pared-down aesthetic of his buildings, White was a constant craftsman. A master of balance and the interplay between shape and form, the unassuming architect was responsible for hundreds of residences up and down the West Coast but never sought the spotlight. He didn’t need to. “He never had to hunt for commissions,” says Gosselin, “he worked by word of mouth.”
“Another reason he’s not as well known is that he chose to work primarily on residential commissions,” explains UBC adjunct professor Martin Lewis, the exhibit’s guest cocurator. “They don’t have the impact that public buildings do.” Lewis, along with fellow guest cocurator Greg Johnson, has collected hundreds of documents and commissioned dozens of maquettes (scale models) of White’s work, placing it all into a compact 1,800 square feet. (Incidentally, that’s the same square footage as West Vancouver’s Máté Residence, a 1:4 scale model of which dominates the room and serves as a focal point for the exhibition.) What emerges from Lewis and Johnson’s labours is incontrovertible proof of White’s influence as a modernist architect—on his famous colleague Erickson. “People see these maquettes and think, ‘Oh, that’s an Erickson,’” says Gosselin. “Well, check the dates and compare them. Which came first?”
The similarities began before White had built a single structure. His 1962 UBC graduation project, the 55,000-square-foot Government House, would lend many of its key monumental elements to the iconic SFU campus, which White helped design as Erickson’s employee and was submitted in 1963. From certain angles, White’s Reynolds I Residence could be mistaken for a miniaturized version of the Law Courts, except the West Vancouver home is from 1969, a full four years before the courthouse was commissioned. In 1976, Erickson’s Museum of Anthropology stunned the design world with its culturally specific post-and-beam concrete construction. Of course, the world could have had its mind blown that same year by the Weaver Residence, or even back in 1974 with the eerily prescient vertical and horizontal lines of White’s Reynolds II Residence.
This is not to say, however, that the world-renowned Erickson was scamming the work of an extremely talented, lower-profile contemporary. Gosselin is quick to point out that there is often an interplay of ideas between artists, and that the exhibit highlights the architectural zeitgeist of the times—something in the air that they both drew from. They would have been influenced by the prevailing ideas in architecture. They lived in the same city and were undoubtedly inspired by the same geography and vistas. For his part, Lewis notes that the architects remained friends throughout their lives and Erickson would often send White congratulatory letters upon the completion of his projects. He adds, somewhat portentously, that White’s rising profile within the UBC School of Architecture (thanks to the exhibit) has led to more examinations of the relationship between Erickson’s and White’s work.
But perhaps the most fitting tribute to White’s talent and unobtrusive nature is what Gosselin and Lewis have heard many early visitors say: “Oh! I know that house!” Just as White quietly went about his work, his buildings have just as quietly established his legacy.