Heritage

The recent demolition of the Grant Residence designed by Arthur Erickson forces us to consider what truly defines our architectural heritage and what buildings are really worth preserving and why. It’s a particularly poignant question here on the North Shore where our heritage is very different than what one might think.

After WWII the North Shore saw a period of rapid growth with families from Eastern Canada and abroad moving to the region in search of a new life and a new beginning. The West Coast was seen as place of opportunity, a place where the pioneering spirit could flourish and innovative ideas could thrive. The stunning natural beauty of Vancouver’s mountainous backdrop immediately drew people to it and before long West Vancouver became a Canadian hot spot for contemporary architectural expression.

It all began with the evolution of the International Style in Europe after the First World War. The theoretical concepts that defined this avant-garde movement ushered in an era of truly modernistic thinking towards architecture with iconic statements like “less is more” and a “machine for living” defining the new idiom. These ideas were brought to British Columbia by leading practitioners such as Robert Berwick, Ned Pratt and Bertram Charles Binning. Binning, an artist and teacher who championed the new movement, commissioned Berwick and Pratt to help him design and build his new home. The outcome was arguably the first truly modern home built on the North Shore with a flat roof, large windows and open plan. Looking at the house today one will be struck by its simple form and clean line but might overlook the fact that this modest home was ground breaking in its day.

It wasn’t long before a regional adaptation to this modern esthetic began to take shape with timber structural elements replacing steel and wood finishes replacing stucco and gypsum board. The West Coast Style was born. Talented designers such as Ron Thom, Fred Hollingsworth and, of course, Arthur Erickson began to create their own unique interpretations of this style.

The steep rocky terrain of West Vancouver made for exciting but challenging siting. Traditional housing forms didn’t work well on its precipitous slopes and new approaches to layout had to be explored. The West Coast Style was perfectly suited to the landscape. A post and beam structure was easier to build on difficult terrain and an open plan allowed easy movement from level to level. Large planes of glass captured the magnificent views of ocean and mountain and allowed an integration of interior and exterior space.

West Vancouver had all the ingredients for something special: a pioneering populous with a willingness to break from tradition, a challenging and exciting natural landscape that demanded innovation, and a core of talented designers who were given the chance. It became the breeding ground for cutting-edge contemporary work and is recognized today as having one of the greatest concentrations of significant modern residential architecture of any municipality in Canada.
Understanding our architectural heritage and making efforts to protect it is critical for all communities. The traditional looking homes of our past - the Craftsman Bungalow for example - seem to have an easier go of it these days. People recognize their value and understand the importance of preserving them for future generations. But one must also realize that the ‘modern’ home is also an important piece of our architectural past and here on the North Shore might be our most important architectural legacy of all.