"New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-65": Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, November 8 1997 - January 18 1998

By MacKay, Sherry | Urban History Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

"New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-65": Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, November 8 1997 - January 18 1998


MacKay, Sherry, Urban History Review


Sherry McKay

School of Architecture, University of British Columbia

Playing to a home audience between November 8, 1997 and January 18, 1998, the "New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1965," won popular appeal as it regaled local visitors with the city's well-known as well as less-familiar buildings and practitioners, as exemplified by the inclusion of both the B. C. Electric Head Office by Thompson, Berwick and Pratt and the Sky Bungalow by Fred Hollingsworth. The exhibition, initiated at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in March 1997 and concluding at Calgary's Nickel Art Gallery in April 1998, is neither over-whelming in size, nor overly exclusive in its selection of material.

The propagation of a `new spirit' in Vancouver's architecture is ambitiously encapsulated via a heterogeneous collection of renderings, presentation drawings, construction details, plans, sections and period documents -- architectural journals and books, newspaper accounts and advertisements, the odd personal letter and an assortment of furniture. All are distributed through a succession of galleries where broadly drawn themes -- corporate modernism, learning modernism, synthesis of the arts, the rational house, designs for living, aesthetics of the new townscape, etc. -- attempt to manage the archival and popular material. While this thematic organization promises an approach more amenable to a lucid rendering of the multiple voices of modernity, this promise is somewhat compromised by a straining for a single consensual narrative to explain events and illuminate aesthetic issues that ran through the accompanying commentary and book. The exhibition, while highlighting some new players such as Catherine Chard Wisnicki, recounts through the selection of the material and its arrangement, the well-rehearsed narrative of the heroic endeavour of a group that included the painter Bert Binning and architects such as Robert Berwick, Ned Pratt, John Porter, Roy Jessiman, Arthur Erickson, and Ron Thom to bring modernism to the West Coast, a place seemingly unfettered by long-standing architectural traditions or by a climate inhospitable to modernism's flat roofs and glazed expanses. The book, by Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, amplifies the array of disparate exhibits and offers a richly documented compendium of research material and sources ranging from the Canadian Architectural Archives at the University of Calgary to the personal archives of architects such as Erickson and Jessiman.

Clearly, the task of the curators was to weave together the material offered as a tribute to design, architecture and architects on the West Coast with themes largely borrowed from other places -- the 1945 University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture syllabus from which the book gets its thematic concerns of equity, efficiency, and community, or Le Corbusier's Radiant City which lends a theoretical context to one section of the exhibition. But, from these very general references, it is difficult to pin down the distinctively new aspects of architectural production of the period in this particular place, especially when the architects drew their inspiration (Southern California, Sweden, England) and received their training (McGill, Toronto, London) in other places, and entered into diverse discourses (functionalism, organic form, community). It is perhaps the strength of this exhibition that it does present this material -- the wonderful drawings by Wells Coates from the CCA, the citations from texts such as the journal Western Homes and Living which convey something of the ethos of the period, the architectural innovation that it rightly points to, the issues of community and education that it recalls. The exhibition has also garnered a sympathetic audience for architecture in the city. In this there is much to recommend of the exhibition. As well, the public response to the exhibition signals its subject as a site of general affection and nostalgia that begs investigation. …

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