28 Uses for Al Purdy’s A-Frame

TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTO Duncan Patterson

Al Purdy’s A-frame cottage is very much like his poetry: an architecture of the everyday, cobbled together from found objects–right down to the bent ventilation plate that serves as one of its ad hoc pilings.

Built in 1957 by the poet himself on the shores of Roblin Lake, Ontario, Purdy’s modest cottage loomed large in the poet’s life and work. This “ragged cobweb against the sky,” as he described it, became the locus classicus for literary gatherings; for much of his writing, it served as both fodder and factory. As raw and rustic and beloved as the poet himself, it eventually aged into his “crumbling little house,” as he wrote in the 1990 poem “An Arrogance.”

Purdy died in 2000, but if a dedicated group of friends and colleagues get their way, his little house won’t crumble to dust but will instead be preserved to inspire the next generation of poets. Led by writer Jean Baird, the preservation campaign now has its own monograph, The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology. Just released by Harbour Publishing, the book serves jointly as fundraising tool and literary tribute to both Purdy and the A-frame typology itself.

In the anthology’s essay “Thinking Through the A-Frame,” designer and architectural graduate Duncan Patterson pays tribute to Purdy and his domestic handiwork and also to the building type itself. Patterson became interested in Purdy’s A-frame while researching his Master’s thesis at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. He wondered whether there was a Canadian analogue to Heidegger’s mountain hut and all its embedded inspiration. It didn’t take him long to discover Purdy’s legendary construction. And though ultimately it didn’t figure in his thesis, the subject stuck with him, inspiring his contribution to the anthology.

Patterson cites from Purdy’s “An Arrogance” to suggest a link between his A-frame and the poetics of construction: the cleaving on an A-frame’s sharp peak that changes, as Purdy observed, “the contour of the earth itself,” and which fences in “a portion of the sky.” There is much in common between both the tasks and creations of the poet and the architect, suggests Patterson.

Purdy had remembered the plan for the A-frame as coming from House Beautiful–an irony probably relished by this beer-drinking barroom romantic. But Patterson deduces that it was, in fact, ordered from an edition of Canadian Homes and Gardens that featured the A-frame on its cover and a boast that you could construct it for a mere $2,000. “It was this everyman architecture that anyone can build, and Purdy was an everyman poet,” notes Patterson. It fits.

In some ways, the humble vernacular A-frame cottage is perhaps the most unmodern house of our time, an icon of Canadian hoser architecture. Its ferociously steep roofline reaches close to the ground, obliterating the possibility of sidewall glazing and steeping its corners in shadow. But the darkness was fitting, too. Eventually the cottage became a memento mori, as suggested in “An Arrogance,” in which Purdy wrote:

my small passion for permanence
is to stand outside at night
(conceding probability to the “Big Bang”)
in the full rush and flow of worlds
dancing the firefly dance of the universe
stand on my local planet and
neighbourhood galaxy
beside my crumbling little house
inside my treacherous disappearing body
while the dear world vanishes
and say weakly
& I don’t like it
& I don’t like it
–to no one who could possibly be listening.

Adele Weder divides her time between the Queen Charlotte Islands and Vancouver.