Book Reviews: June 2015


Brutalist Architecture in Winnipeg
By Jeffrey Thorsteinson. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, 2012.

This elegant booklet is one in a series of tour guides prepared by the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation under the directorship of Susan Algie. It highlights 18 Brutalist buildings designed and constructed in Winnipeg between 1966 and 1979. Its selection ranges from cultural havens, like the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Blessed Sacrament Church, to more hard-boiled civic hubs: the Taxation Centre, Transit Garage, and city jail.

What these edifices share, according to author Jeffrey Thorsteinson, is a spartan display of structure, rough masonry, “corduroy concrete,” and local designers keen to participate in an international trend. The 53-page publication consists of an explanatory prologue, brief glossary, select references and handy map, together with streetside images and cursory data for each building on the tour.

More documentary than interpretive, Brutalist Architecture in Winnipeg will amply inform the tourist’s gaze while implicitly advocating for the conservation of these half-century-old structures—all but one of which still successfully accommodate their original programs.

Yet the booklet can do more. In the hands of the critically inclined, it should revive awareness of what Reyner Banham called New Brutalism’s “ethical stand.” For, through its monumentalized mundanity and raw aesthetics, this controversial movement confronted brute realities, re-engaging social and economic challenges of the time. This civic motive—exposing social structures as much as concrete structures—remains worthy of preservation.

Lisa Landrum, MRAIC, is an architect, writer and associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.

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The West Coast Modern House: Vancouver Residential Architecture
Edited by Greg Bellerby. Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2014.

The past few years have seen a resurgence of interest in Vancouver’s vernacular architecture, most recently reaffirmed with this new monograph edited by Greg Bellerby, former curator of the Charles H. Scott Gallery at Emily Carr University. Bellerby, along with Christopher Macdonald and Jana Tyner—local authorities on the subject, contribute poignant essays. The book also features a 1947 essay written by one of Vancouver’s fathers of Modernism, C.E. (Ned) Pratt.

The sepia-toned photographs of 53 selected houses—many of which consist of modest light wood framing interspersed with poured concrete, heavy timber structure, and single-glazed fenestration—include famous exemplars of the type, such as B.C. Binning’s seminal 1941 house he designed for himself, along with Arthur Erickson’s two Smith Houses. As Christopher Macdonald points out, the architects were often their own clients, boldly exploring what was, at the time, uncharted territory using new building materials. As well as B.C. Binning’s own home, also featured are those of Ron Thom, Zoltan Kiss, Douglas Shadbolt, Peter Oberlander and Barry Downs, to name only a few.

As a fitting epilogue, the last dozen pages of the book (in colour) are devoted to the next generation of West Coast house designers, including the work of David Battersby and Heather Howat, as well as Javier Campos and Michael Leckie. Patricia and John Patkau are also featured: no book on the subject could be complete without them, as they have been both inspiration and teacher to many of the region’s current architectural practitioners.

The West Coast Modern House is essential reading material, and one of the most comprehensive monographs on the subject to date.

Sean Ruthen, MRAIC, is a Vancouver-based architect and writer.


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Lost in Space: Architecture and Dementia
Edited by Eckhard Feddersen and Insa Lüdtke. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2014.

Seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand Canadians suffer from dementia—a number set to double by 2031. The challenge of designing environments for them offers a chance to revisit the fundamental concern of how we perceive space. Architecture has the power to do more than keep people safe or satisfied: it can improve our quality of life and renew our material and spatial awareness.

Referencing relevant peer-reviewed literature and built examples, this richly illustrated book argues that architecture impacts how we behave, influencing our moods, feelings and memories. Physical surroundings are especially important to people with weakened cognitive or physical abilities. The book includes essays by sociologists, philosophers, gerontologists and architects. Architectural precedents are included throughout, often from the editor´s own practice, which specializes in creating truly inspiring health-care environments.

Lost in Space is rare: there are few architecture books about dementia and those that do exist tend to focus on elements such as therapeutic gardens, rather than the phenomenological underpinnings of designing for rehabilitation. The editor carefully balances evidence-based research, philosophical investigations of dwelling, and the practicalities of buildings.

A highlight is the case study of De Hogeweyk, a dementia-care village in the Netherlands. Low-rise courtyard buildings create clusters of high-quality places designed around daylight, thresholds, procession and spatial variety. These are strong concepts for any housing design—reinforcing the thesis that the starting point for designing for dementia is in clear, quality architectural expression.

Terri Peters is a post-doctoral researcher at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto.