August 1, 2006
by Adele Weder
Text Adele Weder
Photo Graham Warrington
Plan Peeroj Thakre
The Binning House embodies a curious fusion of clarity and enigma. Built in 1941 in West Vancouver, the house is widely credited with kick-starting West Coast Modernism and influencing future icon-makers from Ron Thom onwards. For its designer, artist Bertram Charles Binning, the house was a combination of home, art gallery, and demonstration piece for Modernism. For critics and historians, the house is Corbusian, Gropian, Functionalist, Rationalist, or just plain Modernist. But categorical labels refute the house’s complexity and purpose: a closer look suggests that this house argues against conventional architectural pigeonholing.
At a cursory glance, the Binning House reads as clean, simple, rectilinear massing. Careful observation and measurement, however, reveal that the house is actually enriched with curious forms and angles: walls slant and curve, windows slope into trapezoidal shapes, built-in bookshelves and headboards are shaped in a way that no machine could replicate. The common belief that it was a model of low-budget housing is belied by the artisanal nature of its design and its actual construction cost (roughly $5,000 in 1941, more than double the comparably sized budget housing of the day). Neither a Rationalist nor a housing developer would have designed anything like the Binning House, for it defied both popular taste and the rigourous tenets of early Modernism.
Embedded in the house are the gleanings of Binning’s year of travel just before its design. Binning studied art under Henry Moore in England in 1938, a time when the neo-constructivist leanings of Moore and his architectural colleague Berthold Lubetkin held sway. Binning concluded his year abroad with a visit to New York in 1939, taking in a seminal exhibition of avant-garde housing at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit featured the work of every Modernist giant, from Lubetkin to Gropius to Wright, and seemed to synthesize Binning’s appreciation of contemporary architecture.
But instead of making a machine for living, Binning rendered his house as a kind of Moorian sculpture, with the splayed and mannered shapes and lines he would also favour in his art. The floor plan is generated by the same oblique lines that appear in Binning’s own drawings and paintings; his custom-built studio clerestory window fans into a subtle trapezoid to follow the canted roofline. Even though one sees the influence of pioneer Modernists, from the south wall’s Gropian factory-issue doors to the Neutraesque openness of the living and dining areas, this house is a one-off, more art than architecture.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Binning House is not its status as one of the first Modernist houses on the West Coast, but, ironically, its subtle defiance of Modernist dogma. As Christopher Macdonald has noted, the derivation of the splayed geometric order is less relevant than its consequence; to extend and give nuance to the conventional expectations of “canonic” Modernism: “The house becomes a kind of cipher for how the often-course polemics of modern architectural rhetoric may be rendered familiar, poignant and local.” That the designer’s beloved widow, 100-year-old Jessie Binning, lives there to this day is just one more testament to its enduring significance.
Adele Weder, co-author of B.C. Binning (Douglas & McIntyre, 2006), recently completed a masters of architectural studies degree at the UBC School of Architecture with a thesis on the Binning House. She currently resides in Montreal.
Surrounded by Paintbrushes, Canvas and Other Tools of His Trade, Artist B.C. Binning Is Seated in His Home Studio in This Photograph From 1950.