Canadian Architect

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Editorial: Plots of Gold

Many West Coast Modern homes face fraught times, where their very survival will be on the line.

April 1, 2015
by Elsa Lam

binning house

Artist B.C. Binning and his wife Jessie at their home in West Vancouver. Photo from B.C. Binning fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, Gift of Jessie Binning

In 1939, artist Bertram Charles (B.C.) Binning began building himself an odd house in West Vancouver. Located along a quiet residential street, the one-storey bungalow is nestled into the hillside, down a garden lane. Adjacent to the entry, a colourful mural by Binning—who was known for his abstract paintings—covers an entire wall. Binning changed up the mural several times; its last incarnation is a supergraphic of yellow chevrons that wrap around a corner.

Inside, things get really interesting. There’s a curved hallway that bisects the house and doubles as a gallery space. It’s capped by another floor-to-ceiling mural, filled with exuberant geometric shapes. There’s a living room with patio doors that slide open to an ocean view, where Binning and his wife Jessie entertained leading artists and architects: Lawren Harris, Gordon Smith, Jack Shadbolt, Richard Neutra. The young Ron Thom took painting classes from Binning. There are built-in drawers and nooks everywhere for displaying sculptures, books and found objects.

Most strikingly, there are few square corners to the house. Like in Binning’s paintings, every room has a subtly irregular geometry, by design. Walls taper in, ceilings and windows are cut on a slant. As critic Adele Weder notes, this creates a series of forced perspectives as you move through the house—and an uncanny sense that the house is a living, moving entity.

Since Jessie Binning died in 2007 at age 101, the Binning House has been embroiled in a legal battle, tossed between being preserved for public use or sold on the private market, with the proceeds going to a memorial fellowship fund. If not taken up by the District of West Vancouver or another prospective guardian, the Binning House will be sold to the highest bidder.

While the house is a designated National Historic Site and is listed on the West Vancouver Community Heritage Register, this provides slim legal protection for the property in the long run. If sold privately, the eventual owner of the house may be a Binning aficionado, who would lovingly restore the house as a collector’s piece and allow public and scholarly access as per Jessie Binning’s wishes. Or it might as easily be an investor who initially respects the District’s edict against alteration or demolition, but allows “demolition by neglect” and who eventually pressures a future district council to rescind its current restrictive bylaws on this particular house to allow replacement by a larger residence. Buyers from abroad have been known to scorn heritage homes—even restored ones, dismissed with the catchphrase “old lady, new clothes.”

It’s a tenuous twin prospect faced by dozens of Modernist residences around Vancouver. After the Second World War, land was still affordable in West Vancouver. Artists, architects, and their middle-class clients bought up property. The mild climate and stunning views invited experimentation. The resulting homes boast unique geometries, stylistic daring, and intense relationships between indoors and out. Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom, Dan White and a host of other designers built their careers from residential commissions along the area’s ocean-view streets.

Now, those same sites are what Leslie Van Duzer, Director of the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, calls “plots of gold.” She’s spearheaded a series of monographs on disappearing West Coast Modern gems, including the Binning House and several other endangered houses. The first looks at a hexagon-based design crafted by architect Judah Shumiatcher—a design reminiscent of Ron Thom’s Carmichael House. It was demolished in 2013.

Legislation may help preserve the West Coast Modern legacy. Under its Heritage Revitalization Agreement policy, the City of Vancouver and its surrounding districts can allocate additional density to a site, in exchange for the owner’s agreement to restore a heritage structure. What’s more, in an as-yet-untested variation, a residential owner can sever his lot in two, and sell off the second parcel. In the case of the Binning House, might the garage at the top of the property be redeveloped as a small residence with stunning views—and the proceeds of the sale used to restore the historic house?

It’s a possibility worth exploring—and a legal tool worth testing—as many more West Coast Modern homes face similarly fraught times, where their very survival will be on the line.