In Memoriam: Barry Vance Downs, 1930-2022

Barry Downs' death, at age 92, marked the passing of one of the last giants of West Coast Modernism.

Barry Downs with his young family in Downs House I, Vancouver. Photo by Selwyn Pullan, courtesy of the West Vancouver Art Museum

In the ruthless postwar arena to build the nation in the modern paradigm, Barry Downs presented an anomaly. Soft-spoken, modest, and devoted to both architecture and family life, he brought a rare sensibility to his work. When he died, in July, at age 92, it marked the passing of one of the last giants of West Coast Modernism.

Mr. Downs built his career in the second wave of Canadian modernism, when verdant lots on the West Coast were cheap and plentiful. The timing allowed him to benefit from the mentorship of the earlier architectural trailblazers, including Ned Pratt and Ron Thom. As he built his career through the late 1950s and 1960s, his houses and public buildings bridged the often-austere high modernism of the day with a more earthy, organic sensibility that fit the coastal context.

Barry Vance Downs grew up in a C.B.K. Van Norman-designed home, whose steeply pitched roof, timber and stucco gables, baronial oak-plank front door, and huge garden made an indelible impression on him as a young boy. During high school, he befriended Art Phillips, who later became one of his first clients and later still one of the most transformational mayors of Vancouver.

After two listless years studying commerce at the University of British Columbia, Downs moved to Seattle in 1950 to study architecture. Although UBC had just established its own architecture school that very year, Mr. Downs chose the University of Washington’s well-established programme. When he returned to his hometown in 1954, he apprenticed at Thompson, Berwick, Pratt & Partners—at that time the largest and most important firm in Western Canada: “my much-appreciated ‘graduate school’”, as he called it. The size wasn’t as important as the connections and mentors it brought to him.

“The major turning point for me was the introduction to Ron Thom and Freddy Hollingsworth and Doug Shadbolt—that whole gang,” recalled Mr. Downs in a 2012 interview with this writer. “All my work at the University of Washington was directed towards Mies van der Rohe’s idea of minimalism. But I discovered a whole other design approach here, and I’m forever grateful for that.”

A sketch by Downs of his Rayer Residence, in West Vancouver.

From those early mentors, Mr. Downs absorbed not only their famed sensitivity to the West Coast landscape, but the emotional and sensory aspects of design. “At the start, I didn’t realize that architecture isn’t all about construction and engineering and huge glass walls open to the views. It also has much to do with exhilaration in being in certain spaces,” he recalled in our interview. He began to question the Miesian mantra of austerity, openness, and precision—which, he came to realize, did not suit every need in every region. While he appreciated minimalism and new materials, he recognized the human need for organic texture and form, especially on the West Coast.

At the same time, he brought ideas from elsewhere back to his firm. In 1956, with his wife, Mary, he made an international pilgrimage to major architectural landmarks, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park houses and Johnson Wax Building in Wisconsin, and Lever House in New York. Overseas, he visited Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille, which he remembers as a building full of “fascinating moments,” whose modularity allowed the building to be scaled to the human figure. He also toured Mussolini’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome, the circa-1940 slab-block tower that he remembered as “cruel, stripped-down rationalism. It was fascist. And yet my simple less-is-more brain sort of liked it!”

Back in Vancouver, Downs became a voracious reader of the European design journals in the TBP library: Domus, Architectural Review, and a slew of magazines from Finland and Scandinavia, which brought him new ideas about imaginative form beyond the International Style template. His love of craft, landscape, drawing, and watercolours helped endear him to the star designer at Thompson Berwick Pratt, Ron Thom, who enlisted him to render the handcoloured presentation boards for the 1960 Massey College competition as well as hundreds of his other projects.

Meanwhile, his role at TBP transitioned from illustration to full-fledged design. His breakout projects include the 1957 house for his friend Art Phillips; the 1958 Ladner Pioneer Library, designed in collaboration with TBP colleagues Richard Archambault and Blair MacDonald; his own 1959 glass-and-brick Downs House I; and the 1963 Rayer Residence, later expanded by Blue Sky Architecture + Design into a live-work residence.

In 1964, when an anticipated partnership at TBP failed to materialize, Downs left to start a new firm with Fred Hollingsworth. Their skill sets weren’t entirely complementary, however. Hollingsworth’s penchant for Frank Lloyd Wright differed from Down’s more subdued and minimalist approach. Also, Downs wanted to design larger projects and public buildings, while Hollingsworth remained content to focus on single-family homes.

In 1969, his life and career improved when he teamed up with architect Richard Archambault. While at Downs/Archambault, he designed or co-designed several important landmarks, including the North Vancouver Civic Centre, the Brittannia Community Centre in East Vancouver, and Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific on Vancouver Island (with Ron Thom as lead designer), and more houses. His 1972 Oberlander House II, designed in collaboration with urban planner Peter Oberlander and Cornelia Oberlander, was recently sold to a sympathetic buyer who plans to restore it.

For his second family home, he designed the Downs House II in West Vancouver, with walls curving in a contiguous plane into the roofline like an Airstream trailer. The house is the subject of an eponymous 2016 monograph by UBC architecture professor Christopher Macdonald.

He spent much of his later career on urban projects, including Vancouver’s Library Square by Moshe Safdie, and the Roundhouse Community Centre plan. “Perhaps most extraordinary in Barry Downs’ career was his demonstrated ability to transform his practice from a modest, largely residential focus to expansive urban design projects,” says Macdonald. “It was precisely this ability that has given us an enduring sense of locale both in individual residential design and the distinctive contours of our cities.”