Nip And Tuck
PROJECT McLELLAN-SADDY RENOVATION, VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
DESIGNER D’ARCY JONES DESIGN INC.
TEXT ADELE WEDER
PHOTOS ROBERT LEMERMEYER
In Vancouver, residential modernism reached its high watermark a half-century ago, before successive phases of architectural flamboyance, pseudo-historicism and just plain dullness all but wiped out much of its legacy. But a new generation of architects and clients are making the efforts to seek and update these singular specimens of West Coast Modernism.
D’Arcy Jones, an emerging Vancouver designer and the principal of his eponymous firm, assumed the daunting task of renovating a classic 1958 Thompson Berwick Pratt (TBP) residence in Vancouver’s leafy Southlands neighbourhood. Jones is just beginning to gain renown in British Columbia for a series of graceful, well-proportioned and emphatically Modernist residences. Because most of his projects have been outside of Vancouver, they have received less critical and media attention–less “buzz”–than merited. His Mosewich House in Kamloops, BC, reads as a Modernist sculpture: beautifully proportioned and gracefully spare.
Clients Cam McLellan and Rikia Saddy are a design-conscious couple with two preschool children. Cognizant and appreciative of Mid-Century Modernism, they recently purchased this TBP house with the express intention of resurrecting its original character for a contemporary context.
The McLellan-Saddy House is also evocative of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1930s-era Usonian houses (which in turn were a primordial influence on Ron Thom) in its L-shaped modular grid, clerestory glazing, carport and deference to landscape. By the time of its original construction, though, the Vancouver area was already a fusion of influences. Local sons C. B. K. Van Norman, Peter Thornton and B. C. Binning had built paradigmatic Modernist homes around 1940, and by the early 1950s Richard Neutra had visited the city twice, championing the open-plan, indoor-outdoor concept.
In 1950s Vancouver, TBP was the largest and most important design firm, and every architect of talent and ambition was expected to spend at least a year there. While the firm had designed its own share of Neoclassical knockoffs, it’s best remembered as the engine house for High Modernism. Perhaps the most crucial role of TBP, the largest firm in town, was to make the new Modern paradigm accessible and attractive–not just for academics and mavericks but also for ordinary middle-class families.
The original house was constructed as a one-storey bungalow in 1958, while Ron Thom was a rising star at TBP and headed for partnership. While contributing significantly to important projects like the 1957 BC Electric headquarters, Thom also led a small group of associates at TBP in designing several dozen graceful Modernist houses. According to biographer Douglas Shadbolt, who was also an architect in practice at the time, Thom and TBP associates Dick Mann and Bob Burniston comprised the core team, and drew on other TBP talents as required. These other contributors often just wanted the chance to work with and learn from Thom, wrote Shadbolt, and included Barry Downs, Fred Hollingsworth and Dick Archambault–the ensuing wave of major West Coast talent.
The surviving blueprints of the McLellan-Saddy House, like most of TBP’s smaller houses, aren’t signed by any individual architect. But Thom’s influence, if not his direct hand, lurks throughout. Roughly two miles away from the McLellan-Saddy residence is Thom’s Works-Baker House–also of the same era. Thom’s trademark strengths–the horizontal emphasis and the poetic solid-void rhythm–are in evidence in both houses. So are the Japanese influences so beloved of Thom: the geometric array of horizontal and vertical lines, and the spatial cavity alongside the fireplace evokes a ryokan wall.
By Thom’s own standards, it wouldn’t be deemed a perfect specimen. For instance, the one beam protrudes awkwardly into the living room, inches below another beam. Still, the graceful arrangement of interlocking spaces, and the integrity of the original materials were worth carrying forward into the 21st century.
TBP’s circa-1970 addition of a second floor had generated more living space for the originally tiny bungalow. But, it needed restoration and updating for a contemporary young family of four. Jones had to face the reality of peeling back–often literally–a few decades’ worth of ornament and historicism. Several walls were sheathed in striped and floral wallpaper. The brick fireplace had been painted white, and the exterior a dank hospital green. In the kitchen, the original TBP millwork had long been replaced with the ubiquitous circa-1980 wood-edged MDF cabinetry.
Once the layers of past interventions were stripped away, the clarity of its mid-century design ethos revealed itself. In many ways, the subsequent transformation serves to enhance rather than alter the existing form. The essential changes to the basic form are the expansion of the southwest corner adjacent to the kitchen to create an eating nook, and the extension of the northeast second-floor corner to create a bedroom area for the children. In that newly constructed wing, the children’s second-floor bedrooms are configured as large niches or nooks that you step up into, their floors raised as they follow the rise in ceiling height from the first floor. When they grow to need a more conventional bedroom space, they’ll move to the downstairs bedrooms, and their niches can convert into guest or study areas.
For the kitchen, Jones fashioned a system of custom cabinets framed with plywood and faced with formaldehyde-free MDF, strategically configured to be shallow at eye level with a deeper bank of cabinets above, to preserve the viewlines to the property’s lush landscaping. Jones crafted an elegantly long island counter and transformed the facing wall into a streamlined cabinetry faced with walnut veneer.
In some cases, Jones has taken it upon himself to do what the original designers arguably should have done in the first place. He extended both the slate flagstone flooring and the foyer area’s channel siding to generate more visual cohesion. The main floor’s stucco ceiling was scraped off to expose the fir planks of the original bungalow. After removing the stucco, Jones chose to retain the natural gap between wall and ceiling as a reveal, to prevent an awkward flush meeting of old wood and fresh drywall. The runaround reveal also enhances the sense of lightness and fluidity, as though the ceiling floats on ball bearings.
Jones modestly considers the McLellan-Saddy project more a restoration than renovation, but neither term quite fits this project: reinterpretation is a better word. A 1999 graduate of the University of Manitoba’s architecture school, Jones came into the profession just as working designers and some of the more sophisticated clients were questioning the 1980s and ’90s legacy of huge, self-consciously stylized houses. For the McLellan-Saddy House, both architect and clients defiantly chose not to max out the allowable square footage (over 5,000 square feet on an 8,200-square-foot lot), and instead returned to the original idea of efficiently arranged spaces that allow room outside for copious greenery, and the provision of generous glazing through which to appreciate it.
The McLellan-Saddy House was first built when an accepted formula for gracefulness was felicitously replicated all over Vancouver. In the context of the city’s current huge and ungainly designs, its sympathetic renovation suggests the timelessness of the Thompson Berwick Pratt aesthetic, as well as the welcome emergence of newer talent.
Adele Weder is an architectural critic and curator based in British Columbia.