Second In Command



As Ottawa regales the nation’s greatest architects at lavish galas, a modest exhibition on the north shore of Vancouver reminds us of what, paradoxically, the almost-great can offer us. Now in its concluding days at the West Vancouver Museum and Archives, Duncan McNab: Modernism In Sight provides a glimpse into the workaday reality of the Canadian architectural spirit.

If Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom were the poet laureates of mid-century Modernism, Duncan McNab (1917-2007) was its prosaic voice of reason. A graduate of McGill’s School of Architecture, McNab defied the Beaux-Arts paradigm there and then when he settled in Vancouver after the Second World War, designing an archetypal furnished home for a fictional “McTavish Family” for the 1949 Design for Living exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. McNab quickly became a prolific designer of Modernist schools and other facilities, including Esquimalt’s 1964 Naval Armament Depot and the 1974 Vancouver Aquatic Centre. A Western Homes & Living article on display suggests that his own West Vancouver post-and-beam home was both a self-portrait of confident Modernism and a model of selfeffacement. For some curious reason, he (or the writer) altered his own name to “Jim” in the article and photo captions, as if it were unseemly for an architect to boast publicly about his own residence.

McNab was awarded fifth place in the 1963 competition to design Simon Fraser University. The West Vancouver exhibition displays McNab & Associates’ original crayon rendering alongside the edition of The Canadian Architect that reviewed the competition results. At first glance, his competition entry reads as a jambalaya of high-, medium-and low-rise forms, much less unified than Erickson’s winning scheme. Yet it’s easy to find a wayward charm in McNab’s scheme, which you might say reflected the fragmented consciousness of the day. In the end, McNab ended up designing the secondary buildings, the gymnasium and theatre for Simon Fraser University. But second base seemed to be his natural and most productive vantage point.

According to former McNab associate John Camfield, McNab harboured the firm conviction that the client’s practical needs came first, “apart from what aims, aesthetical and spiritual, might have drawn him to the architectural field in the first place,” writes Camfield for the exhibition panels. McNab’s glazed concept for the waterfront Aquatic Centre was replaced with an opaque faade that turned its back on the view, due to client concerns that light and shadow might interfere with training. Ultimately, it was built with rooftop glazing which, as many a swimmer there can attest, tends to interfere with your backstroke anyway. In this way, McNab exemplifies the architect’s perennial dilemma. He boasted a mighty strength in selling Modernism to a middlebrow clientele. He also seems to have harboured a correlating weakness to appease it.

While McNab never did achieve the consistent artistry of Erickson or Thom, he nonetheless won over much of the wider community. Neither a flamboyant bon vivant nor a doomed romantic, McNab offered an avuncular counterpoint to the era’s mythologized leaders. And as such, this workhorse of post-and-beam Modernism perhaps contributed as much or more to imbuing the vernacular with the new paradigm.CA

Adele Weder is an architectural critic and curator based in British Columbia. Duncan McNab: Modern In Sight exhibits at the West Vancouver Museum and Archives ( until May 31,2008.