West Coast Classics

TEXT Sean Ruthen

Documentary film, like architectural photography, is a byproduct of our Modern age, and hence the perfect medium through which to explore the subject of Modern architecture. Recently, films on Louis Kahn, Charles and Ray Eames, and Pruitt-Igoe have graced silver screens across North America. Coast Modern can now take its place among them as a thoughtful reflection on postwar architecture. As admitted newcomers to the subject, directors Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome set out to distill the spirit of numerous Modern houses along the western coast of Canada and the United States. By not being architects themselves, the directors have captured the houses through a distinctively human lens, resulting in a documentary with broad-reaching appeal.

While a film on West Coast residential Modernism might at first seem to be only of interest to architects, Bernard and Froome make their topic accessible through down-to-earth interviews with practitioners, educators, critics and residents. In lieu of a voice-of-God narration technique, the filmmakers rely on the interviewees, along with contemporary footage in the homes, to recount the evolution of the Modernist house up and down the Pacific West Coast. Starting with the Eppich house by Arthur Erickson, other treats include tours through Richard Neutra’s and Rudolph Schindler’s iconic works, along with a gracefully aging Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house in Seattle. 

As a general primer on Modernist design, the directors travel to Fallingwater and to the Villa Savoye in Poissy, with a quick stop in New Canaan to visit Philip Johnson’s Glass House. While this does much to ground the film in the larger lens of Modernism, it is the visits to the West Coast houses themselves, and the depiction of the present-day life going on in them, that gives the movie a sense of poetry. For instance, one sequence shows a family with two young boys who live in the Eppich house going about their day-to-day activities, gathering veggies from terrace planters and catching rain on their tongues. Several interviews, unfortunately, had to be cut out for time–seven hours were left on the editing room floor. Some of this footage will re-emerge in the movie’s DVD release, including interviews with Bruce Haden, Barry V. Downs and Barry Griblin. 

Coast Modern is most effectively summed up by two of the movie’s introductory remarks. The first reflects on the spirituality of “going West” while the second comments on how Modernism is a beautiful failure–pretty as a picture but not everyone’s cup of tea. In a sense, the film testifies to Modern architecture’s growing heroic status. The public at large is beginning to give Modernism a second look as the most notable structures of the era are added to heritage registries. At a Q&A with the directors following the screening I attended, there was a general sense of bewilderment as to why this style of architecture did not gain more traction in the postwar era. Perhaps the film’s appeal has been in opening “eyes which do not see.”

In the end, the film is both a comprehensive and concise overview of West Coast residential Modernism, certainly as it is expressed in an array of beautiful settings between the mountains and the sea. And with invitations by homeowners including Douglas Coupland to film inside their private residences, a layer of domestic reality is added that challenges the charge that these houses are beautiful failures. CA

Sean Ruthen is a Vancouver-based architect and writer.

Coast Modern screening and DVD purchase information is available at www.coastmodernfilm.com.