January 11, 2012

Mid-century Marvels Continue to Fascinate

Architect-designed homes highlighted in exhibit at Victoria’s Legacy Gallery

BY GRANIA LITWIN

Stephen Winn and his wife Sandi Miller recently bought their postwar, architect-designed home after admiring it for many years. “We used to drive out of our way just to see it, and never thought we’d have an opportunity to purchase it,” said Winn. But an opportunity arose two years ago and they jumped. Thousands of kilometres away, Ottawa couple Susan and Peter Stanford entered a bidding war last April to win an architect-designed, mid-century home on Ten Mile Point in Greater Victoria.

“We fell in love with it online and Susan decided to fly out from Ottawa to have a look,” recalled Stanford. “But there were multiple bids, so I actually bought it when she was in the air and gave her the news when she was changing planes in Vancouver.” Meanwhile, architect Alan Hodgson and his wife Sheila still live in the dramatic house he designed 47 years ago, which wraps around a natural rock courtyard. The allure of these mid-century marvels never seems to fade. And that’s why they are being highlighted in a show that recently opened at the Legacy Gallery, curated by architecture connoisseur Martin Segger.

The exhibition explores the modern movement that emerged here in the 1950s and ’60s. “During this period, a small number of legacy architectural firms changed Victoria’s build environment with forward-thinking planning and bold new architecture,” Segger said. Segger has drawn on plans, blueprints, photos and architectural models to survey his subject and shine a light on the pantheon of architects who made it happen — talents such as John Di Castri, Alan Hodgson, John Wade, Bob Siddall, Rod Clack and landscape architect Clive Justice.

The show continues through February at the Legacy Gallery, which is the University of Victoria’s main gallery space on Yates Street. Segger is fascinated by the relationships, personalities and projects of this era and how they contributed to a “regional modernist esthetic in Victoria’s postwar urban landscape.” But he is interested in more than just digging up dusty blueprints or uncovering romantic residential relics.He wants to know how these homes have survived and evolved, who lives in them today and how they are used.

Winn and Miller adore their compact Di Castri home near Mount Tolmie. “We get spectacular moments here when light floods in and the living room is suffused with a warm radiance that’s glorious,” said Winn. The celebrated home, called the Trend House, was built in 1954 to showcase the viability and versatility of B.C. lumber. After it was built, 35,000 people flocked to see its “cutting-edge” diamond form trusses, polygon open plan, complex roof and massive masonry chimney. “We were certainly not aware of its national significance when we bought it,” said Winn, but admits they have long been passionate about modernist architecture. “We love the unconventional design, the crazy angles, the ingenious storage,” said Miller. “It’s very quirky and we are still discovering new things. It is also extremely well built and the workmanship is amazing. We want to restore it when our two boys are older.”

“It’s a dream house — especially the Frank Lloyd Wright look,” Miller said. Di Castri, who died in 2005, was an admirer of Wright and that influence is evident in many of his landmarks including UVic’s Interfaith Chapel, the Cornett and Student Union buildings. Segger said these trendsetting architects designed homes with significant defining elements. Hallmarks include open interiors, “the disappearance of walls,” the use of local wood, exposed concrete, brick, clean lines and large windows that opened onto gardens and landscapes. Some had paving stones inside and out.”

They were elemental, economical and smaller than today’s monster homes, said the former Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery director. A key founder of this “legacy” modernity was Hodgson, now 83, who lives with his wife Sheila in the spectacular home he designed in 1964, on a rugged slope in Vic West. The 40-metre-long house sprawls over its half-hectare site like a cougar sunning itself on a rocky outcrop. It has five levels, five decks and a southwest exposure —“I was born here so I know which way a house should face,” joked Hodgson — to take advantage of passive solar, thanks also to the dark exterior stain and floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

Hodgson’s philosophy is elegantly simple: “Architecture should be artfully related to topography, lifestyle, climate, suited to indoor-outdoor living — and affordable.” His clerestory windows draw in morning light, plywood ceilings are stained white so the grain shadows through and oak floors are stained and waxed, “not plasticized like today’s.” His home is informal, inviting and was designed to expand with his family.

It climbed uphill as bedrooms were added, and downhill when office and storage space were needed. “It’s an organic architecture that conforms to and accepts the site,” said Hodgson, who was in charge of restoration and renovation of the legislature from 1972 to 1991. Besides a half-dozen homes, Hodgson designed UVic’s MacLaurin and music buildings, the McPherson Playhouse addition and Northwest Regional College in Terrace. He and his postwar colleagues admired the simplicity and the logic of manufactured and modular building materials, used for their economy and beauty.

For some, that simplicity is startling. The Stanfords were drawn to the gorgeous setting and sleek lines of their Di Castri house at Ten Mile Point after spotting it online, but in person, it was a shock to discover the 6.4-centimetre unfinished baseboards, small bedrooms and no master ensuite. “It couldn’t be more different from a 1956 home I had in Ottawa which had 30-cm baseboards, deep mouldings and heavy plaster,” said Susan, but she loves it nevertheless.

Neither of them knew of Di Castri until recently, but learning about the architect has been “pretty cool,” said Peter, who has the original blueprints and is keen to learn more. And while the home has wonderful views of Mount Baker and San Juan Island, they are partly blocked from the master bedroom by a family room addition. They are puzzled by some of what they call “Di Castri’s whimsical elements, such as a front staircase that goes up to two bedrooms, round a couple of corners down a long hall and a full flight of stairs to the other bedrooms. It’s sort of fun — but it is a very inefficient use of space.”

Times Colonist

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