Friday, February 11, 2011

Modernist Touch

This building at the corner of Burrard and Robson doesn't look like much does it? Doesn't look like it has historical significance or that the design won the Massey Silver Medal for Architecture in 1958? But it has and it did.

This Modernist building was designed by architects Semmens and Simpson and built from 1955 to 1957. And when it was opened by Frank M. Ross, the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia at the time, on November 1, 1957 this was the site of the public library.

(As you may remember the Vancouver Public Library started on Cordova Street in 1887 then moved to the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings from 1903 to 1957. The library then moved here in 1957.)

Being associated with the firm of Semmens and Simpson is historically important because that firm played an important role in designing many of Vancouver's post-war Modernist architectural buildings and this one was actually at the high point of their career. The main designer was Douglas Simpson and he embodied the new thinking of Vancouver architects. He was a man who worked with the clients to realize a design that was technically sound, functional and true to the ideals of the institution.

This building is a contrast of solids and voids. It has large glazed surfaces that expose the interior and gives a feeling of openness; glass and black concrete contrast across the facade; due to the independent structural frame of reinforced concrete and the non load bearing exterior curtain walls which are comprised of glass aluminum and granite there isn't a sense of bulk or mass. It is a large building yet it seems almost fragile. And you will notice that there is very little ornamentation.

(As you can see now this building is home to CTV, HMV and others.)

Although the decoration is minimal this piece deserves mention. A bronze sculpture by artists Lionel and Patricia Thomas entitled Symbols of the Cuneiforms this is the sole remaining piece of art associated with the building. During the period of 1940 to 1970 there was a unique group of Modernist artists who formed a cohesive assembly determined to improve the life of Vancouver's citizens through art and design and the Thomass were connected with that movement.

The history of this Modernist building is fairly interesting. Built in 1954 this structure was intended to resemble the paintings by the de Stijl movement's Piet Mondrian. The Dal Grauer Substation was a collaboration between then BC Hydro and Power Authority Dal Grauer, architect Ned Pratt as well as influential artist and Modernist evangilist B.C. Binning and turned out to be an outstanding representation of the Modernist ideal of combining technology, industry and arts.

This building has a very colorful interior - which is actually dramatic at night. The exterior consists of mosaic glass tiles in the colors of mauve, grey, blue, black and green. Imagine what that looks like with the light behind it in the night time darkness. I can see how it would resemble an modernist painting. What a great idea for a building that is so functional.
Another building along Burrard Street is the former BC Hydro Building. Built in 1955-1957 this building is a neighbour to the Dal Grauer Substation.
As you can see, very close neighbours, connected I would think.

A 21-storey, lozenge-shaped with simple low wings along Burrard and Nelson Streets, this distinctively shaped building is a statement to the power and position of the B.C. Electric Company (later known as the BC Hydro and Electric Company) and its president A.E. Grauer. It is also a symbol of the dynamic and prosperous future of British Columbia made possible by its abundance of electric energy.

(On February 4, 2011 I made an entry concerning the Grandfather of Electricity, Johannes Buntzen. What he started was truly remarkable.0

The Electra, as this building was also known as, was especially awe inspiring at night since it was company practice then to leave all the lights on. Can you imagine this immense tower all lit up at night? What a sight that would have been. Of course now it would never be allowed what with the movement to conserve our resources.
The architectural firm of Thompson Berwick & Pratt worked with B.C. Binning to design the Modernist building with adequate space, light and ventilation befitting Modernist principles.

I have to admit that before this post I was not too inspired by what I thought was the Modernist style. But these buildings have changed my mind. When I truly look at them I see the unique characteristics and beauty in the design.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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  1. There's been a big construction boom in DC the last decade or so, and the buildings look very modern, in contrast with the buildings that have been there for many years.

  2. I will be giving a little talk on the work of my father, D.C. Simpson at the Vancouver Museum, June 16th as part of the Threatened Modernist Heritage Sites panel. I will be bringing to the audience's attention that when the Main Library was threatened, no one on City Council except Lynne Kennedy voted to keep the heritage interiors.

    My father paid for the Lionel and Pat Thomas mural, Runes, out of his own pocket. It was destroyed by Edgecombe Developers with Gordon Campbell and Moshe Safdie cheering from the sidelines. Safdie claimed that trying to save this A Class Heritage building, winner of a GG Award in 1957, was just a matter 'sentiment' and that the building was 'not significant'. I countered in the newspaper that Safdie is a maker of fussy, overbuilt kitsch. Amazing that a Montreal architect could just arrive in our city and declare what we had built in the past was insignificant and should be torn down to pay for the monstrosity he built in its place.

    There was never a nastier heritage campaign in this city which demonstrated the poisoning of the intellectual atmosphere around Modernist architecture. This was thanks to the mis-led academic notions abroad at the time, which led one wag to write to the papers that it was good to destroy the building because it was an evil, phallic, Modernist structure. Phallic it wasn't, but because it was Modernist, it must be evil. That pretty well sums up the reaction in the earl 1990's. We can only hope the disease of post modernism won't infect further efforts to preserve our architectural and artistic history.

    Unbelievable the way the Modernist legacy has been treated in Vancouver. They're starting to wake up now, but after two decades of letting that succubus known as Post Modernism drain the energy out of a truly great period of architecture here, I can only say I doubt we'll save any more of his buildings. But we can always hope.

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