Photo courtesy of Martin Knowles Photo Media and the Vancouver Heritage Foundation

West Coast Mid-Century Modern Residential Design

While the Mid-Century Modern design was growing in popularity throughout North America, local geographies began to adapt Mid-Century Modern to their own climates, and came up with their own regional variations of the style in the building of their residential homes. Vancouver and the West Coast of Canada became one of those regions that developed its own unique style and interpretation of Mid-Century Modern.

Greg Bellerby, in his book West Coast Residential, highlights the coastal influence of the Mid-Century Modern house from Los Angeles to Vancouver. Architects travelled between major cities along the West Coast of the US and Canada, exchanging ideas, teachings and influence. While elements of style and principle were shared along the coast, areas had their own distinct elements. With the ample availability of trees in this region, along with the wet climate and rocky terrain in areas such as the North Shore of Vancouver, the homes designed and built in the Vancouver region utilised these features and building materials in their designs. As an example of contrast, heavier materials such as concrete and steel dominated the building materials used in Southern California.

Influences on West Coast Mid-Century Modern Design

Architects that were well known for Mid-Century Modern design work in the US were major influences in the growth of style on the West Coast. Richard Neutra, an Austrian-born American architect, was perhaps one the chief influencers on West Coast Modernism. BC (Bertram Charles) Binning, who taught art and architecture at the University of BC, invited Neutra to lecture in Vancouver in the 1940s. Architects who would later become famous west coast designers such as Ron Thom and Arthur Erickson, were influenced by this exposure. Frank Lloyd Wright’s style of architecture, with his influence from Japanese design, using natural woods and open floor plans, also influenced the West Coast style. Architects began to focus on incorporating the natural landscape into their designs and adapting these international influences and styles into something that worked for the unique local environment.

5 Characteristics of West Coast Mid-Century Modern Design

For the 1949 “Design for Living” exhibit, held at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Ned Pratt, an architect credited with being a leader of local modern design, outlined five unique characteristics of the West Coast environment that he recommend be incorporated into local residential design:

  • Rainfall: recommending larger overhangs on roofs
  • Sunshine: maximise natural light with specific window placement and size
  • View: Design was to focus on the views and vistas that many buildings sites in Vancouver region offer, with often blank facades facing the street
  • Exterior Treatment: natural, unpainted local cedar or fir siding
  • Plan: including open interiors with few partition walls and high ceiling, and flat roof lines

The Evolution of West Coast Modern

In 1947, the new School of Architecture opened at the University of British Columbia. Architect Fred Lasserre was the first Director. With the opening of the school, various exhibits promoting modern design were held at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Community Arts Council. These exhibitions, combined with articles published in notable publications helped highlight West Coast architecture and style, and expose the ideas to broader markets:

  • The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Journal drew much attention to Vancouver and the rise of Modernism there. An article written by Pratt in 1947 that focused on West Coast architecture appeared in the journal. This piece, which discussed the impact of the local environment and climate on building design, and highlighted the post-and-beam design, drew attention to the local architecture. Thom then also had an essay published in the same journal in the 1950s.
  • Western Homes and Living (now called Western Living), first published in 1950, was also a hugely influential publication for the rise in West Coast Mid-Century Modern design, writing about this new style of architecture, those that were building them, and those who lived in them.

The Parade of Homes, organized by Alex Browning, a local builder and developer, also helped bring attention to the modern residential design. This event, in 1956, was meant to “demonstrate the new innovations in post-war residential construction.”

The “West Coast Modern House” was built in three architectural styles:

  • Post-and-Beam
  • Rancher
  • A-Frame

As outlined by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation: “While mid-century commercial architecture was embracing International Style with its clean-edged steel and glass construction, Modernism in Vancouver’s homes was evolving into something with a more organic sensibility.”