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The arts in Canada’s postwar reconstruction

Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, March 5 – May 25 Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, November 8 – January 18 The Nickel Arts Museum, Calgary, February 13 – April 19

As one of many efforts to create a role for the arts in Canada’s postwar reconstruction, modernist architecture on the West Coast was granted distinction as an exemplary form of regional culture in the report of The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences (1949-51). This regional idiom was commonly associated with affordable homes built from local materials and designed to account for exigencies of the area’s climate and landscape. Most distinctively, post and beam construction methods supported transparent walls of glass allowing for the extension of living space into nature and vice versa.

Because they combined the humanist values of high art with innovative technological methods and scientific principles, West Coast architecture and planning contributed to the Massey Commission’s goals of creating a national cultural infrastructure designed to ameliorate tensions of modernization whereby economic and material prosperity were promoted at the expense of social welfare. Significantly, this nationally distinct expression arose from regional particularities such as Vancouver’s peripheral status, its housing shortage and need for an urban infrastructure to support postwar growth, its lack of established traditions and openness to international exchanges with Asia, Europe, England and the American West Coast.

The comprehensive exhibition, “The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1963,” documents West Coast experiments with modernism. University of British Columbia art historian Rhodri Liscombe curated over three hundred items which encompass architectural drawings, photos, models, furniture and artworks. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue are exemplary in that they synoptically present a cultural history that, until now, remained within the purview of living memory, was distributed across a disparate archive of written and visual material, and is located as remnants spread throughout Vancouver’s evertransforming urban environment.

Approaching West Coast modernism from the perspective of architectural and social history, Liscombe complicates criticisms of modernist architecture that equate it with the alienating impositions and technocratic dictums of the International Style. To accomplish the task, Liscombe focuses on the construction of this cultural configuration over a twenty-five-year period initiated by the building of the first modern homes in Vancouver around 1938 and concluding in 1963 with the rise to dominance of consumerist ethics and mass marketing said to overshadow the realization of modernism’s social goals. Through his investigation of the interaction of ideas, people and influences, Liscombe portrays the culture surrounding West Coast architecture as pragmatic and heterogeneous as well as functionalist in its approach to combining material, technique and landscape.

In addition to contending with postmodern dismissals of modernism, the exhibition elaborates on assumptions surrounding theories of cultural dependency. Liscombe’s approach to the dynamics of cultural change avoids situating the development of West Coast Style as the simple mimicking of culture borrowed from other times and places. Liscombe suggests that West Coast planners and architects were pragmatic, selective and synthesizing in their transformation of modernist theoretical precepts into practice. For instance, in Vancouver the avant-garde, antihistoricist and socialist concerns of prewar European modernists were practically reconfigured by the postwar West Coast planners and architects engaged with the contingencies of liberal democracy and capitalism.

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