In a real estate market as hot as the Lower Mainland, it should come as no surprise that this region’s architectural heritage is as expendable as its livability. Many of the finest examples of West Coast Modern design and building once populated local neighbourhoods. Their numbers are dwindling fast.
While preserving as many of these homes as possible is a lovely goal, the reality is that it won’t happen. So concerned academics at UBC SALA (School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture) launched the West Coast Modern House Series of books dedicated to preserving the legacy of specific homes of note.
“The whole series began as a personal project with the sale of House Shumiatcher, which was quite a unique and special house, which was on land that was so valuable that the house was to be demolished,” said UBC SALA’s Leslie Van Duzer. “So a book was made to create some record of the house, which was quite challenging as there were few photographs, drawings and so forth. Then an international publisher (ORO Editions) expressed interest in the project, so we decided to make a serious text.”
Now into six editions, each book is filled with photos, design specifications and drawings related to the specific dwelling and its designer. Each book is authored by a different writer taking their own distinct approach to the subject. Richard Cavell, professor of English and Bachelor of Media Studies co-founder, wrote the book on Friedman House. The home on the University of B.C. Endowment Lands was designed by architect and UBC School of Architecture founder Frederic Lasserre and landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander.
It was one of the internationally known Oberlander’s first projects.
“This house was built at a time when there was a lot of talk about new ways of understanding space, and one of the people who was talking about it a lot was Marshall McLuhan and most certainly Lasserre was listening,” said Cavell. “And when I learned that it was Cornelia Oberlander’s first job, it became an act of preservation.”
Friedman House was for sale. Bound for the wrecking ball, it looked to be another in the series of structures receiving posthumous honours through the book series. But something wonderful happened.
“I had met with reporter Kerry Gold and mentioned that I was writing the book and she said that she thought it had been torn down,” said Cavell. “Once it was established that it was, in fact, still standing, she wrote an article about it in The Globe & Mail (newspaper) and this tech guy who had been working for Shopify around Ottawa and had cashed out saw the article, read it, and called the realtor and said I want it and will spend a million over the highest bid.”
In the end, that $5-million bid wasn’t the highest offer on the residence. But ReMax realtor Evan Ho — “whose sensitivity to the architectural and historical value of the house led him to reduce his commission on the sale in order to advance the winning bid” — enabled the Friedman House to continue standing.
Cavell and Van Duzer both believe that there is something of a “historical crisis” taking place with the loss of these homes, and it’s happening all up and down the West Coast. The West Coast Modern House Series is leading an effort to preserve this significant part of our history. You can donate to the project at support.ubc.ca.