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West Coast Modernism

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Story by Marcie Good

Some of the best examples of Vancouver’s unique architectural heritage are not on public display in conspicuous places but, rather, are hidden away on the North Shore mountainside. If great design expresses something essential about the context where it’s born, the West Coast style reflects this city’s lack of pretension and love of the landscape. West Coast modernism, first defined in the 1950s by such architects as Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom and Fred Hollingsworth, was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of “organic” architecture, which emphasized a building’s relationship to its natural setting. Many critics have pointed out how most of Vancouver’s public, corporate and residential buildings have borrowed ideas from other places. So it is significant that the most expensive house ever sold in Canada is not an imitation French chateau or a Victorian

mansion but an original example of West Coast style. When you step into this West Vancouver waterfront house, you still feel like you’re outside. It’s an illusion created by the seamless glass walls and beam-crossed glass ceilings that fill the living room with natural light. In front of you is a sweeping 180-degree ocean view from across English Bay to the shores of Stanley Park and Point Grey, and behind you is the lush greenery of the exterior gardens.

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That was exactly the intention of architect Russell Hollingsworth, who completed this house in 2001. “I like that house because I think it achieves an organic simplicity that makes you feel elevated and elegant while being part of the natural environment,” he says. “It’s like living outside.” To achieve that effect in a large house (almost 11,000 square feet, including the four-car garage) he stretched the design out over one level. From the perspective of the street, he wanted the house to appear as three small cottages, and he wanted to preserve the view of the horizon. The caretaker’s quarters on the east, the main kitchen and living room area in the center, and the bedroom wing on the west are narrow enough to be surrounded by the natural environment showcased by the glass walls. Each room is a pavilion. Even the basement gives you a minimal sense of shelter; one of the walls is a rock face, so that when you settle down to watch a movie you feel like a bear in a cave.

It is a bit of a contradiction that a house which aims for understatement sold for $17 million last year. Of course, the location is one factor. Radcliffe Avenue, just blocks away from the village atmosphere of Dundarave, is one of the most sought-after streets in West Vancouver. Built on two side-by-side lots, the house’s land value alone could reach $10 million with its 200 feet of waterfront. The materials are also high-quality, including granite counter tops, Douglas fir timbers, copper roofing, sandstone flooring and concrete. True to form, the prominence of the beams and the local rock used throughout the home accentuate the feeling that this house belongs here. Every detail, from the 12-foot-high glass and steel front door to the music system and media room, was designed specifically for this home.

One notable extravagance: all water used in the house, even for showers, is purified through a filter system in the basement.

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“It is the most spectacular waterfront home to have ever been offered for sale in West Vancouver. It is a masterpiece of West Coast design and architecture,” says Hasman.

The house, which was designed for a family, has a functional layout and no excess space. And yet it has small elegant flourishes such as the drain pipes; at each corner of the house a series of bell shaped copper pieces hang down from the roof to allow water to cascade to the ground. Even these seem a tribute to the rain forest. An optimist might say that the authenticity of this design also had a role in driving up its market value. Rarely does an architect have the opportunity to realize his or her own vision for a project given the restraints of finances, building codes, structural techniques, mechanical systems and municipal by-laws. The most direction, Hollingsworth says, comes from the client, and in this case he was given full support for his ideas. “It’s nice when you have somebody approach you with that kind of wealth who isn’t looking to effect some kind of Gone With The Wind fantasy, but wants something genuine and sustainable,” he says. “The kind of simple beauty that embraces the landscape rather than turning its back on it.” This property is currently being marketed by West Vancouver realtor Malcolm Hasman of Angell & Hasman Associates; it’s listed at $19.5 million. “It is the most spectacular waterfront home to have ever been offered for sale in West Vancouver. It is a master piece of West Coast design and architecture,” says Hasman.

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