Oberlander Residence II, Vancouver. Peter Oberlander and Barry Downs, architects, 1969. Photograph by Selwyn Pullan, 1970. Courtesy of West Vancouver Museum.
New Ways of Living: Jewish Architects in Vancouver, 1955 to 1975, “focuses on two significant expressions of modernism in the practices of Jewish architects and landscape architects in Vancouver,” explained curator Chanel Blouin at the exhibit’s launch Jan. 28. “First, the integration of the West Coast Modern home into the natural landscape in a way that invites the outdoors in. And, second, in creating home designs that respond to the specific needs and living habits of the family within.”
For her research, Blouin interviewed architect Judah Shumiatcher; architects Kate and Erika Gerson, daughters of the late architect Wolfgang Gerson; University of British Columbia professors emeritus Andrew Gruft and Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe; Leslie van Duzer, head of UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) and author of House Shumiatcher; and landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, whose late husband, architect Peter Oberlander, is featured in the exhibit, as well.
In addition to the interviews, Blouin traveled to the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal to consult their collections, in particular that on Hahn Oberlander. A highlight of the online exhibit, which can be found at jewishmuseum.ca, is the photography of the houses featured, including photos by Michael Perlmutter, Selwyn Pullan and Fred Schiffer.
“Architecture and the design of cities have always been interests of mine, and I’ve known for awhile that there are and have been members of our community who are or were innovators in these fields,” said Michael Schwartz, coordinator of programs and development at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia, about the exhibit’s origins. “As we move from theme to theme in each of our exhibits and in each issue of The Scribe, it seemed fitting to turn the lens on this group. Chanel has a footing in architectural history, so when we hired her, this was the topic she was most drawn to. As she progressed through her research, it became clear what era and which individuals to focus on.”
Blouin was hired by the JMABC for the summer of 2015 with support from the Canadian Heritage program Young Canada Works. An extension to the grant allowed her contract to continue through January 2016, said Schwartz, “giving her time to dig much deeper into the topic and produce a more comprehensive result.”
Blouin, a master’s student in art history at UBC, will begin her PhD at University College London in September. “My current research was influenced by my work on New Ways of Living and considers the complex genealogy of the mid-century modern residential designs conceived by the Oberlanders and Wolfgang Gerson,” she told the Independent. “I want to examine how these figures’ exposure to Central European modern art and architecture of the Bauhaus and Werkbund in the Weimar period, as well as their exile and studies at the Architectural Association and the Harvard School of Design with Walter Gropius, influenced their practices in Vancouver.”
About 200 people attended the launch of the exhibit at Inform Interiors. There was a panel discussion between Blouin, Shumiatcher and Windsor-Liscombe; and Hahn Oberlander, the Gersons and van Duzer were in attendance. “There were also representatives from the Jewish Federation, the City of Vancouver and Canadian Heritage, all strong supporters of the JMABC,” said Schwartz.
In his opening remarks, Schwartz noted, “Not only are we very pleased to launch this new exhibit, New Ways of Living, but this week marks the 45th anniversary of the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C.
“We have with us tonight our founder, Cyril Leonoff, who had the original vision of an organization that would preserve and celebrate the history of Jewish life in B.C…. With a small, dedicated corps of volunteers, Cyril collected documents and carried out oral history interviews with some of our community’s earliest pioneers – people who, in the 1960s, were already in their 80s and 90s.
“From this founding collection, our archives have since grown to comprise over 300,000 photographs, 750 oral history interviews and 300 metres of documents recounting all aspects of the rich 150-year history of our community.”
In the panel discussion, Blouin spoke about the process of developing and curating the exhibit. “I also provided an introduction to the major themes in the exhibit, such as the features of the West Coast style of architecture, site specificity and the important events that introduced Vancouverites to the modernist ethos in the postwar period,” she said. “Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe elaborated further on Jewish involvement in the development of the West Coast Modern home and considered questions of Jewish identity. Judah Shumiatcher shared the story of House Shumiatcher. He described the experience of designing his home and the challenges that the steep slope of the landscape posed as well as the property’s incredible views. We also had a lively Q&A period with many interesting questions from the audience.”
This interaction and excitement is why the JMABC does a launch event. While online exhibits are more cost-efficient and “have no expiry date,” said Schwartz, meaning that researchers around the world will be able to access this material years from now, “there is still value in creating an occasion for people to come together to learn about and celebrate our past. This is why events like the exhibit launch are so important; they give us the chance to dig deeper into the topic and share with our audience a glimpse into the exhibit creation process. This shared experience so essential to museums is generally missing from an online exhibit, hence the need to supplement the exhibit with public programs.”
Blouin said, “One of the most interesting ideas that I hope people will take away from this exhibit is the fact that Vancouver is home to an extraordinary regional style. Many iconic West Coast Modern homes are located in Point Grey and West Vancouver and it’s possible to visit some of them – the West Vancouver Museum provides annual tours. The West Coast style is complex and the Jewish architects who arrived to the city in the postwar period played a prominent role in its development. It’s a fascinating history!”
The exhibit online, the content of which Blouin wrote, explains that Vancouver “underwent a period of momentous transformation and modernization” after the Second World War. “Returning veterans and new immigrants alike prompted a need for more affordable housing, transportation systems, civic spaces and infrastructure. Between 1940 and 1970, Vancouver required 45,000 new housing units to accommodate the city’s growing population. The city’s expansion was informed by new thinking on improved civic living.”
Blouin explained, “The vibrant art and architecture community that converged around the newly founded School of Architecture at UBC introduced the modernist ethos in Vancouver through various means, including a series of Richard Neutra lectures. The first director of the school, Frederic Lasserre, and B.C. Binning promoted modern architecture in response to the shifting needs of the city.”
The regional domestic architecture of this period “was the post-and-beam house built of locally sourced cedar with wide overhangs and large horizontal windows. Regional West Coast innovations included an exposed timber frame, which allowed for open fluid spaces and immense freestanding ribbon windows oriented toward the picturesque views of the Pacific Northwest landscape.”
While parts of the modernist project will not carry into the future – Marine Gardens, for example, 70 family-sized units designed by Hahn Oberlander and Michael Katz in the 1970s, will be replaced by large residential towers comprising more than 500 units – it will leave a legacy, believes Blouin.
“I think the modernist project has and will continue to inform our thinking about sensitive architecture that responds to both the landscape and the people who inhabit their interiors,” she said. “I hope that New Ways of Living and similar projects, such as the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) West Coast Modern homes book series, will raise awareness about the significance of the West Coast-style homes and the importance of preserving them as they become endangered by escalating land values.”