“Sensitive buildings are a resolution of two main formative forces: the inner being of a building which is the essence of its use and enjoyment; and the external circumstances in site, climate milieu technics, economics that modify its basic form.”
In the years following World War II, Vancouver underwent a period of momentous transformation and modernization. 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 forty-five thousand new housing units to accommodate the city’s growing population . The city’s expansion was informed by new thinking on improved civic living. The aspiration for a conscientious renewal of the city was expressed through the emergence of a regional modern architectural style: the West Coast Style.
In the 1950s, Vancouver was a fledgling city with many opportunities for emerging architects and landscape architects with modern ideals to participate in transforming the city and improving its social conditions. In 1953, landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander moved from Philadelphia to Vancouver with husband, architect Peter Oberlander, who had received a professorship at the newly founded School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia. Both had fled wartime Berlin and trained under fellow German exile Walter Gropius at Harvard University. Cornelia recalls Vancouver being very different in the early 1950s, “Vancouver was a tiny town, with no theater, no great art gallery, and only two high-rises. I was able to conquer new ground. In the east I would have never been able to do that.” The post-war years were a fortuitous period for these newly arrived architects to begin their careers in Vancouver. As a young city, there was room for innovators to be successful in effecting change because Vancouver’s cultural institutions were less constrained by an established elite as they were in the cities on the East Coast, such as Philadelphia, New York, Montreal and Boston.
When the Oberlanders arrived in Vancouver, the University of British Columbia was already a bourgeoning center of modern architecture. The School of Architecture was under the leadership of its first director, Swiss born and Canadian trained architect Frederic Lasserre, who defined the school’s identity as expressly modernist. Lasserre sought to draw young modernists to the school to create a lively environment to foster creative architectural responses to Vancouver’s evolving needs. He successfully persuaded fellow architect Wolfgang Gerson to join the faculty in 1956 and lecture on housing and architectural design. Lasserre had first met Gerson a decade earlier in Montreal where they worked on St. Cuthbert’s Church together. A German-Jewish exile like Cornelia and Peter Oberlander, Gerson had trained at the modernist-leaning Architectural Association in England before arriving in Canada in 1940.*
Luminaries including leading Canadian artists Bertram Charles (B.C.) Binning and Frederick Amess, and architects Arthur Erickson and Barry Downs were also teaching at the UBC School of Architecture at this time. As such, it quickly developed a reputation as an exciting and innovative center of the modernist ethos and a site ripe for rich collaboration. The school attracted many enthusiastic students including Judah Shumiatcher who began his studies there in 1963.
New Ways of Living: Jewish Architects in Vancouver, 1955-1975 will examine Jewish involvement in the development of modern residential architecture from the post-war period in Vancouver. The exhibition will consider the contributions of notable Jewish architects and landscape architects including Cornelia and Peter Oberlander, Wolfgang Gerson, and Judah Shumiatcher in the development of modern design strategies and the emergence of the mid-century West Coast Modern home in Vancouver. These figures all escaped perilous circumstances including the rise of Nazism in Central Europe, civilian pogroms, and Canadian internment camps. They set out to establish better lives for themselves and their families on Canada’s West Coast. Vancouver represented an opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to bring about a new way of living. They were drawn to the city’s developing modernist design ethos and its association with enlightened living. They favoured the abstracted forms of modern architecture, as these represented a break from a difficult past and evoked the potential for renewal.
New Ways of Living will focus on two significant expressions of modernism in the practices of these Jewish architects and landscape architects in Vancouver residential architecture. First, the integration of homes into the natural landscape in a way that invites the outdoors in, and second, home designs that respond to the specific needs and habits of the family living within. These approaches are evident in the works of Wolfgang Gerson, Cornelia and Peter Oberlander, and Judah Shumiatcher; a selection of which will be examined in this exhibit.
* Wolfgang Gerson, presumed to be a “dangerous enemy alien” was interned in England and sent to an internment camp in Quebec. Peter Oberlander was also deported to Canada where he was held in a series of internment camps. Gerson and Oberlander were released in 1942.
B.C. Binning, Frederic Lasserre and Frederick Amess were instrumental in bringing modernist ideas to Vancouver, inspiring a new generation of artists and architects, and establishing an ongoing creative exchange amongst local professionals and students in the industry. Two events in particular – the 1949 Design for Living exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the series of lectures by Richard Neutra at the University of British Columbia in 1946 and 1953 – had a sustained and perceptible impact on the generation that followed.
B.C. Binning, one of Canada’s foremost modern artists, was a pivotal figure in the flourishing of art and culture in mid-twentieth century British Columbia. Binning was influenced by the precepts of the Bauhaus school which envisioned a harmonious union between architecture, sculpture and painting. Binning was particularly compelled by the Bauhaus’ emphasis on the oneness of art and architecture. He felt “the urgency to envision life and art in unison to enrich and invigorate society” and actively promoted artistic and architectural innovation in Vancouver.
In 1949, the Art In Living Group, founded by B.C. Binning and Fred Amess, presented the exhibition Design for Living at the Vancouver Art Gallery. This exhibition explored functionality in residential architecture design. Design for Living highlighted the pragmatic values of post-war modernism and presented a fresh approach and vision for the practical house where all factors such as the site, garden, floor plan, and furniture were considered to meet the specific needs of the families and their modern conditions of living.
Design for Living emphasized creative home design as an alternative to the inconvenient arrangements of conventional houses and encouraged inclusion of the fine and applied arts, including furniture, to yield a cohesive design of all elements in the home. The exhibition showcased the plans and model rooms for four modernist houses designed to suit the activities and hobbies of four fictional families. For many Vancouverites, Design for Living was a first introduction to the Modern ideals of simple forms and highly rationalized spaces.
When the UBC School of Architecture was established in 1946, it promoted modern architecture in response to the shifting social, housing and infrastructure needs of the city in the post-war period. It engaged in activism in the community and participated in many significant moments in the development of the city by proposing alternative planning models and by stimulating conversations about ways of enhancing the built environment.
In hopes of galvanizing modernist architectural and landscape design in Vancouver, B.C. Binning invited Richard Neutra, a pioneer of California regional modernism, to deliver a series of lectures in 1946 and 1953 at UBC. Neutra was known for his simple post-and-beam residences, which came to epitomize mid-century architecture in Los Angeles. Neutra’s use of steel framing provided a structure for window walls that seemingly merged the interior space with the California landscape. His most notable designs include the Kauffman House, the Lovell House and the VDL Studio and Residences, where he ran his architectural practice for many years. In these lectures, Neutra examined landscape design as an extension of architecture and emphasized the importance of site for West Coast architectural design.
Neutra’s lectures were attended by emerging Vancouver architects including Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom, who would later meet with Neutra at the salons held in his honour at the Binning residence.* Neutra’s writings additionally circulated amongst architects and landscape architects in Vancouver and influenced their thought. Cornelia Oberlander read Neutra’s Mysteries and Realities of the Site (1951) and incorporated it as the foundation for her 1956 Canadian Architect article focusing on residential architecture. Oberlander turned to Neutra’s book to understand the psychological impacts the site and her designs would have on her clients. “The mood of a lot, even the smallest one, say 100 feet by 50 feet, must be studied and analyzed. Its potential must be understood and the land allowed to influence the design solution”.
Vancouver architects related to Neutra’s belief that good architecture ought to respond to the local climate and landscape and viewed California regional modernism as a “counterpart to their own explorations in post-and-beam building techniques. Moreover, Neutra’s emphasis on the importance of site to overall design mirrored that of Vancouver designers”. However, Vancouver’s expression of post-and-beam structures differed from the concrete and steel structures that peppered the hills of Southern California. The prevalence of high quality and relatively low-cost lumber in BC made it an optimal material to build with, a feature not possible in Southern California.
The founding of the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia, the Design for Living exhibition, and the Neutra lectures were important events in the development of modernism in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s in Vancouver. These influences created a fertile environment for the emergence of a uniquely Vancouver style of modern architecture, which would come to be known as the West Coast Style.
The post-war period of optimism and modernist idealism in Vancouver was manifested in the architecture of the time. In response to the atrocities of the Second World War, architects felt that this fresh approach to architecture could improve citizens’ quality of life and mark a new beginning. They rejected historicist architecture including the Queen Anne revival, Arts and Craft bungalows, and Edwardian style dwellings that were popular in the early 20thcentury. Each of these styles featured numerous small rooms and labyrinthine floor plans. They sought to depart from the past and to revitalize the city with modern architecture as a solution to the need for affordable housing. According to architectural historian Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, “During the 1940s as Vancouver recovered from the Great Depression and then as it entered post-war Reconstruction, the Modernist ethos seemed to answer urgent social questions as well as architectural aspirations.”
The mid-century modern single family home embodied the progressive ideals of the modernist project in Vancouver. It reflected a desire to design sensitive buildings that respond not only to the landscape but also to the specific needs of the inhabitants. Typical West Coast 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 free-standing ribbon windows oriented toward the picturesque views of the Pacific Northwest landscape.
“Architecture would respond directly and imaginatively to the omnipresent landscape and weather: the dense, lush and majestic Northwest coast forest fringing the constantly changing waters of the Strait of Georgia, the high rainfall, the remarkably luminous grey light-all encompassed by the sublime profile of the Coastal Mountains”
– Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, The New Spirit
Vancouver is home to mild winters, abundant precipitation, rugged topography, and magnificent views. Beginning in the mid-1950s, local architects sought to integrate architecture into the landscape and to encourage harmony between the built and natural environments. The architecture would respond “directly and imaginatively to the omnipresent landscape and weather: the dense, lush and majestic Northwest coast forest fringing the constantly changing waters of the Straight of Georgia, the high rainfall, the remarkably luminous grey light- all encompassed by the sublime profile of the Coastal Mountains”.The new regional style these architects developed sought to minimize the disruption of the building upon the site. In doing so, they preserved the natural beauty of the site.
Today, West Vancouver and Point Grey are considered prime real estate. This, however, was not the case in the mid-20th century. Though they offered views of the expanses of English Bay, the Georgia Strait, and the North Shore Mountains, the steep drops of these properties posed significant challenges for architects and engineers and were thus more affordable. Architects in the early stages of their careers, including Judah Shumiatcher and Wolfgang Gerson saw great potential in these lots where they could use their technical skills to design and construct homes for their families. Their personal residences served as laboratories for testing materials and exploring the precepts of modernist design. They allowed the site to be the driving force for their designs as “the geography yielded a high proportion of irregular and sloping building lots that stimulated experiment”
They understood that post-and-beam construction, prized by modern architects for its allowance of high-ceiling-ed open spaces, was ideally suited to cliffs-edge construction. By expanding each post to the required length, they could act as piers holding the house suspended in air. Furthermore, this method of construction required only very shallow footings beneath each post, making it possible to anchor the home to the hard granite of the cliff side.
The resulting homes were open, airy spaces bounded by glass-curtain walls that maximized the available views and blurred the boundary between inside and out. Posts were frequently left exposed, creating a visual link between the architecture and the trees outside, between the man-made and the natural. Because no substantial foundation was necessary, there was no need to raze the site. Instead, the preexisting trees and plant life could be incorporated into the final design.
One home emblematic of these design goals is House Shumiatcher, the longtime home of Judah and Barbara Shumiatcher. In 1967, Judah Shumiatcher purchased a property located in West Point Grey. The property featured an old house built in 1910 on a steep double lot with extraordinary views overlooking the ocean and mountains. In 1974, Shumiatcher demolished the original house and began building a new home for his family. At the time, Shumiatcher was enrolled in the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia. He had a young family and had purchased the property in Point Grey to be close to them while completing his studies. The property was relatively inexpensive because its verticality posed significant challenges. However, Shumiatcher, who had studied mechanical and electrical engineering at the University of Alberta and McGill University, had the technical training essential to building on such a site. He was excited by the opportunity to test his skills.
It took Shumiatcher seven years to perfect the design. The house was made of rough-sawn cedar, a relatively inexpensive material at the time because it was locally sourced. It was located in a forest clearing that could be accessed by a tunnel of foliage that connected the house to the Shumiatchers’ neighbors as well as the public sidewalk. The house was cantilevered off the steep slope of the heavily wooded lot and featured many attributes of the West Coast style of architecture including a flat roof, large overhangs, glass walls and a spacious terrace overlooking an impressive view of English Bay and the city skyline.
Shumiatcher carefully configured the plan of the house to optimize the panoramic views by orienting the windows toward the north and the east in order to see simultaneously “snow-covered mountains and an archipelago, a lighthouse and the downtown skyline, the vegetation of a moderate rainforest and ocean waters”. The interior of House Shumiatcher was notable for its hexagonal grid, drawing inspiration from the plan of the Beehive House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1937 in Palo Alto. Its grid opened up the space and let in more light, eliminating shadowy spaces created by right angle corners. The interior featured custom furnishings hand made by the architect himself, including an ornate fir handrail and a stone fireplace to add character and warmth to the interior.
When the house was sold in 2012, Judah and Barbara Shumiatcher knew that their home would likely be destroyed and replaced with a new construction. Unfortunately, the escalating land value, which endangers many West Coast Modern houses, resulted in the house’s demolition in 2013.
Cornelia and Peter Oberlander’s Ravine House is a widely publicized modernist home in Vancouver situated in a lush ravine on the University Endowment Lands (UEL) of the University of British Columbia. It combines Bauhaus features such as a smooth façade, cubic pavilions and glass curtain walls with typical West Coast Modern traits such a flat roof and a post-and-beam structure. Peter Oberlander designed this home for their family in 1970 in collaboration with architect Barry Downs; Cornelia Oberlander designed the landscape. The site of the Ravine House featured an especially steep slope that the architects would have to contend with. The UEL held a competition in 1968 encouraging architects to submit designs for a house that would have the least impact on the site . The winner of the competition would be awarded the site as a prize and thus the opportunity to actualize their design.
Peter Oberlander and Barry Downs designed the Ravine House, which would extend horizontally across the precipice of the ravine. They conceived a structure supported by concrete pillars that would allow it to be suspended over the ground and minimize site disruption. The Oberlanders’ proposed design also had the advantage of generating zero soil import or export. The Oberlanders won the competition and the house was completed on July 29th, 1970. It extends ninety feet across the edge of an erosion-prone forested ravine and is suspended on deep-set reinforced-concrete footings to minimize site disruption.
The Ravine House goes easily unnoticed behind the large hedges and trees sheltering it from Acadia Road. When Cornelia Oberlander designed the landscape, she sought to maintain the forested appearance of the site. She planted a few flowering azaleas and rhododendrons but made an effort to preserve the landscape’s natural features. Cornelia has remarked that she opted for a very light-handed approach in which she let the site guide her. She has enormous respect for the ravine’s trees, plant material and the balanced ecology that exists there. If a tree falls in the ravine, she does not remove it and instead trusts that nature will take care of it as it would in the forest.
The landscape is in large part what makes this house so spectacular. Architect Barry Downs describes the natural environment that surrounds the house in his book Melding Architecture with Landscape: “an upper garden, once a thriving orchard, has been enveloped by a meadow of wildflowers that are clipped only once a year. At the edge of the forest, rhododendrons, some twenty-five feet tall, meld with native woodland trees: Western maples, cedar, Douglas fir, alder and wild cherry. This indigenous foliage blends with copses of spring-time colour, offering spectacular views from all rooms of the house.”
The Design for Living exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery featured drawings and a life-size model of two spaces, a living room and a library for the House for the Peridots, a theoretical home for the fictional Professor Peridot, his wife Ruth, their baby and a university student, Anne, who boards with the family. The exhibition brochure describes the family’s habits and their particular requirements for a house that would suit their lifestyle. Professor Peridot worked on his short stories in the evenings while Ruth weaved household linens on her loom and Anne prepares her assignments. The first space served as both a library and a living room and extended through sliding doors onto a garden room designed for outdoor living. It contained a desk with good lighting and ample space for paperwork for Professor Peridot as well as a place for Ruth’s loom and warping wheel so they could work side by side. The spaces were distinctly articulated into specific functional areas designed to accommodate the family’s lifestyle.
The plans featured in Design in Living outlined spaces to meet the specific requirements of the family living in the home. The emphasis on pragmatic planning in the exhibition reflected the functionalist tenet of modern architecture that began developing internationally in the early 20th century. The modernist credo of form follows function, which prioritized practical use over aesthetics, and privileged simple forms. The essence of the modern home is its use and enjoyment and, as Arthur Erickson suggested, “the process of discovering this essence is one of discarding the unnecessary to expose the core.” This is demonstrated in the inclination to design sparse and flexible spaces and to strip away superfluous ornamentation. Arising out of this tendency is the elimination of all unnecessary partitions in modern domestic architecture and the emergence of open plans with a continuous flow of space.
“In the beginning a house is a safe and private place to bring up the children, to give them the attention they need while allowing for one’s own interests, to allow for the correct balance of freedom and security, of instruction and self-help.”
Echoing the responsive design approach of the Peridot House, architect and UBC Professor Wolfgang Gerson designed his family’s home to suit their specific need. Set into the steep cliffs of Sentinel Hill in West Vancouver, the 1958 Gerson House overlooks English Bay, Stanley Park and downtown Vancouver, and is a prime example of the modernist interest in practical spaces adapted to human use. He planned the house around the needs of his family. The high, vaulted ceiling of the main floor provides optimal acoustics for the grand piano that holds pride of place at the foot of the stairs. In Homes and Ideas for Their Urban Environments-Wolfgang Gerson, 1934 to 1977, Gerson wrote, “As chamber music is my major hobby, I wanted a space of complex volume in which the sound would reverberate.”.
Gerson also strongly considered the needs of his four children, aged five through twelve at the time the house was completed. The children’s bedrooms on the lower level* encircled a playroom which bordered onto an outdoor “play garden”, fostering the children’s connection to nature. The stairs on the interior were also important for the children because they provided an easy flow between the stories and allowed them to move quickly around the house. Gerson remarked that children visiting the house usually enjoyed the stairs because they offered so many possibilities for adventure.
*In Vancouver, it is not uncommon for bedrooms to rest on lower floors of the house which flips the conventional domestic figure. Living spaces are located on uppert floors to benefit from the most magnificent views.
Over the subsequent decades, the family’s needs evolved. By 1977, when Gerson began work on their new home, his wife Hilde had developed a strong interest in weaving. Gerson designated a weaving studio to house Hilde’s loom, and conceived of a staircase that would showcase her work, “As my wife became a weaver during our stay in Vancouver, the house was arranged to allow for settings for wallhangings and movable hung woven partitions which are not as yet completed, but eventually will allow for more closure or openness on the main floor. Together we designed the focal fireplace hanging, and the stair walls were prepared to become appropriate backgrounds for her older work.”
Modern architecture sought to address Vancouver’s housing needs in the post-war period. While Gerson, the Oberlanders and Shumiatcher were exploring modern design solutions through homes they built for their families, today we can understand these houses as examples embodying the of ideals of the modernist project in Vancouver including site specificity and responsive design. House Shumiatcher, the Ravine House and the Gerson House served as laboratories for these ideals. It has been said that the modernist project failed as houses of this style are not ubiquitous today.
However, the ideals of modernism put forth by these architects in their private homes informed subsequent projects including low-income housing developments and family housing complexes such as Marine Garden (1971) designed by architect Michael Katz and landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander. Leonora Markovich, a Polish-Jewish architect who arrived in Vancouver in 1941, brought the same outlook to her projects including Willow Gardens (1965) and Langara Gardens (1968-70) which gave tenants access to landscaped gardens directly from their affordable suites. At a moment when Vancouver is facing a housing shortage, it is informative to reflect on the work of this previous generation, the solutions they advanced and challenges they faced.
 Making the Modern Landscape, page 57
 Ibid, page 57
 Ibid, page 56
 Manifest of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, April 1919
 B.C. Binning, page 2
 Design for Living
 The New Spirit, page 131
 The West Coast Modern House, page 32
 Cornelia Oberlander, “Landscaping the Single Family House”, page 22
 Ibid, page 32
 The West Coast Modern Home, page 31
 The New Spirit, page 27
 Ibid, page 27
 House Shumiatcher, page 13
 The West Coast Modern House, page 13
 House Shumiatcher, page 13
 Susan Herrington, “Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape”, page 74
 Barry Downs “Melding Architecture with Landscape: A Collaboration in Design” page 12
 Ibid, page 12
 Design for Living
 Attributed to Louis Sullivan
 The New Spirit, page 131
 Gerson notes
Design for Living, Vancouver Art Gallery: 1949.
Downs, Barry. Melding Architecture with Landscape: A Collaboration in Design. West Vancouver: West Vancouver Museum, 2013.
Herrington, Susan. Cornelia Hanh Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape. London: University of Virginia Press, 2013.
Gerson, Wolfgang. Personal Notes. Unpublished.
Gropius, Walter. Manifesto of Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar. Bauhaus, 1919. http://bauhaus-online.de/en/atlas/das-bauhaus/idee/manifest
Oberlander, Cornelia H. Landscaping the Single Family House. The Canadian Architect. June 1956.
Rogatnick, Abraham and Thom, Ian, and Adele Weder. B.C. Binning. Douglas & McIntyre, 2006.
School of Architecture. History. University of British Columbia. http://www.sala.ubc.ca/about/history
Van Duzer, Leslie. House Shumiatcher. San Francisco: ORO Editions, 2014.
Vancouver Art in the Sixties. Bertram Charles (B.C.) Binning. Ruins in Process: Vancouver Art in the Sixties. http://vancouverartinthesixties.com/people/171
Windsor- Liscombe, Rhodri. The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1963. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2014.
This exhibit was made possible through the generous support provided by Young Canada Works under the Canadian Government and the Canadian Museums Association.
I would like to thank the Board of Directors and staff at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia for their guidance and support during this project.
A specials thanks is also owed to Judah Shmiatcher, Cornelia Oberlander, Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, and Leslie Van Duzer for participating in both the exhibit and the launch.
This exhibit was researched and curated by Chanel Blouin with guidance provided by Michael Schwartz.
Header photo courtesy of the West Vancouver Museum