Vancouver filmmakers go on architectural road trip
They never planned to break into a Neutra house. But they were a little drunk and they didn’t have a key.
Gavin Froome and Mike Bernard were on the road filming their documentary about the modernist architecture movement on the West Coast, including the work of visionary designer Richard Neutra.
They’d managed to get an invite to stay the night at a home built by the modernist master in Silver Lake, Calif., that’s now owned by California Polytechnic State University.
But by the time they’d arrived at the doorstep after martinis at the legendary Dresden Room, a time-warp steak house in Hollywood, and after-dinner cocktails, likely gin and tonics, recalls Bernard, it was two or three in the morning. The door was locked and the architect-in-residence wasn’t stirring.
They tried throwing pebbles at the window, but there was still no movement inside the sleek steel-and-glass house known as “VDL2.”
“So Mike and I did the old alley-oop and broke into a Neutra house,” explains Froome about clambering to the second-floor balcony to gain entry. “Which is kind of like, you know, cross that off the bucket list.”
The pair had hatched the plan to make a doc about the modernist architecture on the West Coast under similar circumstances.
Drinks, dinner, after-dinner drinks, then an ambitious plan to drive up and down the coast to document and rethink the work of modernist masters, from Frank Lloyd Wright and Pierre Koenig to Arthur Erickson and, of course, Neutra.
Froome and Bernard met at design school at Cap U. After graduating, Froome, now the senior art director at Blast Radius, focused on design. Bernard, who has a background in stills, ran a small design house, and branched out to do some documentary work.
On the night they decided to tackle modernism in film, Bernard had just finished a documentary called Vancouver School on a group of influential Emily Carr grads. Froome, also a musician, had recently been to Los Angeles to play a warehouse gig. Being a design fiend with a spare day in L.A., he grabbed a telephone book and looked up the Neutras, who are considered architectural royalty. It turns out Richard Neutra’s son Dion, a partner with the firm for many years before his father passed away, was still practising.
He called him up and got an invite to the 85-year-old’s home. Soon Froome was approaching a beautiful little glass house designed in the 1940s that was hidden behind bamboo. “He opens the door with a pair of flip-flops on and chinos and said ‘How are you doing?’”
For Froome, the meeting was a revelation.
As Froome told Bernard about the Neutra visit, he was getting equally hyped about the modernist architects whose innovative designs tended to favour tons of glass and natural light and sought to find harmony with surrounding nature.
By the time they paid their restaurant bill, they had a project planned. A few weeks later, they were on the road filming Coast Modern.
“We were just looking for an excuse to go on the road and drink with architects,” Froome jokes.
Early on in their research, the pair discovered a direct local link with Richard Neutra visiting Vancouver in the late 1940s and ’50s. “He would stay at the Binning House [in West Vancouver] and he would talk to young Arthur Erickson and young Barry Downs and Fred Hollingsworth and Ron Thom and kind of preach the gospel of modernism.”
That’s when Froome and Bernard said, “Holy crap, let’s connect the dots.”
“In terms of chasing down houses it’s like a treasure hunt. You start with the big names, you start reading about the history,” says Bernard, 42.
Around the time they began their architectural adventure, the subject of modernism was beginning to be revisited with books like Pierluigi Serraino’s Modernism Rediscovered.
But considering the monumental nature of the work, there’d been relatively little done on the subject.
“There was really this rich history that has in some ways kind of been neglected,” says Bernard. “Even in Vancouver. Guys like Ron Thom and all these people — there was this tremendous body of work that kind of had got forgotten and glossed over. And then magazines like Wallpaper and Dwell kind of renewed interest in it. But they didn’t really dig so far into the roots of it and the kind of ethos of the time.”
So, the pair sought to fill in the blind spot. They discovered that many of the pioneering architects — most now in their 80s — and their creations were still around.
“A lot of the older architects are just so happy to have the interest in the works that they’d pass names on to you and inevitably every time we hung out with these people it always turned into lunch or dinner, [and] at least a couple bottles of wine.”
The enormous scope of seminal modernist architectural works soon became apparent, and constructing a story of the movement on the West Coast proved to be a challenging narrative.
“The story was really tricky. We’re covering 1922 to today — there’s all these different strains of where modernism went,” explains Bernard.
While the story begins in the 20s, there was a period in the late 1950s and early 60s when modernist work was coming into its own, adds Bernard. “Modernism on the West Coast, this sort of imported European ideals, that’s really when it seemed to localize the most and stuff was going on.”
And a lot of that work was happening on the North Shore, with its rugged topography proving irresistible for the early modernist West Coast architects.
“[They] are really drawn to this whole hill — the idea of the view of the slope, for them that’s an opportunity. A lot of people today just put a huge rock wall and make it flat because they can’t get their head around the idea that we live on the edge of a mountain. Architects like Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom, Barry Downs, they thrive on that condition. That’s a buzz for them to be able to have a place that wanders down the hill and has all these moments of reveal — that’s heaven for them,” says Bernard, who grew up in North Van.
And, adds Froome, “One of the key tenants of modernism is nature in its raw state.”
“So the North Shore being raw and completely untouched by traditional development at that time was an opportunity for these architects to design beautiful, inspired, small houses without ruining that natural landscape.”
Sadly, many of those homes are no longer standing. “There is still [a few] but a lot of it has been demolished or butchered beyond belief,” says Froome, who is buoyed by the belief there seems to be a renewed reverence for such work and the preservation of these homes.
When asked about the sacrifices made to make the doc, six years in the making, they both laugh.
“It was big commitment, mostly because we were doing this as a project with other parts of lives,” says Bernard.
That required extended weekend road trips, extended credit cards and marathon late-night sessions in the editing suite. After selling out at the DOXA Film Fest in May, Coast Modern debuts at the VanCity Theatre from July 6-12.
“We just want people to realize how incredible the effort was made toward living in a new way and sort of question how we’re doing it today,” says Froome, who recently moved to the North Shore. “Today we have different needs — density is an issue, land price is an issue, we have a different set of needs. Modernism needs to tackle it with a whole set of different values but still keeping design and beauty and connection at the forefront.”
After documenting so many modernist dwellings, Bernard finds he asks himself this question a lot: “Is this the best we can do?”
“And generally when I walk around or walk into people’s new places... it just doesn’t really seem that great compared with the real revolution that these guys brought on. You sort of feel like ‘Isn’t there something around the corner that’s really waiting to really reframe our thinking about this stuff?’
“This stuff that they were designing was totally radical. It’s hard to put our heads into the space, but it was pretty revolutionary at the time.”
The Coast Modern project isn’t finished. Much of their footage didn’t make it into the 55-minute film. But recently, the pair received a grant to make a more enhanced version of their website.
Using a Google map, they are plotting extended interviews, additional commentary, home profiles and other details and tidbits that didn’t make it to the film version.
They hope to “really turn it into a resource so the project lives on and it becomes something people can contribute to,” says Bernard.
Asked about his dream house, Froome reflects on the words of West Vancouver architect Peter Pratt, whose father Ned was one of Vancouver’s most celebrated modernist designers.
“The smaller the house, the bigger the garden.
“Really think about that,” says Froome.