- Gehry Draws, and: A Modern Life: Art and Design in British Columbia, 1945-1960
These two very different books, Gehry Draws and A Modern Life: Art and Design in British Columbia, 1945-1960, both relate to the artist, architect, or artisan as a designer. In Gehry Draws, an association is made with Gehry's sketches, which are an integral part of his creative process, and the Renaissance notion of disegno, the concept drawing produced for a project, whether a painting, sculpture, decorative object, or building. A Modern Life is not concerned so much with practice as with documenting the integration among different design disciplines that occurred in Vancouver during the 1950s. In a unified effort to promote modernism, Vancouver designers dispensed with the visual arts hierarchy, which was in part the result of the increased value the Renaissance placed on concept versus craft.
Vancouver appeared to be fertile ground for the spread of modernism. The arts community was small, and the authors credit the Vancouver School of Art, the University of British Columbia, and the Vancouver Art Gallery (organizer of the exhibition A Modern Life and associated catalogue) with fostering relationships among practitioners in what were elsewhere separate fields. In particular, painting and architecture experienced an unusual degree of cross-fertilization. Mural painting, for example, was a feature of many downtown buildings and directly connected art and architecture. As well, painters such as B.C. Binning and Jack Shadbolt designed their own homes and architects such as Douglas C. Simpson and Ron Thom designed furniture or incorporated the arts and crafts into their architectural designs.
The middle-class domestic environment is key to understanding Vancouver's brief efflorescence of modern arts. The catalogue includes a reprint of a 1955 article written for Canadian Art by Robert H. Hubbard, then the curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada, who attributed to the West Coast's mild climate, rapid postwar urban expansion, and economic prosperity people's easy acceptance of the new, particularly modern domestic architecture. Scott Watson, in his essay on painting in Vancouver during this period, notes that the modern urban or suburban home created the principal context for contemporary art and design. As essays by Alan C. Elder and Sherry McKay relate, the consideration of the home's design, decoration, and furnishings as a unified [End Page 391] ensemble was encouraged by important exhibitions of modern design and through the illustrations of prominent local artists' and architects' home interiors in the popular shelter magazine, Western Homes and Living. The photograph of the John C.H. Porter house from the October/November 1950 issue shows Mrs Porter knitting in her living room, wearing spectator pumps and pearls. The text states that her husband's modern house design allows her more easily to perform all the housework and supervise their four children, and so gives her the leisure to indulge her hobby of cultivating exotic house-plants. This domestication of modernism made it into merely a style rather than a change in lifestyle. And, although the work of a number of important Canadian artists and architects can be found in Vancouver during this period, what the catalogue A Modern Life describes is ultimately an environment that could not support the innovation or experimentation necessary for a radical modernism.
It is precisely this aspect of modernism that makes Frank Gehry ' s architecture so appealing: it breaks the rules. Despite the fact that the rules that Gehry breaks are the tenets of modern design, he is a self-described modernist and eschews his critical appellation as a postmodernist or deconstructivist. In any case, Gehry Draws, with essays by art historian Horst Bredekamp, experimental filmmaker Rene Daalder, and art critic Mark Rappolt, as well as commentary by Gehry and his design team of Edwin Chan and Craig Webb, certainly reinforces the Renaissance cult of genius that informs the popular conception of Gehry.
However, the bulk of...