In some eyes, the Taylor residence in West Vancouver is about as close as you can get to the West Coast dream home.
Located near Gleneagles at Larson Bay on a steeply graded site that drops dramatically close to the waterfront, it is a house designed not only to embrace its surroundings, but to embellish them.
“The landscape would be less interesting without the house,” says architect Martin Lewis, who once worked with the home’s designer, Dan White, and who will co-curate an exhibit about Mr. White’s Modernist work next spring at the Vancouver Museum.
Mr. Lewis’s comment recalls architect Antoine Predock’s famous quip that “architecture is landscape in drag.” But in this 2,900-square-foot residence with a simple yet striking palette of concrete, glass and wood, the fusion between site and design approaches perfection.
The two-storey edifice, designed for bridge engineer Peter Taylor and his viola-playing wife Gillian, was conceived as a long, narrow bridge-like structure that spans a small ravine and is anchored to the granite rocks that embrace it. A small stream flows beneath it, its runoff framed by the house as it cascades down to the ocean. It may well be one of the West Coast’s best examples of a house fitted to its site.
The journey to the Taylor house begins with a walk down a paved road – thick forest 30 years ago – at a steep incline. Flanked by landscaping that merges native plants both wild and tamed, the first glimpse of the house from the north side is magical: sloped glazing, steeply counter angled to reflect its approach, through which the seafront can be seen via a second layer of south-facing windows.
This open, transparent expanse is countered by an intimate, almost cave-like entrance area – a kind of alcove or refuge from the open water. A large, solid hemlock door opens to reveal a breathtaking view of and a heart-pounding, 40-foot drop to the seafront.
While the north-facing entrance to the house draws one in, the south-facing side is the most monumental in form. Here the sea-oriented façade is designed as if it had sprung organically out of the cliff side. A long, steep stairwell made of concrete and rebar seemingly floats in mid air. The journey down is marked, as is much of the interior journey, by framed views of the landscape that accentuate its inherent drama. At the end of the stairwell, a pathway leads to the ravine that the house straddles above, while one level down a platform shaped like a mini amphitheatre opens up to the seafront.
But the story of how this place came to be is equally dramatic. In addition to being the perfect fit between design and site, it was also an ideal union of architect and client.
“This place would not have been possible without the Taylors,” says Russell Cammarasana, a principal at Daniel Evan White.
The Taylors raised their family of three girls in a more traditional Arts and Crafts-style home a few kilometres east of their current abode. But they admired White’s nearby Maté residence and noticed the site while out kayaking one day.
“Everyone thought such a steep site would be impossible to build on,” relates Gillian Taylor, now a grandmother of six, and the owner was reluctant to sell to anyone. But eventually after some tricky negotiations, the Taylors bought the one-acre lot for $200,000 in 1978 – a jaw droppingly low price considering it’s current value of over 4 million dollars.
To save money, Mrs. Taylor quit her job as a social worker and became the contractor, and her husband put his engineering skills – he would later win the Order of Canada for his bridge building innovations – to good use. To save trees, they refused to have supply trucks on site, but instead carried down materials by hand, and installed a pipeline for on-site concrete pours.
But the two-year construction period was not without some fraught moments.
“I remember one day,” recounts Mrs. Taylor, “the concrete was slowly making its way down the pipeline, and we were still frantically sweeping up the dust and debris from inside the formwork.” And installing rebar in the staircase winding down the cliffside to the sea, she recounts, was an experience that rather pushed her to her limits.
While the Taylors efforts were admirable, their reward – being able to afford to live in a Dan White house – was considerable.
“But to do what they did today,” notes Mr. Cammarasana, “would be almost impossible.” Not only have bylaws since changed that would never permit building so close to the water, but real estate prices have soared, preventing a young, middle-class family from ever being able to buy a waterfront lot and build such a home on it.
He worries about the fate of the house should the Taylors ever sell it. Times have changed and “most buyers in this price range would want more square footage and a larger footprint.”
But Mrs. Taylor is optimistic. “It would be pretty difficult,” she says, touching the staircase that she built herself and looking up towards the house that rises like a modernist fortress sprung forth from the bedrock of the ages, “to destroy this place.”
And who would dare to? It’s hard to imagine that this exquisite example of Dan White’s West Coast modernist style would inspire destructive urges in anyone. Rather it’s the kind of house that makes you want to stand up and applaud the architect, its plucky inhabitants, and the place that inspired it.
Special to The Globe and Mail
The Taylor Residence was one of five homes featured recently in the West Vancouver Museum’s West Coast Modern Home Tour. For more on this house go to http://westvancouvermuseum.ca/
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story incorrectly stated the home's purchase price and the date of the West Vancouver home tour.This online version has been corrected.