Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The Case house, designed by west coast architect Ron Thom in West Vancouver in 1965. (All photos courtesy the Case family.)
The Case house, designed by west coast architect Ron Thom in West Vancouver in 1965. (All photos courtesy the Case family.)

Architecture

An exercise in forms and space Add to ...

Forest, ocean, craggy slopes - these are widely considered the key influences on architect Ron Thom's West Coast residences. To those natural factors we may add several human factors: boats, art and Frank Lloyd Wright. All of these influences synthesize brilliantly in Mr. Thom's 1965 Case Residence, which realtor Paul Browne is now bringing to the market in West Vancouver.

Ron Thom designed the house on a rocky outcrop overlooking the water for Dennis and Adele Case. Though later in life he became famous for designing Massey College in Toronto and Trent University in Peterborough, the renowned architect grew up as a proverbial West Coaster, spending his summers on the Gulf Islands.

Before he began his career in architecture, Mr. Thom had first set out to be an artist, studying at the Vancouver School of Art under Jack Shadbolt and B.C. Binning. The mentorship of these well-known artists gifted him with an artist's eye. Instead of a rationalist rectilinearity, he enriched the Case House with oblique lines and diagonals, a trademark of his mentors'approaches to composition.













For the Cases, the nautical connection was powerful: Dennis was a naval architect by profession, and the couple were avid sailors with an oceanview lot not far from a marina. Ron Thom respected Dennis Case in a uniquely collegial way, in large part because of Mr. Case's own design prowess, recalls his longtime friend and next-door neighbour, Anne Ferries. Mr. Case designed boats and ships - the emblems of the West Coast landscape from which Mr. Thom drew inspiration.

Ms. Ferries, who is co-executor of the Case estate, has their notebooks and photo albums, packed with photographs of the sailboats he created himself, alongside drawings and photos of the house at all stages of construction. Dennis and Adele Case both collaborated on the creation of the house, clearing the lot, roughing out floor plans and then doing much of the construction work themselves. Their hand-written diary of the process reveals an uncommon level of client participation, with Mr. Thom swooping in on occasion to consult on and refine the project as it took shape.

Dennis Case died in June, nine years after Adele's passing. The binders and shoeboxes full of notes and drawings are a testament to their love of the ocean, the land, the boats and the house. On the West Coast, notes architect and former Thom associate Barry Downs, "there's always been a love affair of buildings and forms relating to the sea."





Another neighbour, Bob Dawson, who had also built his own Ron Thom-designed house, was among those who helped with the construction on weekends. "It was pretty challenging," Mr. Dawson recalls in a telephone interview. "The house was built on solid rock, and you had to fit the foundation to the contours of the lot." Mr. Thom's plan conceived the house as a series of overlapping diamond shapes comprised of 30-degree and 60-degree angles, hugging the site in a dramatic fashion.

Inside the Case House, the angles of the ceiling evoke the swells of an ocean as they plunge down and then up. Douglas firs that line the walkway to the front door can be seen as a kind of homage to boating oars.

The front entrance is a trapezoid, its head sloping sharply downward to follow the angle of the hip roof. Inside, step right and behold another trapezoid: a gothic-like slot window whose head jamb also angles downward in line with the sloped ceiling. It makes architectural sense, even as it evokes the forms of a B.C. Binning drawing or a Jack Shadbolt canvas.

The house also exhibits the strong influence that architect Frank Lloyd Wright had over Mr. Thom. While peers such as Arthur Erickson strove for maximum light and openness, Mr. Thom preferred Mr. Wright's approach of darker, cozier spaces. The sloping rooflines, massive stone hearth and detailed millwork enhance the sense of domestic intimacy. "This was the beginning of Ron's spinning the forms around the central fireplace," observes Mr. Downs.

The Case residence also borrows Mr. Wright's concept of hexagonal planning modules - honeycomb-shaped rooms that could fit into an irregular site that offer a dramatic alternative to conventional orthogonal plans. In this house, the kitchen is the hexagon module, with a Ron Thom's trademark shard-of-space jutting out from one facet. It makes for a dramatic interior and a sublime near-360-degree view of the surrounding forest and ocean - and, not incidentally, a conveniently circular room for food preparation.

Mr. Thom's attention to detail and sight lines are exemplified in his use of diagonals throughout. As you descend the stairs leading from the front foyer to the oceanside music/dining room, the sensation of movement is almost palpable, as though you're walking on the boards of a floating dock.

Downstairs, more trapezoids - these embedded in the built-in dining room table, a collaborative design by Mr. Thom and Mr. Case.

The deck outside the music room feels even more nautical: it reads like the bow of a ship. Now more of a sunroom since being walled in by glass in the 1980s, Mr. Downs recalls it was at first an outdoor space cantilevered majestically over the rocky slope - "a wonderful flying prow."

Mr. Thom calibrated the view lines, again involving the use of diagonals. The stairway that descends towards this view resembles a parallelogram, and this dynamic angle continues through to the diagonally angled beams of the interior bulkhead braced alongside the window wall.As you approach this floor-to-ceiling ocean view, it's almost impossible not to angle your body reflexively, as though the diagonal stairs, rafters and mullions are precisely calibrating the view for you, aiming you like a camera lens into a very specific position. And the view you behold is not the predictable luxury-home's swathe of ocean, but an artful collage of land mass and water.

The district-published booklet West Vancouver Survey of Significant Architecture 1945-1975 deems the Case Residence to be "one of the finest examples of [Mr.]Thom's creative abilities." Now 45 years old, the house will require structural work to shore it up to prime condition. Barry Downs and others argue that it's well worth investing in the restoration. "[Mr.] Thom always loved to work with those kinds of forms that go deep into space," recalls Mr. Downs, "and this is a house that pushes them to the limit."

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories