Bo Helliwell and Kim Smith of Blue Sky Architecture have created some of the West Coast’s most intriguing homes, displaying an organic modernism inspired by the region’s rich natural weave of rock, forest and ocean.
Their respect for site is matched only by their affection for British Columbia’s mid-century modernists, especially, it would seem, for Barry Downs. Their last house near West Vancouver’s Whytecliffe Park was a Downs original – from the early sixties when he partnered with Fred Hollingsworth (and recently sold for $1.65-million).
But in the late nineties, they began to look for a house where they could build their own studio. When they first got a peek at 4090 Bayridge Ave. in 1998, they were immediately attracted to the house Mr. Downs designed in 1964. “It’s from the era that was ‘hot’ when I was a young architect,” says Mr. Helliwell, who cut his teeth working for Arthur Erickson in the late sixties and early seventies. Its simple yet elegant mid-century style appealed and its neutral palette of white stucco, cedar and fir enhanced the natural beauty of the site.
“I remember the cherry tree at the front was in full bloom,” recalls Ms. Smith. “And you could see right over the house into the view of the ocean,” chimes in Mr. Helliwell, Ms. Smith’s husband and architectural partner.
Indeed, it was “love at first ‘site’ ” for the pair of architects and the 1964 Massey Award-winning home.
“Downs’ siting was brilliant,” notes Mr. Helliwell, pointing out the steep incline that leads into a landscaped entrance (by B.C. legend Raoul Robillard) and pond, and then explodes into a gorgeous view of West Bay and beyond to Vancouver’s English Bay.
The tall firs and cedars that surround the house obscure neighbouring residences. The steep, rocky slope toward the sea and a ravine that falls away to the east and allows an unobstructed water view, conspire to make the half-acre site appear much larger than it actually is.
“An Italian friend of ours visited recently,” relates Mr. Helliwell, “pointed to the expanse of forest and sea below us and asked casually, ‘Is this all yours?’ ”
While the land is not, the view is certainly “all theirs,” and part of the magic of the place is how that view shifts from one end of the house to another. The genius of it, says Mr. Helliwell, is how the house sits “suspended in the landscape.”
So when the time came to renovate, they aimed to stay true to this spirit. While there were some hurdles to overcome – West Vancouver had designated the house as a modernist heritage home and the city’s heritage panel initially nixed their plans to add a studio on the grounds that it was too much of a departure from the original design – eventually naysayers were won over.
“The same people that once rejected the plans,” smiles Ms. Smith, “gave us a heritage achievement award in 2002.” The final verdict was that the contemporary renovation actually gave new life to Mr. Downs’s initial vision. “Our intention was not to mimic the original home,” says Ms. Smith “but to enhance it. Sometimes you can get trapped in trying to be too faithful to the original design – and in doing so you can lose the essence of it.”
While their previous home studio had been separated from their house by a courtyard – “a nice psychological break,” notes Mr. Helliwell – the constraints of the site on Bayridge Drive dictated otherwise.
The studio needed to be built as an extension of the house, and the only spot for it was on the northeast corner. In a happy marriage of form and function, the studio curves around the pond and landscaping, completing a circle at the home’s north facing entrance.
A concave glass wall lets in light and greenery, while an east-facing continuous strip of glazing balances natural light and makes the roof appear as if it is floating in the forest.
The curvilinear element offsets what is essentially a house marked by angular interplay. By making the Japanese style bridge to the house’s entrance way oblique, rather than flush, Mr. Downs created texture and a dynamic sense of movement. The interiors are angled to fit the natural contours of the site, and the south facing glazing opens onto a series of uniquely framed views. While some Hollingsworth touches are evident – notably the cedar valances that run throughout the main living area – and a southeast corner window that disappears into the air – the original Downs design takes its cue less from Frank Lloyd Wright and more from Richard Neutra, fusing inside and outside in a seamless aesthetic.
Essentially the Smith-Helliwell renovation opened up the mid century core of the house – widening doorways, expanding the kitchen, amplifying glazing – while adding a studio on the Northeast side, completed in 2000- and a master bedroom and bath on the southwest corner, finished last year. The two new wings that run on an almost diagonal axis, offer vaulted ceilings and exposed post and beam interiors.
While originally the house had three small “towers” – vertical extensions from the fireplace, washroom and stairwell shafts- that anchored the house to the steep, rocky site, Mr. Helliwell and Ms. Smith reinterpreted these as transition points between old and new – using fin walls demarcated by vibrant colours like cobalt blue and lime green.
One brightly coloured wall that stands out from the surrounding minimalist palette marks the transition between the new studio and the old house. To accommodate the new bedroom and bathroom on the south side of the house, the architects inserted a fin wall to transition between the original 10-foot roof and the new exposed beam and rafter roof that slopes westward up to 15 feet. A much larger south facing terrace, now steps down to the newly planted garden and forest below.
While mid-century modernism certainly has its charms, large bathrooms are not one of them. Most homes of the era feature tiny closed in spaces – much more closet than spa – and the Downs-designed home was no exception. Intriguingly, the new bathroom is actually one of the house’s most attractive interior spaces. With its 11-foot-high vaulted ceiling and glazing that overlooks a garden of lilac trees and smokebush, there is a sense of suspension into the site.
“Taking a bath here,” says Ms. Smith,” is like floating over the garden.” From the vantage point of the deep soaker tub, one could easily get lost in the expansive water view, punctuated by hummingbirds perched on the tips of tall firs.
But beyond its aesthetic charms, the new bathroom is – perhaps counter-intuitively – also a means to preserve a modernist classic. Noting the fate of a neighbouring mid-century bungalow with good bones recently razed to accommodate a faux Tudor exercise in mildly monstrous camp, Mr. Helliwell says that by contemporizing certain features and expanding the house’s program, “we hope the next owner will be less likely to tear it down.”
And as appreciation for our modernist heritage grows, projects such as the Bayridge Avenue renovation not only bridge architectural generations, but also offer practical solutions for preservation.
Special to The Globe and Mail
The film Coast Modern , featuring interviews with Bo Helliwell and other Vancouver architects, shows at the
DOXA film festival this Sunday, May 13, at 4:00 pm at the Vancity Theatre (www.doxafestival.ca/festival/films/coast-modern).