Fred Hollingsworth, one of the Canadian architectural greats renowned for his wariness of commercial architecture, started his career as an aviation expert with a curious wariness of commercial aviation. Mr. Hollingsworth had his pilot’s licence by age 19 and went on to fly across North America in the cockpit of his own Cessna to visit architectural clients.
Yet in 1964, when he and then-partner Barry Downs each won the illustrious Massey Gold Medal for their architecture, he refused to take a commercial flight to Ottawa to attend the ceremony. Mr. Hollingsworth insisted that they embark on a multiday train trip there instead. According to his son, Russell, it was precisely because Mr. Hollingsworth appreciated more than most people the inherent risk and complexity of flight.
“He loved flying,” says the younger Mr. Hollingsworth, “as long as he was at the controls.”
That stance toward control applied equally to his architecture and helped make Mr. Hollingsworth renowned as Canada’s answer to Frank Lloyd Wright, purveyor of an idiosyncratic modernism that posed an alternative to the orthogonal glass-and-steel International Style that otherwise dominated the 20th century.
Inspired by Mr. Wright and in defiance of the postwar predilection for stripped-down, ornament-free architecture, Mr. Hollingsworth created his own aesthetic, often designing circular and obliquely angled spaces or enriching simple bungalows with striking woodwork and unusual window patterns. His devotion to house design came at the expense of procuring larger and more lucrative contracts. But from his earliest days of career-building to his death in North Vancouver on April 10 at the age of 98, he had no regrets.
As his son, Russell, explains, “Dad had enough wisdom to see that he should keep doing mainly residential work and stay out of the corporate world, so he could remain an artist and call the shots himself.”
Mr. Hollingsworth revered Frank Lloyd Wright and the California-based Arts and Crafts architect Bernard Maybeck, admiring both men’s concept of “organic” architecture that made use of natural materials and the surrounding landscape. Mr. Hollingsworth designed a series of affordable fir and cedar bungalows that he dubbed “neoteric” houses, based on a repeatable post-and-beam design that could be customized for each family. His houses seemed rooted in the earth and greenery, as though they were growing right out of the West Coast’s verdant slopes.
Notably above the ground, however, was his 1949 Sky Bungalow: a wooden display home perched on beams that hovered over a Hudson’s Bay Co. parking lot in downtown Vancouver. (It was later relocated to a private lot in North Vancouver, where it remains.) The Sky Bungalow was a huge popular and critical success, and helped promote both the principles and the sales of West Coast architecture for a postwar population in urgent need of family housing.
“It was brilliant advocacy for modern living in a convenient, well-planned and economically delivered home,” says Sherry McKay, a professor of architectural history at the University of British Columbia and the author of an upcoming monograph on the Sky Bungalow. “It brought a broad public awareness of the benefits – social, familial and personal – of postwar domestic design.”
Fred Thornton Hollingsworth was born in the town of Lowton, England, on Jan. 8, 1917, the only child of an apothecary and a housewife. At the behest of his mother, who had siblings living in British Columbia, the family immigrated to Vancouver in 1929. But his father could not get work in his field, and took a job as a janitor at Canadian Pacific Railway to support his family. Fred dropped out of high school to work for an uncle as an apprentice sheet-metal worker, a trade at which he excelled. His spare time was devoted to designing and building model airplanes, and he won the national championship in that field in 1935 and 1939. That prowess helped him excel at a job leading a design team at Boeing Aircraft, which had just established a factory in Vancouver. During the Second World War, he helped design fuselages for war planes.
In 1943, Mr. Hollingsworth met and married Phyllis Montgomery, who would be his stalwart partner in life and sometimes work for the next seven decades. The couple raised three children; his son, Russell, would later become a successful architect in his own right. After the war, Mr. Hollingsworth worked briefly as an illustrator while moonlighting as a singer/sax player in dance clubs. He and his wife purchased a lot in North Vancouver on which he designed their architecturally distinctive family home in 1946. He approached Thompson, Berwick & Pratt, the large Vancouver firm that was overseeing the area’s development, to approve his drawings. When Ned Pratt learned that Mr. Hollingsworth had designed and drawn up the house scheme himself, Mr. Pratt offered him an apprenticeship at the firm.
Mr. Hollingsworth thus began training as an architect without ever having attended architecture school. Shortly after Mr. Hollingsworth started work at TB&P, another young apprentice named Ron Thom joined the firm. They soon became renowned as the firm’s best draftsmen and creative talents, and became lifelong friends and mutual influences as they both ascended to national and later international renown. Like Mr. Thom, Mr. Hollingsworth was not particularly interested in the firm’s formulaically rectilinear schools and offices that constituted much of its core output. Instead, he focused more on his own projects and made a name for himself with unique designs exemplified by – among others – the 1950 Moon Residence, an obliquely angled North Vancouver post-and-beam bungalow distinguished by a huge crenellated brick hearth and surreal wells of light seeping in from corner skylights and aperture windows.
Mr. Hollingsworth travelled on several occasions to the Wisconsin and Arizona studios of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s workshop-cum-architecture school, and when he finished his apprenticeship with TB&P in 1951, Mr. Wright offered him a job there. Like every other job at Taliesin, however, there would have been prestige but no pay. He turned it down.
Instead, in 1952 he joined the firm of William Birmingham, where he further developed his idiosyncratic brand of modernism in designs such as the Red Feather building in Vancouver and other projects. Equally important, he befriended Bud Wood, an associate (and later a principal) at the firm – and another convention-defying architect with an organic West Coast aesthetic. In the 2006 book Living Spaces: The Architecture of Fred Thornton Hollingsworth, co-author Greg Bellerby cites Mr. Wood’s friendship as a key influence, both in terms of architectural sensibility and from the trips they took together to Portland, Ore., where Mr. Hollingsworth met significant architects such as John Yeon and Pietro Belluschi. In 1959, Mr. Wood encouraged Mr. Hollingsworth to write the gruelling series of regulatory exams needed for professional accreditation as an architect, according to Living Spaces. The challenge was heightened by the requirement for Mr. Hollingsworth – now an intensely busy 42-year-old father of three – to first finish his high school equivalency exams, as well.
In 1959, Mr. Hollingsworth set up a practice in his own house and then three years later established a partnership with Mr. Downs. The Rayer Residence in West Vancouver, designed by Mr. Downs, and Mr. Hollingsworth’s curvilinear Maltby Residence each won a Massey Gold Medal. Mr. Downs, who was well on his way to becoming a nationally renowned architect, had been schooled in the ideology of the Bauhaus and its endorsement of rigid orthogonal geometries and industrial materials. His early work with Mr. Hollingsworth, he now says, “taught me to rethink my regimented, simplistic approach, and revealed to me all the rewards in the use of wood.”
Mr. Hollingsworth established his own firm again in 1967 to focus primarily on domestic architecture, with a few exceptions, such as the now-demolished 1971 University of British Columbia Faculty of Law building. In the 1970s, Mr. Hollingsworth served year-long tenures as the president of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and then president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and became an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Although both the size of his firm and the scale of his designs remained compact, Mr. Hollingsworth eventually attained an exalted status among the West Coast’s mid-century modern architects, culminating in a 2004 retrospective at Vancouver’s Charles H. Scott Gallery curated by Mr. Bellerby, with publication of the affiliated monograph, Living Spaces: The Architecture of Fred Thornton Hollingsworth, following two years later.
He remained involved in architecture to his last years, with the same values he held at the start of his career. “I think small houses are better, because if you’re living together, isn’t that the way it should be?” he told this reporter in a 2008 interview at his home.
“Or at least, that’s the way I think it should be.”
Mr. Hollingsworth leaves his wife, Phyllis; son, Russell Hollingsworth; daughters, Lynn Burns and Kim Hollingsworth; and extended family.Report Typo/Error
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