"Fun and games with three-dimensional space" is how architect Ron Thom once described the small West Vancouver home known as the Carmichael Residence. But, he added, "not recommended for budget propositions."
No kidding: It takes just one glance at this sculptural cluster of wood and glass to imagine the extra materials, craft and hours of labour logged by its builders back in 1957.
The Carmichael house is one of the dozens of gems that Mr. Thom designed on the north shore of the Vancouver area when he was a rising young star at Thompson Berwick and Pratt architects. Now the compact bungalow is on the market for the first time since its construction. It stands nestled at the end of a cul-de-sac just below the Upper Levels Highway embankment in West Vancouver's Ambleside neighbourhood. And although age may have withered it, the essential form and character of the house is still intact.
The house clearly shows a dominant influence by Frank Lloyd Wright. The most obvious Wright-like feature here is the house's distinctive hexagonal grid, which the American master builder had devised and employed. "The house demonstrates Thom's increasing confidence in his exploration of complex geometric forms," observed architectural historian Donald Luxton recently. The paradigm was Mr. Wright's 1937 Hanna House in Palo Alto, Calif., also known as the "Honeycomb House."
The hexagonal grid was a stark departure from early rectilinear modernism, both for Mr. Wright and, 20 years later, for Mr. Thom as a West Coast modernist. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and mullion-free "butt-joint" windows, the house also shows the influence of Richard Neutra, who espoused a blurring of the indoors and outdoors, inspiring much of Mr. Thom's generation. Mr. Thom had met Mr. Neutra in Vancouver 10 years earlier when the California-based Viennese architect had come to lecture at the behest of Mr. Thom's former art teacher, B.C. Binning.
But Mr. Thom imbued the house with his own spirit. The hipped roof is embedded with clerestory windows that infuse the foyer and corridors with ethereal light. The shards of light and hexagonal bulkheads create a shifting pattern of shadows against the upper walls, as unexpected as an abstract canvas. Mr. Thom originally trained as a painter at the Vancouver School of Art – he never attended architecture school – and made every house he designed as unique as a portrait. "Ron took inspiration where he could find it," Mr. Luxton said, "not copying but filtering and reinterpreting design themes, like riffing on a jazz theme."
The Carmichael Residence garnered a Massey Award in 1961. The Massey Awards text noted how the hexagonal plan, combined with a raised open ceiling, imbued the house with "maximum spatial richness," with a dramatically heavy roof that served as a protective "umbrella" for the house.
Every room is hexagon-shaped; there is not a right angle to be seen. It's like walking through a diamond with cedar-board facets. The centrifugal nature of the plan, with its interconnecting pinwheel of rooms, would have fit with Mr. Thom's idea of a tightly knit family home. To be sure, it's not the best space for a sectional sofa – or for a lot of other conventional furniture. The house is the furniture, actually, with built-in counters, banquettes and desks – all shaped like trapezoids as they follow the dynamic geometry of the walls.
Here and there are triangular projections of counter and window generated from the overlapping hexagons, the better to take in the water view still visible through the jumble of foliage below. The site is just below the huge stone-and-concrete retaining wall of the Upper Levels Highway on the north side, but looks out onto the pastoral south-facing hillside and the waters of Burrard Inlet beyond that.
The hexagonal grid boosted the original construction costs considerably. But it actually makes the house seem much larger than its 1,150 square feet. As you meander through its living spaces, the diagonal trajectory makes for a whirligig circulation pattern, as though you're walking through a continuous mobius strip. Inside are two bedrooms, a study, kitchen, living room, laundry and two washrooms. The six-sided study features a trapezoidal built-in desk of mahogany, oak and rosewood with an artfully jogged pedestal base. Its wooden ceiling is composed of concentrically arranged cedar boards, making the space seem like an oversized jewel box.
The property boasts distinctive interlocking brickwork, from the pillars supporting the deep canopy over the front entrance, to the ziggurat-shaped wall bracketing the house, to the gargantuan chimney at its core. This massive angled fireplace is so huge that it evokes the hearth of a medieval cottage. Even from the outside it dominates, serving as the anchor around which the house is wrapped.
Mr. Thom would use the hexagon grid in later plans, notably the 1965 Case Residence on the other end of West Vancouver, but rarely so intensely as in the Carmichael Residence. Although Mr. Thom would soon be nationally renowned as the designer of Massey College and then Trent University, he always preferred designing family homes.
The Carmichael House is listed at $1.35-million on a lot that measures roughly 88 feet by 150 feet. "The huge thing is the view," says Peter Jones of Re/Max Crest Realty, who is the agent for selling the house. The trade-off: the noise from the Upper Levels Highway. Given that the square footage of the house itself is smaller than many West Vancouver master bedrooms, the property would seem to be a lot-value offering. And after logging more than a half-century in the West Coast climate, the home does need significant work. Yet the overall structure and unique built-ins are intact, and may yet beguile a buyer interested in restoring it.
If that's the case, it will be a buyer with gumption, patience, and not much big furniture. "When you first enter the house, it reads like a derelict shipwreck," says Darrin Morrison, curator of the West Vancouver Museum. "But you can see past that to the mastery of the house. He didn't just build a shell; he built the whole thing like a finely crafted object. And as a design object, it's spectacular."
Special to The Globe and Mail