Campus' modernist jewels on display in VAG show

The construction of the Wesbrook Building in 1947 was an important milestone in UBC's architectural history. It was the first of many modernist buildings constructed on campus during the city's modernist era.

Among the buildings now considered gems of the era are War Memorial Gymnasium (1949), Buchanan Building (1956), the Lasserre Fine Arts and Architecture Building (1958) and the Koerner Graduate Student Centre (1959).

"UBC has one of the finest collections of modernist architecture of the 1940s and '50s," says Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, a UBC Fine Arts professor and author of The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1963. The book deals extensively with Vancouver's modernist architecture in text, drawings and photographs. One section, "Modernizing the University of British Columbia," deals with buildings constructed at UBC during the period and the thinking that led to their construction.

Windsor-Liscombe's book was published to serve as a catalogue in support of an exhibition of the same name at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The exhibition continues to Jan. 18.

In buildings viewed by some as stark and without character, Windsor-Liscombe points to details such as the angling of the stairways in Buchanan Building and the Anglo-Dutch appearance of the rear of the Wesbrook Building as features that add depth and character while helping define some of the forces that made the architecture of the period exceptional.

The ideals that guided and inspired the modernist architects who flocked to Vancouver during the '30s, '40s and '50s stemmed from the development of new technologies, materials and processes coupled with a social consciousness. This combination led to the design and construction of buildings meant to serve people.

Fred Lasserre, founding director of UBC's School of Architecture, urged that neo-Gothic design be set aside in favour of the practical.

Charles J. Thompson, was architect to UBC in the '40s when the university was in dire need of new buildings due to the enrolment of war veterans. He needed to decide between "imitation Gothic or frankly and honestly modern," wrote Lasserre. "You may be able to justify a sentimental compromise with true Gothic as in the library, but it is impossible to justify a compromise with Modern. Modern means honestly expressing the needs of today, through the frank and economical use of structure and materials in contemporary language."

This sense of practicality and service provided architectural direction.

"The idea was to provide facilities that would allow people to grow as people, to be educated -- to provide good spaces for people to use," says Windsor-Liscombe.

He cites architect Bruno Taut who said: "Where utility has been fully solved, there is beauty."

Indeed, the disciplined look of UBC's new buildings earned recognition, such as a Massey Silver Medal awarded for the War Memorial Gym and a Gold Medal for the Koerner Graduate Student Centre.

The book also highlights residential and institutional structures close to campus including St. Anselm's Anglican Church on University Boulevard, University Hill Secondary School at the south end of Acadia Road, and the University Endowment Lands home of the former UBC chancellor, the late Hon. Nathan Nemetz.

The New Spirit also deals extensively with many of the city's historical buildings, including libraries, churches, banks, hospitals, office buildings and private homes.

By 1963, says Windsor-Liscombe, modernism was moving into a new phase, leaving behind the "heroic" modernism of the post-war era for a return to a "monumental" and self-conscious interpretation of architecture such as the Simon Fraser University campus.

"At the heart of the problem with modernism was the extent to which you could adopt the industrial to human ends," says Windsor-Liscombe.

Windsor-Liscombe was recently recognized for The New Spirit with the 1997 City of Vancouver Book Award. The award is given to the author of the book that best contributes to the appreciation and understanding of Vancouver.

The book is available at the UBC Bookstore and other Vancouver bookstores.

For information on the exhibition, call the Vancouver Art Gallery at 662-4719 for recorded information or 662-4700 during office hours.