Hamilton shows off its modernist cred
By Dave LeBlanc
The Globe and Mail
November 10, 2011
An undulating wooden screen provides a backdrop for sexy Barcelona chairs; a city skyline lies at the feet of a lush suburban lawn; clerestory windows perform a trompe l’oeil to "float" a second storey; an architect’s Mondrian-inspired wall mural lies undisturbed for 45 years; intersecting light and dark walls perform a symphony of angles; and a wide deck encircles a long post-and-beam home.
Sexy and sophisticated images all … and all from the amalgamated City of Hamilton. If you thought Steeltown was sleek before, wait until you get an eyeful of the six architect-designed homes featured in SLEEK 2.
Opening at the small but mighty HIStory + HERitage “storefront museum” at 165 James St. N. is the sequel to last year’s exhibit, SLEEK: Hamilton’s Modernist Residential Architecture, which was so successful it took curator/owner Graham Crawford, 57, by surprise: “I had people from London, Ont., Windsor, St. Catharines, Buffalo, and of course Toronto,” he says. “Lots of architects, lots of people just interested in mid-century modern – it was very, very popular.”
It was also unique: Six video screens, hung at eye-level, looped virtual house tours of each house, all set to a cool jazz soundtrack. Rather than walk a shaky hand-held motion camera through the spaces, Mr. Crawford chose instead to “pan-and-scan” still photographs: “I’m basically employing the Ken Burns effect,” he says with a chuckle. “The pace of the videos is purposely slower than you might normally expect because I want people to linger over details.”
It was so linger-licious, the same technique is being employed for this year’s six stars – built between 1959 and 1972 – with support via additional photography by Jeff Tessier and newly drawn floor plans courtesy of Javier Guardia mounted to gallery walls.
As before, award-winning Hamilton-based Modernist architect Anthony Butler (retired) has done all research, which, not surprisingly, is thorough, insightful and offers anecdotal tidbits via on-screen text. For instance, it’s during the video tour of the 1966 escarpment home built for Dr. John Fawcett that viewers learn the architect, Trevor Garwood-Jones, was responsible for the Mondrian mural in the foyer, and that the house’s striking barrel-vault roof was “manufactured off-site and delivered and installed in one piece.” Viewers get to walk through a private courtyard, open the door and then look out of the thin Italianate arched window from the good doctor’s study.
Also on the escarpment is Joseph Bogdan’s 1963 Ranalli house with its incredible exterior massing and interplay of long vertical windows and mid-section clerestories; a walk inside shows how those long “embrasure-like” windows frame and light a floating, sculptural staircase.
Interestingly, there are houses by a father and a son. John Douglas Kyles, the father, designed the oldest house in the exhibit, a 1959 Y-shaped rancher for Dr. Dingwall on Hamilton’s west mountain. Not only does it have a commanding view of Hamilton’s skyline, on a clear day you can see the Toronto skyline as well. The exhibit’s youngest house, by son Lloyd, is the 1972 Hammond house, a rancher near the border of Dundas and Ancaster with a wraparound deck and a massive chimney piecing the low-slung roof.
Also on offer is a residence by SLEEK researcher Anthony Butler, the tall and lanky 1969 Garnett residence on a 22-acre site near Dundas, with fenestration and floor levels to thrill, and a 1964 home for Hamilton’s then City Clerk, Mr. Simpson, by Hamilton City Hall architect Stanley Roscoe with a gorgeous wooden screen to separate foyer from living room.
Refreshingly, each video eschews shelter magazine clinicalness to present the homes as they really are: “I’m not interested in shooting a stage set,” explains Mr. Crawford. “It also communicates that people really do live in these things in a very normal way, so whether that’s magazines around or comfortable chairs…or whatever.” In other words, Mr. Crawford is doing his bit to dispel the myth that Modernist architecture is cold and inhabited exclusively by intellectual aesthetes wearing complicated eyeglasses.
It helps, too, that HIStory + HERitage is a welcoming and cozy place that invites people of all stripes through its doors. “I want everybody to come in,” affirms Mr. Crawford. “I didn’t do this show for architects; on the other hand it doesn’t offend architects when they come in.” This is good, since rather than preaching to the choir, what’s needed in this age of teardowns is a way to make Modernism approachable to townhouse-dwelling blue collar workers and bankers in Georgian mansions alike.
But can a gallery show really change minds? “I know that I did because people said so,” answers Mr. Crawford matter-of-factly. “They’d driven past houses like these – or in fact these houses –and I think helping them [virtually] go inside and see the volumes and the light and the interconnectivity of the rooms … people got a sense that it was rich heritage.”
For the converted who wish to take the experience home, H+H is selling calendars and a tidy little booklet (that features houses from both exhibits) for $15 each.
And if that’s still not enough, there’s always next November: “We could easily do a SLEEK 3 and a SLEEK 4; there are so many other high quality mid-century modern homes still to do.”
SLEEK 2 opens in Hamilton at 165 James St. N. on Friday Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. and runs until Feb. 10, 2012. For more information, visit historyandheritage.ca. Admission is free.