The Neon Parade

When I was at the Museum of Vancouver in January checking out their Playhouse exhibit, I toured one of the other exhibits they have currently on display: Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver.

To say it was eye-catching would be an understatement. Fluorescent blues, pinks, yellows, reds, and greens met my eyes. A constant humming sound made it a space you wouldn’t want to spend more than half an hour in.

I walked around from sign to sign, trying to picture these now-vintage signs hanging in their heyday on Granville Street in the 1950s-60s, Vancouver’s “theatre row.”

There are still a few remaining neon signs on Granville Street, but this “visual pollution”, as the City’s Environmental Committee put it in 1974, had to be reduced. So a sign by-law was enacted in 1974 to control the amount of neon cropping up over the city. It was apparently a very polarizing issue. Here are what some opponents said:

I walk into spaces like this and feel nostalgic for the past—to experience coming downtown Vancouver to be greeted with such fanfare—lights, colour, action—reminding me of the city as spectacle, the city as stage. Coming downtown was an adventure. There is something appealing about the signs’ audacity, drama, even grittiness. But then I try and picture what it would be like to have lived in that era where these signs were everywhere, building after building, and perhaps it was more nauseating than nostalgic, more contrived than genuine. A part of me then sympathizes with the naysayers, although some of their rhetoric sounds a touch extreme:

You can have civilization, or you can have neon.

You can have happiness, or you can have neon.

This anecdote is rather humorous:

An urban legend grew up that the most dangerous intersection in Vancouver was along Kingsway where a flashing neon woman swung back and forth, mesmerizing drivers.

As German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in his famous essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” (1903) the growth of the modern city in the early twentieth century impacted city dwellers psychologically in a new way than ever before. Cities bombarded us with stimuli of all shapes and sizes, contributing to the feeling Simmel identified as the blasé. The blasé is an attitude of indifference caused by the over-stimulation of the nerves because of the rapidly changing sights and sounds in the city. Blasé becomes an item of clothing we wear when stepping out into the streets: it’s a protective shield from the 24-7 advertising assault on our senses. It’s not hard to see how neon signs play a role in this urban armour.

So, what’s your reaction to neon signs? Love ’em or leave ’em?

Let’s Play House

How many of you played house as a kid? The Wikipedia entry for it made me smile as it brought back childhood memories with my siblings:

House, also referred to as “playing house” or “play grown up”, is a traditional game, a form of make believe where children or adults take on the roles of a nuclear family, which typically consists of a father, mother, a child/children, a baby, and a cat/dog . . . The nature of the game usually attracts girls, but boys will sometimes play as well, usually with some reluctance . . . Every person assumes a role, and then they invent household scenarios in which everyone takes a part: getting food, doing chores, fixing things, going places, “making babies” (with varying degrees of realism), caring for the younger children, feeding the pets, welcoming the husband home from work, etc.

Apparently children aren’t the only ones who like to “play house.” The current exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) showcases the work of the late Vancouver-based modern architect, Daniel Evan White, who boldly experimented with geometric shapes that redefined traditional notions of house and home. Play House: The architecture of Daniel Evan White contains 36 of over 100 of the architect’s projects, including a replica of the Máté House built to 1:4 scale that dominates the room.

Smaller models of White’s houses line the right wall, while on the opposite wall, a timeline takes the viewer through the development of his vision regarding form and how this fits the function of the domestic program. As one caption indicated, form often trumped function in White’s work, but his later projects demonstrated a better integration between playfulness and practicality.

“Play House” exhibit. A model of the Máté Residence takes centre stage, while a timeline of pictures and architectural drawings are on the left wall.

Considering my interest in Vancouver’s architecture, I was surprised that I had never heard of Daniel Evan White before. My dad had though, and so he took me to learn more about this local genius about whom Bruce Fraser said the following in his 2012 eulogy:

I had the impression of being in the presence of a private man, a man who had a Buddha-like quality and who made a house speak the way a Dylan Thomas poem makes a grown man weep or a Lawren Harris clean line painting evokes the grandeur of Canada.

What a statement! And private indeed! Daniel Evan White doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, unlike his mentor and eventual colleague, Arthur Erickson. But I suppose this isn’t surprising because Erikson designed more public buildings, like the Law Courts and UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. Private residences don’t have quite the same visibility, although White’s work is behind hundreds of houses along the West Coast.

Museum of Anthropology by Arthur Erickson. 1976

You can definitely see a similar architectural zeitgeist operating in Erickson’s and White’s work. The Museum of Anthropology, shown above, looks very similar to The Weaver Residence with its interlocking horizontal planes, also built in 1976.

The Weaver Residence by Daniel Evan White in Vancouver. 1976

The Máté House reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, also built on a cliff, except White turns the telescoping effect horizontal instead of vertical. Or, as the MOV describes it, this “strongly geometric building [is] reminiscient of a child’s toy block set.”

Grand spiral staircases were a characteristic White move, located close to the front entrance.

Spiral staircase of Máté Residence – replica

Some other notable White designs include the Connell Cabin on Galiano Island with its circle of three living spaces, the Lunn II Residence on Bowen Island with its paraboloid roof, and the Taylor Residence that acts as a bridge between two cliffs.

While the models are a work of art in themselves, the video playing on repeat near the back of the room was extremely helpful to get a feel for the inside of these fabulously conceptual models. That’s what really made White’s geometric forms come to life for me–when I saw how they are decorated and lived in; how they interact with the rhythms of eating, living, sleeping, and playing.

Photo by S. Kashani, and M. Sheriff

Inside the Peters Residence, West Vancouver 1980. Photo by S. Kashani, and M. Sheriff

Can you imagine living in a home like that? Maybe a future adventure will entail tracking down White’s homes around the city before new owners and renovations threaten their original design, which has unfortunately already happened to some of White’s playhouses. But at least his private projects are now being shown to the public in the first-ever retrospective of White’s 50-year career, on display at the Museum of Vancouver until March 23.