What makes a contemporary home modern?

Alex Bozikovic’s article in todays’ (04 September 2014)Globe and Mail, Home and Design section, addresses this question. The article describes a residential development in Toronto’s Bayview Village, known as “Crafthouse”. Bozikovic calls Crafthouse, “a modernist subdivision”and identifies external and internal modernist style elements present in Crafthouse, and in similar developments planned by Great Gulf Residential. Regarding the exterior, the Crafthouse presents,

a clean statement of good taste: They have flat roofs; expansive, well-placed windows; smooth, iridescent brick, laid in regular grids; panels of laminated timber, and nothing that looks even faintly Victorian. (p. L3).

On the inside,

The interiors are carefully designed, with plans that are largely open but have partly delineated spaces…there are no crown mouldings and the fixtures (such as lever-style door handles) fit into the range of good modern architectural taste. (p. L3)

The architect responsible for Crafthouse, Peter Vishnovsky, links the modern styling of interior space with modern family activity patterns:

A modern family functions differently than a family from the past…The idea was to keep the family together, but allow them to be separated at the same time as they do different activities. (p. L3)

An additional modern design element, according to Bozikovic, is the production process. Although the details are not included, it’s implied that Great Gulf employs a computerized factory system to create panels that are then assembled quickly on site.

Bozikovic’s article raises a number of questions for those interested in the space of modernism as expressed in Canadian architecture. Canada has always had an uneasy relationship with modernist architecture, at least in domestic applications. In 1935, the country’s first federal housing authority that developed as the result of its’ first housing legislation, the Dominion Housing Act, sponsored an architectural design competition. The winning design was a textbook example of the International Style that was then taking North America by storm. Public opinion was almost instantly negative. The flat roof was especially decried as both visually unappealing but more so prone to leakage in Canada’s varied environments. Less was judged to be, well, less, and future federal house competitions veered back to support more familiar domestic motifs, but with a subdued modern influence. If the developments described by Bozikovic prove successful, and spawn similar projects in other Canadian markets, it begs the question: why now?







Research Interests

IMG_0023_2My research specialties are focused on 1) urban residential design and housing markets and 2), cross-border regions. In 2013-14 I embarked on a third research endeavour which combines elements of these two: a study of Abbotsford’s ethnic enclave known as the Townline neighbourhood.

1a) Urban housing markets.

My longest standing research interest has been in the realm of twentieth century housing market development, especially with regard to the role of lending infrastructure. This was initiated in my PhD dissertation (1988), a study of the origins, and urban impact, of Canada’s initial piece of federal housing legislation, the Dominion Housing Act of 1935. In Canada and the United States, the modern mortgage market is generally regarded as having played a key role in the growth and design of the post-war suburbs. My study of Canadian housing policy is set within the broader context of regulation theory. As such, the establishment of the modern residential mortgage is understood to have been central to the intensive regime of capitalist accumulation of the latter twentieth century, that developed in Canada, and other advanced capitalist nations. It is generally argued in the literature that the development of the modern mortgage, was critical to the expansion of home ownership, especially in suburban settings.

1b) Urban residential design: Vernacular Modernism and the Canadian Home – An interpretation of the BC Box .

The design of houses and cityscapes was also directly and indirectly impacted by federal housing policy. Above all else, housing was required to be “safe” from an institutional investment perspective. In this regard, for example, the Dominion Housing Act was also notable for instituting Canada’s first building code, subsequently adopted across the country. Such building codes imposed a homogeneity to design, which also came to reflect modernist principles. The Levittown “Cape Cod” bungalow, perhaps best known of the post-war vernacular modernist variants, was just one of many North American representations.

Together with Michelle Rhodes and Jacqueline Mulcahy, I have been studying the meaning and significance of the BC Box, a dominant form of residential vernacular architecture in British Columbia’s lower mainland. The BC Box, together with its architectural cousin, the Vancouver Special, are regional variants of a post-war North American staple, and modern icon: the two-storey rancher. Our research begins with an outline of the modern roots of the BC Box evident in the simplicity and standardization of its design and production. Our work will also examine the interplay between aspects of internal design, especially floor plans, and household dynamics, in the 1970’a and 1980’s.

2. Cross-border regions.

Study of the Canada-United States border was initiated in 1999, in collaboration with my UCFV colleague, the late Doug Nicol, and Patrick Buckley in the Geography Department at Western Washington University, Bellingham WA. This collaboration included 1) an international team-taught course (GEOG 421: Borderlands) for graduates and senior undergrads, and 2) research on the border.

3. Housing Abbotsford’s South Asian ethnic enclave (Townline).

The Abbotsford CMA is notable in Canada for containing the highest proportion of South Asian population and amongst the highest visible minority population, in the nation. These measures reflect the prominence of Abbotsford’s Indo-Canadian population, which has recently marked its centenary. This demographic cohort is currently concentrated in the Townline neighbourhood of Abbotsford. The degree of concentration is very high; according to recent urban geography analysis, it’s one of a handful of “polarized” neighbourhoods in Canada. (Walks 2010) Townline appears on the surface to be a success story: a vibrant, active, growing and adaptive community of multiple generations. It is also a neighbourhood with a relatively large number of newcomers. The focus of this study is on the structure and function of the housing market that exists in Townline.