Our curatorial team at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) visited Daniel Evan White's studio after a tip-off from the City of Vancouver Archives, which was then acquiring the architectural drawings of the practice. We were quite taken by what we saw, and eventually acquired some of his models for our permanent collection. While doing research about his career, I came across an exhibition proposal produced several years earlier by Greg Johnson and Martin Lewis, two architects teaching at the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA), who had worked with Dan’s firm. The affinities between their curatorial aspirations and the mandate of MOV were obvious. Producing a collaborative exhibition with Greg and Martin would become an opportunity to investigate the city through the eyes and work of innovators like Dan White. The end product is Play House: The architecture of Daniel Evan White which will open at the MOV on October 17, 2013.
As we embarked on the planning and design phases of this exhibition project, the countless conversations I had with Greg and Martin often felt like intense question-and-answer sessions. I would query them, trying to grasp the essential traits of the man, his work and his contribution to the field of architecture. Some of my questions may have been surprising and even unsettling at the time, but their responses were always thoughtful and enlightening. The gist of our conversations is captured here.
Viviane Gosselin (MOV Curator): Why do you think Daniel Evan White remained relatively unknown until recently – well after his career was over?
Martin Lewis (Guest Curator): Many of Dan’s mentors or contemporaries – Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom, Barry Downs – managed to complement their early private residential work with larger institutional commissions that afforded them greater public profiles. Others, such as Fred Hollingsworth and Bud Wood, were far more vocal and articulate about their own work. Dan had the respect of his professional peers but was never skilled at self-promotion.
VG: Last year, there was a West Coast Modern film screening and public symposium in Vancouver but, curiously, not a mention of Dan White. Should he be considered part of that movement or not?
Greg Johnson (Guest Curator): We acknowledge that Dan never identified with a style or group per se, nor can his work be easily categorized. It’s often mistakenly characterized as simply architecture for the privileged. That is incorrect. He also designed modest houses, pre-fabricated cabins – everything from furniture and fixtures to new housing prototypes, public buildings and small communities.
VG: Given his formal education at the Vancouver School of Art, would you say Dan White considered himself an artist, an architect, or both?
ML: He said he became an architect because he ‘could not paint like those he admired’. He understood his limitations. Yet he certainly approached architecture with the sensibility of an artist. He was not pleased until he achieved ‘something that was truly beautiful’. So, he was quite willing to take everyone on a quest for the zenith. He was very interested in Greek mythology and pursued the ideals of intense dedication, passion and zeal (naming his business after the god Zelus, who represented those ideals). He was an idealist, a dreamer. Those are not necessarily the typical traits of a successful architect.
VG: Big question: Could you situate his work in local, regional, national and international contexts?
GJ: We view him as one of the most accomplished architects of his generation. His unique contribution to Canadian architecture will become more significant and revered as his work is publicized and understood as a genuinely original, West Coast response to site, climate and culture. Although the buildings reveal an iconic, almost sculptural presence from the exterior, their clear interior planning and the precise relationships of rooms to the immediate and distant landscape set them apart.
ML: He had an interest in the modernist tenets (Le Corbusier’s ‘5 Points of Architecture’; Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Less is More’) but never as dogma or formula. His work, although strongly geometric in plan and section, is much more subtly nuanced and human-scaled than would at first appear. He was quite sympathetic to the fusion of inside and outside, to the extent that those territorial boundaries are constantly blurred in his houses – air, water, light, landscape seem to flow effortlessly from one space to another...
VG: You both already had an intimate knowledge of his work, having been associates in his firm for several years. What new insights did you gain while researching and documenting his work?
ML: Architecture, like all disciplines, seems to have its own set of very strict rules and tendencies. Some would call them styles, others theoretical positions. We’re interested in the idea of critical practice, which attempts to posit larger issues through the true substance of architecture – which, some might argue, is building. Dan was clearly a practitioner. He was not a theorist. He communicated ideas through the act of building.
GJ: The truly humbling thing about looking at his 50 years of practice, as a coherent body of work, is just how difficult it must have been to execute. Dan quietly had a formal agenda in mind, perhaps not articulated initially, but certainly as he gained more experience and earned the confidence and trust of clients; he was able to assemble a coherent set of ideas, each project more subtly resolved than the previous one. It was as if he was working towards completing that set and saw in each commission an opportunity to add an additional piece to the suite.
ML: Absolutely. And in retrospect, it is the research process required for the exhibition that made us see the work in this light. It allowed us to type and categorize projects and document their formal similarities. Interestingly, there is a lineage that ties everything together, so to speak – private worlds that suddenly become public and more interesting because of their shared genealogy. We are certainly not historians, but as architects we now see the merit in constructing a career based on a few selective and focused interests.
GJ: The most rewarding part of this project has been meeting an extraordinarily wide range of people who, after having been in the residences for a significant amount of time, in some cases several decades, are now reflecting on how good architecture has changed their lives.
Stay tuned for more questions and answers from Viviane, Greg, and Martin!