The words "Vancouver Special" refer to a type of contractor/developer "spec" house, built in large numbers between the early nineteen-sixties and the early nineteen-eighties. For years, the stoutly built little modern boxes replaced more and more of the early 20th century housing stock and became the default mode in expedient residential construction. Throughout the timespan of their popularity, Vancouver Specials were reviled by a significant proportion of the city's population. The further west one traveled in the city, the deeper the contempt towards this semi-industrialized vernacular product.
In the early eighties, as the post-war distrust of modernism was reaching a climax, the Vancouver Special finally hit the wall. At the same time, the City of Vancouver issued new by-laws designed to restrict the profiles of new houses, in an effort to thwart what was seen as tasteless over-building of the available footprint. The same contractors who had been building these houses for years switched to a new model of generalised spec house, with which to house the landed masses. In tune with rising property values, these new houses shared a tendency to maximise square footage with their predecessors but, their relationship with the modern was much more conflictive. Also in keeping with the real estate market, the newer houses were asked to reflect more complicated social cues than their earlier counterparts. While the newer model may have been more decorative however, the quality of its design and constructiondecreased slightly.
Vancouver Specials come in many different shapes and sizes, but they are typically of two-storey construction, with a low-pitched roof and a front facade distinctly divided into upper and lower floors. This pronounced division reflects symbolically both the stacked nature of western platform framing and the deliberate separability of the two floors of the house. Since the early twentieth century, Vancouver has developed the custom of squeezing two families into single family dwellings, but the basement suites in the pre-war houses were stigmatised and hence difficult to rent out. The Vancouver Special addressed the problem by eliminating the stigmatic (and costly) basement concept and presented itself instead as a respectable single-family dwelling which could, however, serve equally well as a two-family dwelling. The plan reflects this pragmatic ambiguity as well as the facade. The lower part of the facade (front only) was often clad in brick or other rustic materials, while the slack-roofed volume floating above was typically rendered in white plaster.
The suggestion of a white modern box supported on a base of brick is made all the more mysterious and important by the fact that it is purely aesthetic, symbolic in fact. Since the plans for these buildings were drawn not by architects, but by draughtsmen, employed by builders, then we must look to some kind of a generalised taste culture to understand whence such a custom could have arisen. Renaissance architectshoused servants in the rusticated bases of their palazzos. Perhaps the stone and timber alpine cabin is a more proximate reference, but either way, the sheer ubiquity of this format asks to be understood within a greater cultural framework.
This theoretical project was constructed around an examination of the aspirations of the Vancouver Special. Aspirations drive architectural form and the schismatic relationship between popular taste and that which is sanctioned by the taste elite (led by architects and designers and disseminated through numerous online and print vehicles, to trickle down through the social strata). This "high" design culture produces its own set of values and aspirations which are in turn used to hold over the head of mainstream culture in order to reinforce a social stratification based on taste. Modernism is a worthwhile experiment to be sure, but not when it is used as a tool of oppression. Modern infill in the sordid, ordinary suburban environment too often presents itself as an example of imperial perfection, dropped from above, sent to educate the tasteless masses on the "clean", unadorned perfection of an internationally sanctioned distillation of taste. "Kitschy", quirky or romantic elements are disdained and subject to "cleansing" and purification. These Cultural elements are seen as useless, wrongheaded reflexes of a society not yet woken up from the bad dream of referenciality and representation into the crystal clear reality of objective beauty.
So much of the fetishisation of modernism in recent years reflects a narrow view of the movement itself and especially, its history over the course of the twentieth century. The events of the second world war led to a widespread perception of the naivete of modern strategies of design. The machine aesthetic and the coveting of such influences as the factory and the automobile came under deep suspicion and architects and designers began to experiment with rustic, hand-hewn materials and surfaces. The anthropology craze of the fifties, combined with a creeping distrust of mechanisation after the wars, yielded the figure of the modern primitive and designers sought to create buildings and spaces that celebrated the timeless qualities of living and dwelling. It is during this period that brick back came into vogue, as the quintessential democratic building material. Brick was seen as a ready antidote to the smooth, industrialised abstract-ness of smooth concrete and plaster. An early technology, based on the power of the unit. Modernist geometricswere wrought in brick and stone and rough concrete, fireplaces accommodated cooking, and rustic, uneven floors became de rigeour in the homes of wealthy liberal intellectuals, along with nubbly fabrics and rough-cast ironwork. This episode of self-reflection in the psychology of modern design paved the way to more iconoclastic forms later in the century but it is with this first wave of questioning that this project is concerned.