Photograph of a house lit from the interior at night surrounded by a forrest.
The Merrick House, West Vancouver, BC. Courtesy Michael Perlmutter

West Coast Modern Week Centered Paul Merrick’s Unique Architecture

The West Vancouver Art Museum’s recent exhibition A Twist of the Rules highlighted the architect’s design legacy in Vancouver.

Bucolic West Vancouver, across the Burrard inlet from the city of Vancouver and bordered by mountains, forest, and oceanfront, has long been a treasure trove of midcentury modern design, perfectly sited amongst old growth firs and bedrock.

For many years, the small but beautiful West Vancouver Art Museum (WVAM) has been an advocate for the preservation of this unique architectural legacy currently threatened by real estate developers more concerned about prices per square footage than design heritage. But thanks to this year’s inaugural West Coast Modern Week and concurrent exhibitions, the WVAM has become a beacon for enlightened preservation.

Partly inspired by Palm Springs Modernism Week, West Coast Modern Week featured lectures, films, discussions, and parties, culminating in the WVAM’s annual Modern Homes tour, presented by British Pacific Properties Limited. Hundreds of local as well as international archiphiles attended and plans for next year’s tour are already in the works.

Interior photograph of a school with a fireplace and large conference tables
Sun Centre, St Michaels University School. Silent Sama Photography.
A watercolor painting of a school
Paul Merrick Watercolour, Sun Centre, St Michaels University School.

The WVAM’s exhibition, A Twist of the Rules: The Architecture of Paul Merrick, highlighted projects including the Merrick House, a 17-level masterwork that was part of a homes tour.

Located on a steeply graded site overlooking scenic Eagle Harbour, the architect designed the home in 1972 for himself and his family. Since then, the property has changed hands but remains a West Coast classic. Constructed out of cedar, fir, glass, and stone, the Merrick House is surrounded by Soaring 50-foot fir trees surround and embrace the home, which twists and winds its way organically over several levels. Located on a steeply graded site overlooking scenic Eagle Harbour, the architect designed the home in 1972 for himself and his family on a shoestring budget. At once a cozy treehouse and a device for viewing the environment, the house features cathedral-like ceilings that sing a paean to forest and ocean.

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It is neither rectilinear nor curvilinear, but rather an organic response to the site. It is undeniably West Coast with Japanese elements, and yet it is not post and beam like many of its mid-century neighbors, but rather composed of “dimensional lumber”—a range of 2x4s and 3x8s that give it a richly textured intricacy. Viewed from the foot of a steep incline on the south side, the house emerges out of bedrock and forest forming a singular creature made of wood and sky and greenery.

an image of a school lit at night
Sun Centre, St Michaels University School Sun Centre. Courtesy Silent Sama Photography.

Other Merrick projects featured in the exhibition include the Killey residence in Vancouver, as well as City Square, the renovations of the Orpheum Theatre, the West Vancouver Memorial Library, and the retrofitting of the Marine and the BC Hydro Electra Buildings.

Additional homes celebrated on this year’s tour ranged from Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey’s Smith 1964 Smith House 2, recently renovated by Measured Architecture; to a 1964 Ron Thom house exemplifying the diamond-grid house plan (a variation on the hexagonal modules popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright and revamped by Living Radius Architecture and Interior Design); and a contemporary 2021 home by Battersby Howat Architects, perched at the edge of a hillside overlooking a ravine.

As part of West Coast Modern Week, an exhibition at the West Vancouver Memorial Library also highlighted the work of mid-century architectural photographer Jon Fulker, including images of Erickson’s Catton House. The photographs capture the spirit of a time when inventive architecture met challenging topography and when young families could still afford to live in what has become one of Canada’s wealthiest postal codes.

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