Filmmaking duo captures essence of West Coast Modern Architecture

Filmmaking duo captures essence of West Coast Modern Architecture
Co-directors Gavin Froome (left) and Mike Bernard took six years to film their documentary, “Coast Modern” a described “project of passion” for the filmmakers. Bernard will screen the film Feb. 21 at the La Paloma Theatre and take part in a Q&A afterwards. Photo courtesy Martin Tessler

A project of passion six years in the making, co-directors Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome began showing their film in the summer of last year to great acclaim. On Feb. 21, a special, one-run screening of “Coast Modern,” their documentary about the pioneers of West Coast Modernist Architecture, will be shown at the La Paloma Theatre followed by a Q&A with Bernard, where he’ll talk about what it was like traveling the entire West Coast from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Canada (his home base). Ahead of the event, Bernard talked with The Coast News about discovering the essences of what three generations of modernist architects saw as true living and their inspiration behind finding that sense of place called “home.”

What is worth discovering about West Coast Modernist Architecture?

The thing that’s neat about West Coast Modernism, I mean it’s said better by other people in our film, but it’s a sentiment that I’ve always appreciated, and that’s just that it’s a little bit more warmed up, a little less cold steel and glass…People have these notions about modernism that it’s like being in a museum — it’s very, very precious and it’s austere and you’re not supposed to touch anything, it’s sort of a thing that’s removed from you. And on the West Coast, I think they did a great job of just making it flip-flop modernism — just making it something that was much more integrated into your life, almost bohemian in a sense. It’s hard to do anything on the West Coast without the attitude and the culture and the climate affecting things. And I think when a lot of these early guys arrived from Europe, the sort of relaxed tone got into them a bit and the steam got let out of their high-modernism, their uptight modernism. That’s the real joy of it, is that it’s just so livable.

Does the film shed light on where Modernist Architecture is at today?

The Frederick J. Smith House in Vancouver, Canada was designed by Richard Meier and exemplifies the earthy styles of West Coast Modernist Architecture. Courtesy photo

It does, actually. There’s sort of a resurgence in modernism. These houses and this approach to architecture was sort of left to languish a little bit. I know in the ‘80s a lot of very good modernist architecture in Vancouver, and I’m sure in all the cities up and down the coast, were being knocked down because it wasn’t quite back, it wasn’t quite appreciated. Things have to be of a certain time and distance away for people to see what they are a bit…There’s a concern for just the look or the style of something as opposed to what it can do for you as a piece of architecture. And that’s just a current symptom of our culture. We’re very visually fetishistic; we like the looks of things, and people just double click on that, ‘I want that look,’ and this is the thing in the film we’re trying to express, as if there was a deeper set of principles that went in to inform the creation of those designs, that were very high-minded; they were very noble and very much about people and that it’s more than just a look. It was approach; it was a philosophy. It was a way of looking at our relationship to the world and to each other. And that’s the stuff that I find is the most poignant about it all. And then when you understand that and you’re in a house, it just gains more meaning, more attraction for you. The better the experience is in knowing that stuff.

So the structures have come to represent something more than just somebody’s house or office?

Exactly. In Vancouver we’re doing a benefit with one of the architectural preservation societies, and I was thinking what am I going to say…and a line came back to me from Barbara Lamprecht, who wrote the big Netura book, and she said that the reason why these things are valuable and why she keeps them around is they’re testaments to ways of being. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s such a simple phrase,’ but it really is. It’s how do you orient your house in relation to the garden, to the streets; how do the rooms work, and where they sit; what the social arrangements — all of those things are contained in good architecture and they reflect very deeply on our mindset, a culture, a certain time. They’re very indicative; they’re very potent pieces in terms of understanding who we’ve been and where we’re going. That road map seems to be one of those things we’re sort of losing as we go into this next crazy era.

Going into the film, does the audience need to have some sense or appreciation of architecture?

No. I would say, the only thing you’d have to be is open to the experience of it…I think we did a very good job of making it super approachable. In a way, a good documentary’s got to pass that test of almost anyone can sit down in front of it and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that about architecture. I never saw it in that way.’ Gary Huswit did ‘Helvetica,’ the film about the typeface, and I ran it by my parents that have no understanding of typography and…they were both totally intrigued by it. And I think we’ve hopefully, managed to do the same thing with architecture in the sense that it’s introducing people to the fundamentals of how it works and how it can inform your world and your life…visually, it’s very engaging; it’s a lot of (the) beautiful West Coast in terms of nature, and the music’s fantastic.

Playing: Feb. 21; La Paloma Theatre
Running time: 55 minutes
Tickets: $10; at coastmodernfilm.com

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