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Who was Daniel Evan White - Part III (final installment)

In this final installment of "Who was Daniel Evan White" MOV curator Viviane Gosselin explores how the 2 guest curators got to know Dan and what what working with him was like. Play House: the architecture of Daniel Evan White is on now until March 23, 2013.

 

VG: When did you first learn about Dan White?

ML: Through a University of Toronto acquaintance, who became Dan’s longest associate, of more than 25 years – Russell Cammarasana. I had noticed the Ma Residence on Spanish Banks when I first came to Vancouver in 1986, because of its sheer audacity and obvious dexterity. But years later, when visiting Russell at the studio, I think Dan mentioned that they were getting very busy and needed some help. It was completely circumstantial. I worked and consulted with Dan’s firm intermittently over a period of 20 years and had the opportunity to work with Dan on his very last project (unbuilt) in 2010.

GJ: I remember the first time I saw one of Dan White’s houses, soon after returning from my architectural studies in Montréal. The house was located on one of those rugged West Coast sites so impossible to build on that it had likely been labelled as unsuitable for development: steep, rocky slopes descending to the ocean, very difficult vehicle access and covered with impenetrable vegetation.

Although still incomplete, the house already exhibited those characteristics so typical of all of Dan’s work – bold, simple and dramatic, with strong, repetitive, geometric forms, fitted to the site in a manner that made it look like it had always been there.

I was fortunate at that time to be sharing office space with Steve Zibin, a long-time colleague of Dan. Steve always spoke so highly of Dan, crediting him with instilling in Steve a strong sense of design. He sent me off in search of the many buildings they had worked on together, most of them hidden away on difficult-to-access sites around the Great Vancouver area. I became familiar with the large body of exceptional work Dan’s office had produced, and at the same time more puzzled as to why these outstanding projects were not better known within the architectural community.

Through an amazing twist of fate shortly thereafter, I found myself working with Dan and a number of his colleagues. The office was a wonderfully creative atmosphere, and I remember it with fondness, as much for the people involved as for the fascinating way in which Dan’s projects came to fruition.

 

VG: And what was it like to work with him?

ML: Exhilarating. Inspiring. Frustrating. Humbling. Dan was a very quiet, gentle man. I think that those who worked for him, and with him, realized that they were operating in a completely different world of design, mostly anachronistic, completely unsustainable when you come to think of it. It’s remarkable that Dan was able to maintain a practice such as his for so long. For any project, he would generate hundreds of ideas. Some of the ideas were so unconventional at the residential scale (houses spanning deep gorges, suspended spherical rooms, hyperbolic paraboloid skylit roofs) that when first proposed, they seemed like conceits, sheer follies. But then, slowly, as the client’s program evolved and the siting, spatial and technical requirements became more known and considered, those poetic ideas transformed into practical, productive ones. Dan was immensely talented. And in a way not borne out by his daily studio behaviour (he actually did not draw so much as sketch relentlessly). He was extremely hard working. He was always dreaming. He never took a day off.

 

VG: What lessons do you think can be learned from his work?

ML: Anyone who has striven for simplicity and clarity in any discipline knows how difficult those are to achieve. Dan worked relentlessly, attempting to achieve a measure of perfection. He was rarely successful, but he persisted. He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. He constructed space, spatial sequence, form. Complex space that rewarded full engagement.

GJ: Dan’s best work was executed when he engaged a broad range of participants with multidisciplinary backgrounds, each substantially contributing to the final artefact. This model, distinct from the antiquated myth of the sole creative genius, is the one most likely to produce outstanding architecture.

ML: What drove the formal language of Dan’s work was his insistence that everything was simple, geometrically consistent and carried through all levels of the architectural program. No other architect in this region successfully carried out that idea at such a scale, with such thoroughness and over such a long period of time. We find that compelling. There are certainly high and low points in the opus: the work is neither ‘perfect’ nor always resolved. But it is shown here, for the first time, for consideration. No one could say that they ‘know’ Dan’s work, because it just wasn’t ‘out there’ before now. In fact, the curatorial team is discovering something new every day.

GJ: Ideas from his 1963 thesis – such as a clear formal vocabulary or the mix of the monumental with the everyday – resonate in his final project 50 years later; that’s instructive.

ML: Our expectations of our buildings and environments are different now, implicated by a new awareness of energy conservation and vague notions of heritage and sustainability. You cannot, nor would you necessarily want to, replicate the buildings of the past 50 years. But you might be interested in what makes some of that architecture and landscape liveable, revered, cared for and loved. This is partly why we think Dan’s work will continue to resonate with the public of today and tomorrow.

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