Fund established for Binning house upkeep; Land Conservancy needs money to maintain historic property

Local architecture buffs were appalled when one of Arthur Erickson's most famous designs, the Graham House, was knocked down last year.

There were worries that a similar fate might befall another modernist icon, the B.C. Binning House, when Binning's widow Jessie recently passed away at the age of 101. Though the house is beautiful and still in fine shape, it's relatively small (1,540 square feet) and situated in a very desirable West Vancouver neighbourhood. It is a National Heritage Site, but the designation is largely ceremonial -- anyone who wanted to tear it down could do so.

But Jessie Binning loved her house, and wanted it to survive. And it will, because her executors have given it to The Land Conservancy of British Columbia.

The Land Conservancy is a non-profit charity modelled on Britain's National Trust, which owns and operates about 300 properties in the province. These range from nature zones like the Sooke Potholes campground to historic structures like writer Joy Kogawa's childhood home in Vancouver.

Unfortunately, it isn't cheap to maintain historic properties. So The Land Conservancy is launching a public campaign to raise $300,000 to create a Binning House Endowment Fund.

Saturday, there will be an open house from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. for the general public at the house, located at 2968 Mathers Cres. (For more information, call 604-733-2313.)

Architecture critic Adele Weder says the importance of the Binning House to West Coast modernism can't be overstated.

"It's the first truly modern house in B.C.," she says.

"It became a showpiece and a laboratory for the emergence of modernism, and brought together a number of disciplines at that time. Ron Thom, Arthur Erickson and all the heroes of modernism that have emerged since in one way or another have been nurtured or affected by the Binning House."

The irony is, Bert Binning wasn't an architect, he was a painter. And he paid the bills as a professor and administrator, first at the Vancouver School of Art, then at the University of B.C.

This didn't seem to deter Binning when he decided to build a modern home in the late 1930s. He drew up the plans, then his friend, architect Ned Pratt, "stamped it" so it could be constructed.

It was a radical design for its time. The south wall is floor-to-ceiling glass, the roof is flat, and the interior is open, which makes it seem a lot bigger than the square footage would indicate.

"It's the original live-work studio," says Weder.

"It can be very open and provide a quality of life. Before this, houses had this little niggly-piggly labyrinth of rooms. The idea was to sequester off purposes -- living, dining -- and get the kids out of the way. But the Binning house was all about having the inhabitants of the house be all together, interact with each other."

The house also snuggles into the landscape, gently rising on two tiers to follow the slope of the lot, a feature that would become a staple of West Coast modernism.

"It took these European proto-modern ideas, and instead of sycophantically and slavishly following them, adapted them to the West Coast setting," says Weder.

"It was very subtly defiant of modernist dogma. He was an artist, he wasn't an architect."

Weder says viewers should take this into consideration when they look at the house.

"The unique thing about the Binning House is that Bert made it the way he made one of his paintings," says Weder.

"He devised a floor plan so that it was splayed and slanted, just like one of his beautiful paintings of ships, and his abstractions. It's unique, it can't be replicated. It's often misunderstood as a prototype for a low-cost house, and it's not, because it's a one-off. It's like a painting, and has to be read as a painting."

The two-bedroom house cost $5,000 to build in 1941. The design is ingenious, with no wasted space.

The hall between the main and second floor was a gallery for Binning's art, and the outside entrance featured a wonderful Binning mural done in a playful nautical motif. (Unfortunately, Binning painted another mural over top of it, twice, so the original mural is long gone.)

B.C. Binning died in 1976, but Jessie continued to live there until she passed away last year. She wanted the house to go to some public use, such as a home for visiting scholars. A live-in caretaker will look after the house, but it will be available for public tours and events. And architecture students will be able to make a pilgrimage across the Lions Gate Bridge to check out one of the classics of West Coast modernism, just like they have for the last seven decades.

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