The leafy streets of Vancouver’s west side seem tailor-made for Georgian mansions and Craftsman bungalows, and while a great many of our talented architects try to inject a welcome dose of modernism into this staid environment, it takes a skilled hand to both push boundaries and fit in with the grand bucolic scheme. It was almost a decade ago that the WL offices were abuzz when one of our editors, while driving his daughter to school on Vancouver’s Blenheim Street, passed a building so memorable—contemporary without being harshly modern, striking while still blending in with its environs—that he immediately pulled his car over to snap some scouts. The name on the sign said RUFproject, and later that morning at the office we gathered around a computer and googled it. The first project that came up was a training space for Nike in Pretoria, South Africa, and we assumed that the Blenheim house must have been a one-off from an overseas designer. (Ironically, we later learned that the design for the house actually came came from Vancouver architect Arno Matis—RUF was just finishing it—but no matter, the name RUF had entered our design lexicon).
Sean Pearson of RUFProject
It turns out, the “overseas” was Sean Pearson, the Canadian-born, University of Manitoba grad principal behind RUF. And while this year’s Arthur Erickson Award winner for an emerging residential designer may not be an exotic foreigner, he concedes that his path to this award has been anything but straight. After earning his masters in architecture from U of M, he moved to London and promptly landed at the prestigious Hopkins Architects before joining the innovative design collective Jump Studios and ultimately landing at Nike Europe, Middle East and Africa, in the environmental design group, a multidisciplinary role that mixed branding, design, photography and industrial design. For a young creative only a few years out of school, it was a plum gig.
A chance opportunity to design a house on a place called Salt Spring Island called to him. “Brand work can last a few years, a month or even a few days,” he recalls thinking, “but a house lasts maybe forever. Most people build one house in their lifetime.” Pearson wanted to be part of that process. And this was no “look at a topographical map, crank out a design, make a few site visits” gig. This was an “I want you to move to the island to get a feel and then supervise every step” sort of gig.
For this home on Salt Spring Island, RUFproject’s first, the client wanted a modern log cabin. The interior uses no drywall—all the walls are millwork—making the open plan functional with large amounts of integrated storage. The house structure is post and beam, made from Alaskan yellow cedar beam and steel columns.
He was in. The house that resulted is almost inconceivable given that it was, for all intents and purposes, the first residential project Pearson built. “The residence can’t help but remind us of the West Coast modernism of the Smith House by Arthur Erickson,” says judge and architect Patricia Patkau of Patkau Architects, not one to throw around a legend’s name lightly. While building it, Pearson fell in love with the island, but soon realized that running a design practice that skewed very contemporary would mean relocating to a bigger centre—and Vancouver seemed a good fit (especially as he was still “commuting” to Soweto while the Nike project wrapped up).
One of the first projects in Vancouver was the aforementioned work on the Blenheim house. A few more thoughtful renovations followed, and he began to build a name as someone who could channel modern in a traditional shell, a mantra that perfectly encapsulates the West 1st Residence. It was a disaster when he came upon it: a great turn-of-the-century house that completely ignored the spectacular view. Pearson’s first thought was to go all glass, but the clients loved both modern and traditional. The result was what Pearson jokingly calls a “mullet house”: heritage in the front, party in the back. The entry and living rooms are more original house, then the building morphs more modern as you move through toward the sightlines.
Vintage in the front, modern in the back: the West 1st house represents a resolution of dual architectural identities while remaining cohesive in its design. Perched on a sloping lot, its early-20th-century facade is hidden from the street by a dense tangle of trees.
The dining room, situated between the living room and the kitchen, is a transition point: a hybrid of new and old elements.
The West 1st house preserved many of the original elements, including the staircase, window casings and stained glass.
Further into the West 1st home, as in the ensuite, the space is decidedly modern.
It’s an ethos that also informs the West 27th Residence, even though the buildings don’t resemble each other, something that’s a huge positive for Pearson (“I don’t want to have style, I want to have a process,” he says). Unlike his other projects, West 27th is in an area populated by post-war bungalows, hardly a design era that’s subject to much critical love. But to Pearson it presented another opportunity to channel several ideas in one design. For starters, he needed to mediate the design scale: “We had a normal sized, ’50s bungalow to the east and a ’90s large block house to the west, and I needed to work with both.” The solution was to focus on keeping the front calm and stoic while working in innovative channels of glass and light in the interior spaces. Again, from Patricia Patkau: “I think that the front facade and street landscape of the West 27th Residence and the effectiveness of the cut-in small courts is a surprising, successful and innovative response to a mid-block suburban house.” The City was less convinced, but when the neighbours around the house all signed letters in support, the plan was approved.
Talking about the house, Pearson notes that it feels big thanks to the cutouts, but in reality it’s not a huge square footage. “A box sets the limits of your space—but here there’s a flow that expands the place.” And while these words describe West 27th perfectly, they also apply to a designer who brings a unique set of tools—designer, brander, photographer—to his next project.