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The Rise Of Modernism In Canadian Architecture

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My very first experience of a Canadian suburb was visiting my prospective in-laws in a leafy Ottawa neighbourhood in 2005. I was struck by the similarities of the houses, a pastiche nightmare of vinyl siding cookie-cutter homes. I had the eerie experience of meeting the neighbor, who lived in a home that was exactly the same, except inverted. I briefly pondered the thought that if the dwellings were all alike did that mean the residents were too?

When I went back this year, after a hiatus of about five years, two new modern homes had sprung up on the street. Their large glassed windows and strong lines initiated a merciful break from the neoclassicism that was middle class Canada. Could it be that these houses were an example of a real change in aesthetics?

Cold and Stark

Many people associate those adjectives with modernism, yet in it's true sense, this type of design is more a question of advocating minimalism and functionality. Two great qualities for any space, considering our busy modern lives. Other characteristics of modernism include clean lines, openness, an abundance of natural light, neutral colours mixed with occasional bold accents, organic and industrial materials as well as an avoidance of excessive decoration. As one its founders famously said "less is more"!

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Picture courtesy Oudejans Interiors

Peter Oudejans, Principal designer for Oudejans Interiors, agrees: "Having recently built a modern home, we incorporated many of the principles of modern design and are delighted with the outcome. The house has vast windows, which keep the interior bright, and the open concept provides a wonderful inclusivity and flow throughout. It is also airy, uncluttered and spacious, achieved through abundant storage, floating stairs, glass railings and wall-hung vanities to name but a few of our tips for enhancing and enlarging spaces."

Why Modernism? Why now?

What has presaged the sudden allure of design that has prompted the new home owner to want more from their homes than just the practicality of living in it? What has birthed this engagement with contemporary architecture, this desire for individualism rather than conformity? The trend to modernism represents a greater change in the zeitgeist that encourages expression, creativity and individual style.

Ironically, this modernist movement has its roots in the past. From the strong lines of Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies van der Rohe, these glorious new homes are both harbingers of history and cutting-edge contemporary.

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Modernism came about as a result of a few factors including the industrial revolution, the advance of new technology, the new patterns of life that these brought about as well as a backlash to traditional architecture and design. The four architects regarded as the pioneers of modernism in design are Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe as well as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius (the latter having established the Bauhaus).

Robie House (1908-10) is a quintessential example of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style of architecture while Farnsworth House (1946-51) is Mies van der Rohe's demonstration of the open living space and glass wall concepts.

Modern houses come in many shape and forms but generally have multiple roof lines at different levels, interesting overhangs and unusual linear elements are incorporated to create a unique sculptural statement. Extensive use of glass is typical, in particular clerestory windows that are set high up in walls, allowing for light and privacy.

Modernism, in brief, was a rejection of gauche ornamentation and an embracing of minimalism, of style and of individuality. One can easily see the appeal to the millennial generation.

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Picture courtesy Oudejans Interiors

The Rebirth of Modernism

Those who enjoyed the Halcyon days that the eighties and nineties brought will remember the excess; the big shoulder pads, the huge hair and the 'monster' homes. (In fact, the average modern home is 1,000 square feet bigger than it was in 1973.) The days when buyers picked pre-designed homes from catalogues and wanted to fit in with the neighbours, rather than stand out. From furniture to landscaping, keeping up with the Joneses meant conforming to the consumerist culture that pervaded the national psyche.

As the pendulum swings, homes may not be getting smaller, but they are certainly more austere than their neo-classic peers. Evidence is all around demonstrating the growing trend to shift from traditional to modern design in both interiors and exteriors. Now home owners want a space uncluttered by adornments and moulded trimmings--they want simplicity, clean lines... in a word, elegance.

The modernist revival is born out of the desire to tread more lightly on the earth, to blend with the lines of nature just as Lloyd Wright's prairie style followed the lines of the grasslands. An embracing of the natural world, accomplished by bringing the outdoors in through large transparent surfaces, as was exemplified by Mies Van der Rohe's glass 'box'. By incorporating organic elements of the earth, such as wood and metal, the modernist home is more grounded than its lofty counterparts.

The popular use of recycled or upcycled elements reduces the carbon footprint of the home and the demand for increasingly energy-efficient buildings speaks to the emerging desire to live eco-friendlier lives.

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Picture courtesy Oudejans Interiors

As a designer who encourages his clients to choose green options where possible, Oudejans sees the relevance of combining design with sustainability. "Modern design is increasingly ideal for many people in today's world. From the young professional living in a small condo attempting to make the area feel larger, to the busy family with limited time for cleaning ornate spaces and endless objects, to those down-sizing who want to reduce clutter accumulated over the years. Living with less in our lives is truly freeing as well as less costly, less work and definitely less harmful to our planet."

Modernism suits our new moderate approach; it mirrors our desire to take responsibility for the impact we have on the globe and for the growing need to be individuals, to stand out and to take an active and creative role in the fabrication of our homes.

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