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Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Arch-i-text: 60 years of Modernism

Living in a community that is known for its relative concentration of surviving buildings from the 19th century, it is sometimes easy to neglect the fact that the majority of our dwellings actually represent the 20th and 21st centuries.

In fact, it seems that architectural styles, particularly of the Modernist schools, are dismissed as interlopers that do not belong here.

In reality, sprinkled across Niagara-on-the-Lake in village, town and rural settings one can quite easily find well over 60 years of Modernist expression. With the exception of the original classic International style commonly constructed between 1920 and 1950 (to my knowledge), every Modernist style is represented in our community.

Take, for example, the residential enclave of Bevan Heights. Located near Four Mile Creek and Stamford Townline Road, it sits on the Escarpment and its three streets are lined with houses built after 1950. While many of these houses can be said to be the ubiquitous bungalows, split-level, styled ranch forms (etc.) of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, leavening the mix are more uncommon designs.

On Mallette Crescent sit three homes of the Contemporary school (often referred to as Mid-Century Modern). Inspired by Wright’s Usonian houses and his treatises on affordable home design that related to the landscape, this style was initially popularized by J. Eichler in California.

Common elements include a low-pitched or flat roof with wide overhanging eaves; windows to, or just below, the roof line; recessed or obscured asymmetrically placed entry; horizontal, ground-hugging lines; warm material used such as stone, brick or wood; and a low, broad chimney.

A vaulted ceiling through the interior’s main public space was quite often included, as is the case with these three homes. The dwelling at #2 Mallette can be suggested as a “classic” Contemporary expression.

Continuing up Melrose Drive we pass a variety of Modernist designs before arriving at #72, which represents a fine expression of the 21st-century Modern style.

Its exterior displays the mixed materials (in this case, stone, metal, wood and glass) required by the style’s parameters.

In a very wise decision by the architect, the metal frames of its industrial windows and the metal cladding have each been colour-matched from the main stone field, thereby creating a flowing composition that tends to lighten the visual weight of the building. 

Finally, near the end of Melrose at #106 is an example of a style that galvanized the imagination of young architects in the 1960s after its centre-stage publicity in what was one of the earliest ecologically based housing developments in North America.

On this house the interplay between typically multi-directional shed roof elements over a complex three-part massing is striking while the strong diagonal roof lines are enhanced by the vertical board and batten cladding – all working in concert to create a lasting impression.

Here the entry is recessed and the reverse shed through dormers prominently display fixed plate windows. It’s one of the two finest examples of period shed style homes in NOTL.

In some ways, Bevan Heights is a microcosm of our town’s residential architecture post-1950. It’s worth a peek.