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Building the West: Early Architects of British Columbia

By Donald Luxton

Review By Harold Kalman

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 126-8

OUR KNOWLEDGE of the history of architecture in British Columbia has taken a quantum leap forward with the publication of Building the West. This remarkable reference work is a collaborative effort involving no fewer than fifty-seven writers, researchers, and advisers (including myself), but it would never have seen the light of day, nor achieved its depth and quality, without the enormous effort and commitment made by organizer, compiler, editor, researcher, and writer Donald Luxton.

The book sets out to “chronicle British Columbia’s rich architectural and social history through its urban landscape” (Dustjacket), although it breaks much more ground with architecture and built history (most contributors’ area of expertise) than with social history. Statistics give some sense of the massive scope. The book contains biographical essays on about 170 architects who practised (but were not necessarily based) in British Columbia and shorter notices on just as many more, the earliest of whom began to work here in 1858, the last in the 1930s. Many earlier architects practised in an unregulated professional environment and/or had no formal training; only after 1920 was the use of the title “architect” in British Columbia controlled by legislation. The book is illustrated with more than 600 historical photographs and renderings. A contextual essay heads each of the six chronologically and thematically organized sections, and the text also includes a foreword, some dozen and a half sidebar-like essays on mini-themes from surveyors to pattern books, and more than 100 pages of back-matter. The design, by Leon Phillips, is a tour de force that complements the text, with the many illustrations – from thumbnails to two-page bleeds — never making the pages look crowded. The only distraction is the reflective nature of the gold and other inks. 

The project was jointly conceived by Vancouver heritage consultant Luxton and Victoria retailer and consultant Stuart Stark. Exploratory meetings with their colleagues led to the group effort and provided an opportunity to draw on a broad base of current and recent research. The concern was how to squeeze so much information and so many potential illustrations within the covers of a viable book, but Luxton and publisher Talonbooks succeeded with distinction. 

And quality? For the most part, the reader gains a sense of confidence in the data’s authority. Entries have evidently been thoroughly researched. Surely some errors will emerge over time, but such is history. Sources are provided in separate entries at the back (see below). And, as we are reminded at the head of this section, “Few of these architects have ever been written about, and many had been completely forgotten” (489). There is nothing in the literature on BC architecture to which to compare it. Building the West is as much an authority on its turf as is Howard Colvin’s classic and definitive A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840 (3rd éd., 1995) on its. As with Colvin, the tone is descriptive and not critical, appropriate for the genre. 

This wealth of layers is both the book’s greatest strength and its Achilles heel. The volume is difficult to navigate, a definite handicap for a reference book. The principal listings are contained within the six main chapters, where architects are arranged in chronological order – not by their year of birth but, rather, by the start of their architectural practice in British Columbia (even though many were in their forties when they designed their first buildings here). A typical entry is one to six pages, with an essay that provides an overview biography and names the more important works, a portrait, the subject’s signature (a nice touch!), and historical photos and drawings of key buildings. Additional information on each architect, ordered alphabetically and in catalogue style, listing projects and bibliography, is provided in a section entitled “Sources” (489-525). A second tier of architects, who didn’t quite make the grade or about whom little is known, is introduced with short biographies in a section entitled “Additional Significant Architects” (450-88). The indexes of architects and buildings help somewhat but would be far more helpful if they bolded principal entries as so many architects and buildings have multiple page references. Lest the reader think these comments petty, she or he should try to find basic information on a particular architect quickly. 

This structure poses an inconvenience but is certainly not a fatal flaw. If navigation is a challenge, then just sit in a comfortable chair and read the book: dip into it anywhere, read it from start to finish, examine it in random order. However one may approach it, Building the West is a great achievement and a good read that teems with information – big stories and delightful trivia alike.