A home to revel in
Maybe alpine air inspires architects to do their best.
Revelstoke – a railway and highway service centre quickly transforming into a mountain mega-resort – has an unusually high ratio of B.C.’s finest buildings. The West Kootenay town of 8,000 has two superior examples of architecture that I would put on my personal Top 10 list for B.C.’s Interior, which is two more listings than I would give Kelowna, 15-times its size.
My two faves are its 1912 neoclassical courthouse with a glittering metallic dome, plus the 1939 Revelstoke hybrid city hall-cum-fire hall, in my view the first fully modern-style public building in the province.
Now adding to Revelstoke’s architectural acclaim is one of the best single-family B.C. houses I have seen this year.
To be honest, shelter magazines and a regular column like mine are guilty of over-praising multimillion dollar trophy houses, even though few will be remembered when the money runs out. But, like Revelstoke’s authoritatively composed courthouse and crisply optimistic civic complex, the riverside retirement house for Dr. Geoff and Gwynne Battersby is modest in scale – two bedrooms and living spaces on 1,650 square feet, plus finished basement – but every tuck and flourish is there for a reason.
Good design moves here begin with the house’s siting on a small, west-facing lot on the geologically active banks of the surging Columbia River. The rectangular house has its long side facing the setting sun – so rectangular and modest in scale that a local joked, “Oh, you mean that fancy trailer?” when directing me to “Doc Battersby’s new place.” Indeed, across the river are trailers, and across the street are stuccoed former motel units with the same logical one-way slope away from the river. The simple reality is that shifting sandy soils and a sometimes-torrential river means snow shed off roofs needs to be deposited as far as possible from the Columbia’s changeable banks.
The trailer jibe may also have to do with the fact the Battersby house – co-designed by their Vancouver-based son David – is more metallic than woodsy, in sharp contrast to the loggy mock-Whistler houses newly arrived in town along with such other symptoms of resort mania as cedar-shake roofs – both less functional and more expensive than metal cappings. The David Battersby and Heather Howat design makes innovative use of a local vernacular building design element appropriate to this extreme snow zone town – standing seam metal roofs – then situates this material in an unexpected way.
The Battersby house extends this Revelstoke metal roof vernacular, but more eye-catching is the use of the same zinc-coloured material on facade portions along both alley and river sides, making for no-maintenance, storm- and snow-resisting faces. Metal wraps the house, with angled bulges on the alley side balanced by that fearless vertical face on the river, with clear-stain red cedar boards warming more sheltered and high contact areas. Similarly, snow-resistant strains of Karl Forster tall grass and B.C. dogwood are set down in the house’s near-perfect rock garden. Gazing at it during our house tour, Gwynne noted “All those nice young people in the architectural office gave us the plants for the garden they designed – aren’t they lovely?”
Equally lovely are the livable spaces and considered floor-plan her son and his Vancouver colleagues concocted. No grand flourishes here, the Battersby-Howat design intelligently puts a bedroom with a butt-jointed corner window at each end, with living-dining and a galley kitchen in the middle, all focus on the Danish Modern furniture and the stunning view of Mount Begbie out the window.
It is almost as if David Battersby synthesized the architectural essences of the courthouse and city hall he knew so well – metal wrap from the former, clean modern lines from the latter – then applied them to his own design. “Revelstoke has a huge amount of snow shedding – last year it was 12 feet deep on the driveway,” explains David Battersby of the town where his family has resided since 1968. “We designed it so that snow could pile up in places on the alley and river sides, leaving the corner views and windows clear.”
The questioning of distinctions between wall and roof has emerged as a major theme in leading-edge architecture this decade, but too often this means angled and curving sections worthy of the futuroid rooms in old Jetson’s cartoons, or more earthily, the Flintstones’ Cro-Magnon rock-warrens. Neither Space Age nor Stone Age, Battersby-Howat’s fluidity of angled alley wall into sloping roof into roofing used vertically on the river side is as smart as it is seductive.
A house for one’s parents is a psychologically-wrought task for many architects, and clan-linked commissions were the first to be actually built by such intellectually-inclined designers as Robert Venturi, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves and Laurinda Spears. David Battersby says of this, “I am a real sap, so doing a house for my parents was special – they really came to appreciate what Heather and I do.” This is not to say, however, that the design process was all sweetness and light. “I am my father’s son,” says David, “and there were times we butted heads, but my much mellower brother Rod did both the plumbing and the go-betweening.”
Well, Doll’s Mountain Sheep butt heads in a mating ritual each fall on the alpine slopes of Mount Mackenzie above Revelstoke. A billion dollar’s worth of development on and below the slopes of this mountain will soon double the town’s population and hurl it into the leagues of Whistler and Banff. Rather than flaccidly ape those two architecturally compromised towns, I hope developers look instead for inspiration closer to home, being brave enough to revel in, then stoke the architectural fires of Revelstoke.