West Coast Modern and Architect Barry Downs

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The West Vancouver Museum is holding its annual home tour next Saturday July 12 and featuring five examples of the West Coast modern style of architecture. One of the houses was designed by Barry Downs. 

Barry Downs and the West Coast modern house he designed in 1979
Barry Downs and the West Coast modern house he designed in 1979

I profiled Barry Downs and the house he designed for his family in 1979 in West Coast Modern, a chapter in Sensational Vancouver.

His house sits on top of a cliff 120 feet above West Vancouver’s Garrow Bay. The house is almost invisible from the busy street and built on multiple levels, with lots of glass that connects the indoors with the out.

Barry Downs architectMost people don’t think of these gorgeous mid-century homes as “heritage,” but many are listed on the Heritage Register. Because they are typically small houses on large view lots, they are rapidly disappearing.

Barry figures we’ve lost about 50 percent of our mid-century housing stock.

Each step through the Downs’ house is like a journey of discovery. A window in the bathroom looks out onto the forest. Another window gives a view of Bowen Island, and another a glimpse of the rocky exterior. But it’s not until you step into the dining room that you can truly understand the brilliance of Barry’s design. The Strait of Georgia, Vancouver Island and the B.C. Coast line leaps out through floor to ceiling glass windows, and just for a moment it’s disorienting, like being suspended in space.

Barry Downs Photo
Barry Downs Photo

“To me, it’s all to do with emotion, and you derive that from the building and its setting,” says Barry. “The focus for me has always been the landscape, the garden, the seasonal world.”

Barry trained at Thompson, Berwick and Pratt and worked with some of the city’s most exciting and imaginative architects. Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom, Fred Hollingsworth, Paul Merrick and B.C. Binning, at one time all worked under the guidance of Ned Pratt. Barry left to form a partnership with Fred Hollingsworth in 1963, and six years later he and Richard Archambault launched their own company with residential houses as their mainstay.

Barry Downs architect

“We built on narrow lots with simple and affordable post and beam houses. We designed houses that pushed up through the trees, that revolved around the idea of the big room, surrounded by the garden, and the view of the changing seasons,” he says.

Barry, a softly spoken man now in his 80s, is as low key as the houses that he designs. He’d just like to see more of them remain.

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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5 comments

  1. Timeless, elegant, organic……It fits the environment thoughtfully……This house is no cheaply constructed ” monster”…. . Kudos to Barry Downs.

  2. Thanks for this, Eve! I have heartfelt memories of Garrow Bay and now I have a new one!

    Our family had ‘the property’ on Garrow Bay back when we were kids. Family picnics in the hot sun, the ocean, piny smells, down through the trees, along a rocky path slippery with dry grass, to the water, cold as ice.

    Learned years later that my friend Kerry Moore lived at the marina where sometimes we’d get popsicles, revels, fudgsicles. I’m sure she putted past us on her way out to catch a fish or two for supper.

    On Saturday our crew was stationed at the Bowker / Reimann house during the WVM’s House Tour. What luck to be at this house! The pleasure of watching the changes inside and out with the movement of the light, the homeowners knowledgeable welcoming and the bonus of Mr Downs’ presence for the afternoon.

    Now I learn he lives on Garrow Bay. This good news has made my day!

    1. What a great story Laura, thanks so much for sharing it! Loved writing about the West Coast modern houses, Barry Downs’ photo of his house is on the cover of Sensational Vancouver

  3. Thanks for this Eve. It’s not every day that I’d stumble at Barry’s abode. I really liked this particularly it being on top of the cliff. Nothing’s better than a dwelling seated harmoniously with nature.

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