Written by Anthony Robins, ORO Editions (2017)
UBC SALA West Coast Modern House Series
Nestled on a wooded hillside, the house is truly contextual, yet eccentric and outrageous at the same time. It is not a house anyone would contemplate designing, or indeed be allowed to build, in the 21st century. With formidable skill, Merrick juxtaposed just three simple materials and managed to create a 17-level edifice with spatial gymnastics, a 40-foot high stone fireplace, an extraordinary sense of materiality mixed with powerful structural tectonics, and a striking relationship with nature.
- Anthony Robins, from the Introduction
The third book in this important series from UBC SALA, produced by Leslie Van Duzer, Sherry McKay, and Chris Macdonald, Merrick House is an illuminating testament to both the architect and his own residence, built in his early years when the idea of designing and building one own’s home was not yet out of reach for an aspiring Vancouver architect. Leslie and company have also tapped into an archetype beyond just the need to document these West Coast Modern treasures as endangered species – she has also revealed the incarnate relationship between the architect and their residence. The book series being produced by ORO Editions, with photography by Michael Perlmutter and book design by Pablo Mandel, is a literary trope of the artist and their craft, with several upcoming books also to reveal this relationship between the architect and the typology of the modern single family residence.
At the book launch put on at Inform Interiors in late April, Tony Robins was able to sit and chat with Paul Merrick in front of a captivated audience to talk about the house, the architect and the making of the book. In his opening remarks, Tony humourously recounted his enthusiasm to write about the book, producing in excess of 9000 words, and being somewhat brokenhearted when Leslie told him the folio required only one third the word count. The resulting text accompanying the stunning photos of the house is a tightly edited narrative, nonetheless capturing the essence of the larger story that Tony would’ve written. The book launch also offered those attending the opportunity to meet the house’s new owners, who spoke briefly about its upkeep being a labour of love.
In the book’s introduction, Tony talks about the house being controversial for its time, something he himself can certainly understand what with his own work having been in the news just over a year ago for being somewhat conspicuous on a high profile street corner. Had that particular house been surrounded by trees on the side of one of the north shore mountains it most certainly wouldn’t have caused such a fuss, as Paul’s house existed in relative obscurity over the years, mostly as the architect himself did not want to draw too much attention to it while he was living in it. Despite this, the new book does a great service to this wonderful architectural expression, so idiosyncratic and representative of its maker.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the book is the insight it gives to the creative process of the architect, and how this is passed through the generations from one architect to the next. In the case of Paul Merrick this of course is his relationship to his mentor Ron Thom, and Tony includes in his introduction how the impact of seeing a Thom house being built in his neighbourhood when a teenager provided him with the impetus to not only study architecture, but would ultimately lead to his working for Thompson Berwick Pratt, where he would be taken under the wing of Thom.
Such details in the telling of the story of Merrick House are as important as the sketches and photographs the book’s editors have included. An ordinary photograph in the book of the house’s front door takes on a whole new significance when one realizes the door has been made from Ron Thom’s drafting table. And such gems are just the beginning, as a journey through the house takes the visitor to multiple vantage points, comprised of an astonishing 17 levels, with impossible stairs and parts of the building torquing around first growth trees, as Tony pointed out that Paul only removed one mature tree during the house’s construction.
Other wonderful quirks revealed in the book include the house’s cantilevering bed in the original design’s master bedroom, which overhangs from the second floor loft space and provides part of the ceiling for the living and dining room spaces below. Massive panes of single-pane glazing form much of the houses lower walls below its massive A-frame roof, with the undisputed signature piece of the house being the 40-foot high stone fireplace that commands the double-height interior of the house, built by Merrick’s nephews as humourously recounted by Tony.
The book launch at Inform, with two more launches planned for the next two books in series, ended with a marvelous Q&A that provided additional perspective to the architect and his house, including a story of how the architect learned his first lesson on sustainability as a youth, telling the story of how he milled the lumber to replace the pieces he used to build a boat. This lesson and many others were certainly there as he sketched this extraordinarily eccentric house design on the margins of his drafting table, standing as counterpoint to the work he did while a young designer at the offices of TBP.
And as Leslie pointed out in her opening comments to the evening, with two more books in the series being released closely on the heels of Merrick House, this SALA series on West Coast Modern Houses is now beginning to take on a much larger presence, certainly on one’s book shelf. With upcoming volumes on houses by B.C. Binning and Arthur Erickson forthcoming, this compelling collection of books are certainly to be treasured and referenced in the library of any architect, student, or teacher.
For more information on Merrick House, visit the ORO Editions website.
Sean Ruthen is a Metro Vancouver-based architect and writer.