"The Music of Rhyme, the Rhythm of Planes, the Shape Emblazoned": Earle Birney's West-Coast Architexts

by D.M.R. Bentley


"It would be false to pretend to recognize a specifically Canadian architecture reflecting a distinctive national character," wrote the Vancouver architect Warnett Kennedy (1911- ) in 1958 in the essay on "Architecture and Town Planning" in The Arts in Canada: a Mid-Century Review (134).1 Worse,

     Our failure to create in Canada an acceptable romanticism out of contemporary thought, materials and techniques has left a vacuum which is all too readily filled by folksy or nostalgic period importations – Cape Cod, Tudor, French Renaissance, Spanish Hacienda, Disneyland and hamburger styles. Having no architectural tradition of our own, we are wide open to the meretricious attractions of roadside ribbon romanticism. (134)

Even as Kennedy was writing these words – and proceeding to offer some partial exceptions to them in the remainder of his essay, most notably the British Columbia Electric (BCE) Building in Vancouver and the "[d]istinctive West-Coast-style homes" of Vancouver and Victoria (137, 143) – a committee consisting of the Victoria architect John H. Wade (1925- ) and six other B.C. architects and planners was preparing a special issue of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Journal for the Centennial of the establishment of British Columbia as a province in 1858. Heralded by the province’s Chief Architect and the President of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, C.D. Campbell, as a testament to "achievement and progress in the profession of architecture" that has "kept pace with and shared in the steady expansion and development of … [the] province" (109), the B.C. Centennial number of the RAIC Journal begins with brief essays on the Royal Engineer who was commissioned to survey the province in 1858 (Colonel Richard Clement Moody [1813-87]) and on two of its most prominent pre-Modern architects (Samuel Maclure [1860-1929] and Francis Mawson Rattenbury [1867-1935]). With the stage thus set, it presents its pièce de résistance, a twenty-eight-page "Photostory" of "‘contemporary’" or "‘modern’"2 West Coast architecture that includes one of the most remarkable Canadian architexts of the post-War era: a poetic "Commentary" by the Vancouver writer Earle Birney (1904-1995) that was commissioned, in Wade’s words, "to provide the links of criticism, warning and encouragement for the chain of … [architectural] endeavour" stretching into B.C.’s second century (119).

     The first of the sixteen pieces that constitute Birney’s commentary is sandwiched between a full-page photograph of a tall, de-branched tree being topped by a logger and a half-page photograph of the BCE Building (1955-57; Thompson, Berwick and Pratt), which, as Kennedy and numerous other commentators have pointed out, was modelled on the Lever Building (1952) in New York (see Kennedy 137).3 The fact that the BCE Building is the only other entity to be allotted a full-page photograph (135) confirms what is already apparent at the outset of the "Photostory": the tree rising high into the sky above the B.C. forest is to be perceived as the natural precursor of the BCE Building "soaring" (Kennedy 137) above the uninspiring houses of a nearby neighbourhood, and the process of felling trees for commercial purposes is to be understood as somehow homologous to the erection of Vancouver’s first Modern office tower. The title given to the photograph of the tree and the logger in the "Building Credits" – "Pioneer" (148) – further cements the homology, as does the verbal and imagistic parallel between the "living shafts" of trees emerging from "the wild rock" and "the shafts of the living mounting out of the tamed rock" in Birney’s commentary:

A hundred millions of years for mountains to heave
suffer valleys, endure the incubus of ice
grow soil-skin
Twenty thousand more for firs to mass
send living shafts out of the wild rock
Set down a century only for the man on the spar-top
the pelt of pavement, quick thicket of houses
and the shafts for the living mounting out of the tamed rock

Proposing as it does a geological precedent and an organic metaphor for the way in which British Columbia’s built forms ("pavement," "houses," and "shafts") have grown, spread, and risen over the landscape, this piece does more than articulate the homology implicit in the two photographs that open the "Photostory."4 It also asks that Modern architecture – specifically, the BCE Building – be regarded as the climactic achievement in a heroic quest to "tame" "wild" nature or, to borrow phrases from Thomas Cary’s Abram’s Plains (1789) and F.R. Scott’s "Laurentian Shield" (1945) (which Birney doubtless knew), to "humanize the plain" and "turn th[e] rock into children" (Cary 63, Scott 58).

     The conception of B.C.’s Modern architecture as the outcome of an organic and progressive continuity stretching back into the province’s pre-history is carried forward in the second two pages of the "Photostory" with three photographs of architectural models of Kitimat (see also: i, ii, iii), a photograph of a "Kwakiutl Indian Village," and Birney’s most extended and conventionally poetic commentary. A New Town designed for the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) in 1952-53 by Mayer and Whittlesey of New York in consultation with Clarence Stein,5 the New York planning consultant whose zealous championship of the "policy … [of] building new and complete communities from the ground up … on open land outside developed areas" (218) gave him guru status among Canadian planners and industrialists in the ’fifties,6 Kitimat is lauded and succinctly described by Kennedy as "a good example of a ‘diagram’ town plan where current principles are applied directly and are modified only by the rugged topography of the chosen site. Basically, it consists of a group of neighbourhoods, each with its open space and community buildings, school, shopping, and protected from through traffic. The neighbourhoods are connected to a City Centre. The industrial zone has been set apart from the township proper" (146). Even with the assurance that the topographical characteristics of the site chosen for Kitimat are reflected in its master plan, the disjunction between the photographs of the site and city-centre models of the town and the photograph of the "Kwakiutl Indian Village" on the following page is striking, not least because of the contrast between the aura of wealth and progress exuded by the New Town and the aura of poverty and decrepitude exuded by the "Indian Village." It is not at all difficult to imagine that a Kwakiutl commentator would have responded to the four photographs (and also those of the tree and the BCE Building) as evidence of the astonishing depredation, callousness, and hubris of an alien culture.

     This is not the tenor of Birney’s commentary, however. Blithely ignoring alternative views of the settlement and development of British Columbia, it uses three techniques to assert a continuity and symmetry between early native "builders" and their artefacts and the modern European "shapers" of "the new world under the old mountain, / by the older sea" (123): (1) the tools and activities of both groups are presented in verse paragraphs of equal length that emphasize the process of destruction and construction involved in their building and shaping; (2) each of these two verse paragraphs (1 and 3) is followed by observations that conclude chiasmically with "the Shape emblazoned" and "the emblazoned Shape"; and (3) – and perhaps in a further reminiscence of Scott’s "Laurentian Shield"7 – the emergence of intellectually complex and aesthetically pleasing forms in the region is figured as a shift from "prose" to "poetry":

With saw of flame, jade axe, with vice of thong and steam,
the first builders contrived this pact with sea and mountain,
out of the high cedar slid that long canoe,
out of the sweet wood split windsilvered homes
and set them tight against the rain’s thin fingers.

This was the prose of endurance.
But out of the hope, the fear, and the proud worship
flowed the poetry, the unpredictable symbol,
the undemanded colour, the line totemic, the Shape emblazoned.

Other shapers come, adjust the scene, with the hullabaloo
of buzzsaws, the grandiose whittling of bulldozers, furnace,
rivet, crane, torch, dynamo and dredge,
build the new world under the old mountain,
by the older sea.

Yet always the dream and the form beyond need,
the way bent for the eye’s delight,
the music of line, the rhythm of planes, the emblazoned Shape.


Almost imperceptibly the phrase "this pact" in the second line implies that the relationship with the land that now exists among those who "adjust the scene" is the same as that of the earliest Native peoples of the West Coast. Almost imperceptibly, the carving and splitting of wood for "the long canoe" and "windsilvered homes" of the Native peoples are related metaphorically to "the grandiose whittling of the bulldozers" and other machines and devices of modern construction. Yet, elide as it does some great differences of culture and scale, Birney’s poem is surely correct in remarking that "the undemanded colour [and] the line totemic" of the Kwakiutl craftsman and "the way bent for the eye’s delight" and "the rhythm of planes" of the Modern planner and architect are both reflections of a fundamental and universal desire to "emblazon" the surfaces of nature and shaped objects in order to create "form" and meaning rather than merely to satisfy practical "need."

     The first of the "emblazoned Shapes" of Modern West Coast architecture for which Birney proceeds to provide commentary is a series of houses (see also: i, ii, iii) designed by Douglas Shadbolt (1925- ), Zoltan S. Kiss (1924- ), Duncan McNab (1917- ), and other Vancouver architects. So ubiquitous did adaptations of the planar forms and extensive glazing of the Modern Movement become in Canada and elsewhere during the post-War period that few of these houses now seem remarkable, but in the ’fifties they were celebrated both within and outside the country for the way in which they relate to the spectacular scenery and temperate climate of the West Coast. This is not to say that they are integrated into their surroundings to the extent that they blur the distinction between the natural and built environments. On the contrary, most of them achieve quite the opposite effect of throwing into hard-edged relief the contrast between architectural "Shape" (or figure) and natural context (or ground); for example, the smooth, rectangular, and monochromatic appearance of the Kiss House in West Vancouver sets it strikingly apart from – elevated as if on a plinth or pedestal above – a landscape containing several rocks of differing shapes and sizes, thus proclaiming a critical distinction between the rational forms generated by human agency and the irregular formations created by natural forces. Like the other houses in the accompanying photographs, the Kiss House is both set off by and set off from its natural environment. A perceptive response to this aspect of "West-Coast-style … home[s]," as well as to the way in which their large (in some instances, floor-to-ceiling) windows afford excellent views of proximate scenes (pool, garden) and superb vistas of distant scenery (sea, mountains) and, at the same time, serve from certain perspectives to delimit those views and vistas8, Birney’s commentary uses the verb "to frame" and its cognates to meditate on the opposition and interplay between the B.C. landscape and the International Style:

The land’s form
frames the house

And all is frame
And form
for the dwellers,
the shapers
of house to home

The house frames the land
and its own forms
that frame other lands,
other shapes.


Situated within a house that "frames" and is framed by the landscape and located at the structural centre of the commentary are "the dwellers, / the shapers / of house to home" – that is, the élite families by and for whom "[d]istinctive West-Coast-style" residences were created and to and for whom Birney offers praise that is slightly cloying but, mercifully, much less congratulatory than the accompanying photograph, a carefully staged image of the artists Bruno and Molly Bobak in their wood-panelled living room surrounded by a collection of modernistic pictures that appears to have been assembled there for the purpose of proclaiming their status as connoisseurs of Modern Art.9 Despite their vast regional, temporal, and stylistic differences, the Bobak House (1950; Shadbolt) and the house that Simon McTavish built on Mount Royal in the early decade of the nineteenth century are both bourgeois villas whose intent was in part to display the wealth and sophistication of their owners.

     The commentary through which Birney effects a transition from the private spaces of domestic architecture to the public spaces of the subsequent religious series faces and introduces five photographs whose unifying theme emerges, with the commentary’s help, as the West Coast climate. The first of these shows the Duncan McNab House (1956) in West Vancouver that features the "extensive areas of glass" permitted by the climate and its isolated (and exclusive) locale (Kennedy 143); the second, the Parkwood and Del-Wood apartment buildings (1955-56) near Vancouver’s Stanley Park with an open roadster in the foreground; the third and fourth, a house with an enclosed garden and a house with a waterfront swimming pool; and the fifth, a be-suited man sheltering under an umbrella on a street awash with rain. Birney’s commentary on the five photographs sets out the three architectural alternatives dictated by the climate in three verse paragraphs whose chief merit is that they get shorter and shorter:

it is better
to defy the bitch Weather,
make a fashionable face
if her eyes grow wetter,
develop grace
with a closed umbrella,
and gamble on her passion
like a sportin fella

Or whether
to surrender
to Lady Weather,
roof in the city
from Davie to Pender
and give up hope of pity,
with an open umbrella

Or whether
to marry
that girl Weather


Of the three alternatives – denial, acquiescence, and the conjugal embrace of the patio-house, the open-air room, and similar accommodations – the third seems favoured by its place in the sequence, but the jaunty rhythm, raffish tone, and racy language of the first option do much to undermine this inference. The punning allusions to Hamlet’s "Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer … Or to take arms …" (3.1.57-59) merely adds resonance to the poem’s masculinist attitudinizing.

     The commentary that accompanies the religious series of eight churches (see:i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii, viii) and one cluster of totem poles is all but explicit in declaring Birney’s lack of interest in its subject matter. Nevertheless, its incorporation of mathematical signs for visual purposes is not without architextual interest:

But who has time
to audit history’s books
the algebra of Haida I’s,
the multiplying creeds
divided faiths,
the wilderness subtracted-

Or add
upon the growing column’s top
the +
the unknown quantity of faith

Perhaps remembering the "tented A’s [and] inverted V’s" that serve to "show the wigwams and the gables" of Cornelius Krieghoff in A.M. Klein’s "Krieghoff: Calligrammes" (1948), and thus drawing indirectly on the visual poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes (1918),10 Birney uses a Roman numeral and a mathematical sign to mimic shapes in adjacent and succeeding photographs. Neither of these effects is especially striking and the poem as a whole could be dismissed as little more than an exercise in the elaboration of a metaphor into a conceit if it were not for two things: the caustic critique in the final lines of the first stanza of the Christian Church’s record of schism and imperialism and the surely deliberate misreading in the final lines of the third of the Christian and mathematical "+" as a sign, not of faith, addition, and positivity, but as the "×" that in algebra represents the first unknown quantity. Neither the Christian denominations nor the architects and firms who designed the churches depicted in the "Photostory"11 can have been much pleased by Birney’s sceptical, critical, and questioning gloss on their work(s).

     With the three short pieces that accompany the ensuing eight photographs of non-domestic and non-ecclesiastical buildings and structures, Birney returns to the laudatory tone of earlier commentaries, now with an emphasis on the human that reflects the desire of Vancouver’s Modern architects to make their work, in the words of Fred Lasserre (1911-61), the founding Head of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Architecture in 1946-47, "a great humanistic experience" (qtd. in Liscombe 57, and see 58-63 and elsewhere). Ignoring a small photograph of Vancouver’s Oak Street Bridge (1947-48), the first piece represents each of the four buildings that it refers to as a hospitable container for human beings, thus attributing a degree of dwelling even to the B.C. Sugar Refinery Bulk and Storage Warehouse No.1, to the Pacific General Electric Station in North Vancouver,12 and to three buildings – two factories and a restaurant – in the Annacis Island Industrial Estate (see also: i), a complex on the south arm of the Fraser River designed by the American engineer and planner Francis Donaldson (1881-1970) that was under construction in 1958 and was already being heralded as the "precursor" of Canadian "industrial estates of the future" (Kennedy 145). The parallel openings, infinitives, and locatives in its three lines lend an appropriately modular quality to each and an appropriately static, spatial, and planar quality to the piece as a whole:

A roof to work under
a place to eat in
a room to wait in


As in the second and third poems in the series, the three lines are aligned at the right in a variation of poetic format that echoes the vertical planes of the buildings to which reference is made. In the second poem, which allots one verse each to a drive-in laundry in Nelson, a supply building at H.M.C.S. Naden in Vancouver, and a vast Canadian Pacific Airlines hangar at Vancouver Airport, the emphasis falls not on the dwelling aspect of the structures but on their function as containers for the things that human beings need in order to venture out into the world and beyond:

a box for shirts
for sea-gear


In the third piece the themes of dwelling and need are brought together in a reaffirmation of the human capacity to create architectural structures that satisfy an aesthetic imperative:

No needs
of den-loving man
he cannot
to meet his other need
for beauty


It is a mark of the architectonic skill of Birney and his editor that this summary poem appears on the recto of the page at the centre of the "Photostory" to signal both the completion of the first and the imminence of the second half of the narrative. Whatever the shortcomings of some of its components, the structural balance and symmetry of Birney’s commentary accord brilliantly – it is tempting to say beautifully – with the architectural structures that it reflects and reflects upon.

     As was the case with the first part of the commentary, the second begins with a lyric that is relatively traditional in format and general in theme. Placed below a photograph that is also relatively traditional and general – a panorama of the Vancouver skyline that is divided in accordance with picturesque conventions into foreground (the Fraser River), middle-ground (the skyline itself), and background (the mountains to the north) – the poem prepares the way for the photographs and commentary to come by presenting the creation of the City’s multi-storey as drawing its constitutive energy, not from the natural sources that produced the province’s mountains and shorelines, but from "the power of the living mind" (134). Despite being sharply contrasted in the poem’s two-sentence structure and its temporal sequence from past to present, the powers of insentient nature and the human mind are linked and likened to one another by a variety of means, including verbal repetition (the words "power" and "fires" appear in both parts), metaphorical continuity (the actions of both nature and humans are figured in verbs such as "gouge" and "gnaw"), and, most subtly, by the chiasmic echo and reversal of "thrust up" in "upthrust" ("[t]he action of thrusting or fact of being thrust upwards, esp[ecially] by volcanic action" [OED]):

Moon-pull, the power of global fires
and unimaginable shock
thrust up our skyline,
gouged out our shore.
And now we nibble at them,
gnaw rock and forest,
impose our shape on water,
to upthrust another silhouette,
bringing light from the dead fires
and from the power of the living mind.

The prominent presence of the twenty-two storey BCE Building in the panorama and in the full-page photograph on the facing page leaves little room for doubt of the identity of the "silhouette" that is "bringing light from the dead fires / and from the power of the living mind." In his essay on "Architecture and Town Planning" in The Arts in Canada, Kennedy includes a daylight photograph of the building, but he could be commenting on the nighttime photograph of it facing Birney’s poem as well as on the sensation that it created in the ’fifties when he remarks that its "ceiling lighting can be seen for miles and the people of Vancouver circle around this beacon tower like moths around a candle" (137).

     Following the full-page photograph of the BCE Building are three pages containing photographs of the exteriors and interiors of five other commercial buildings (see i, ii, iii, iv) in the International Style, most notably the nineteen-storey Burrard Building (see also: i) (1955-56; C.B.K. Van Norman [1906-1975]), which has the distinction of being "the first tall curtain-walled building" in Vancouver (Kalman 2: 793). Both of the appropriately minimalist pieces that accompany the photographs being with the same words ("A building is made" [136, 137]), both are printed in a larger font than the rest of the commentary and both use the combination of this larger (and, therefore, darker seeming) font and the surrounding whiteness of the page to create an equivalent to the striking contrasts between shadow and light, opacity and translucency in all the photographs in the series, not least those of the BCE Building. Each piece deploys its six core words differently, however: in the first, they are arranged in an aligned column of four lines more than two inches or five centimetres apart to mimic the "soaring" shape of the BCE and Burrard buildings ("with squares / /and lines / / for / /soaring" [136]) and, in the second, they are again arranged in four lines but three of these are placed much closer together in a curve, perhaps to pay homage to the decision of Thompson, Berwick, and Pratt to honour a request of the Chairman of B.C. Electric, Dal Grauer, by making the walls of the company headquarters slightly convex and concave in order that all the employees in the building "might be able to look out a window and benefit from natural light" (Kalman 2: 790) ("with rounds / / and curves / / for / / people" [137]). Once again, Birney shows himself to have been at pains to emphasize that, some appearances to the contrary, even commercial buildings in the International Style are, in today’s parlance, "user-friendly."

     A lot less dramatic but almost as mimetically effective and humanistically aware are the three pieces that accompany the three subsequent photographs (see: i, ii, iii) of the interiors of Modern office buildings. Each of these begins with the words "A room" (139) and each contains at least two rhymes, a combination of parallelism and formal order that echoes the planar structures of the interiors, as does the alignment of the verses in two columns. By leaving the word "set" unrhymed at the end of the first piece and then supplying the rhyme at the beginning of the second, Birney very subtly reflects the finality as well as the stasis that rooms permit (the reference to “moons” and “noons” in the second stanza reflects the fact that the two offices contain pendant spherical light fixtures):

A room can flow
          let people go
          or wander slow
          or simply sit

A room outwits
the weather’s fits
          makes its own moons
          and shining noons

A room, for public duty,
creates a private beauty

Reading these stanzas, looking at the accompanying photographs, and imagining a walk through the spaces that they describe and depict, it is almost possible to believe that the combination of artificial and natural light, rectangular and spherical shapes, and areas for sitting and moving in the offices would indeed make their occupants feel at home in beautiful surroundings. Both the rectangular (or "boxy") appearance of Birney’s three pieces and the continuities of form and content that encourage them to be seen as interconnected stanzas of a simple work make it seem likely that he was aware that the use of the word "stanza" to describe more-or-less regular units of two or more lines in a poem stems from the Italian word for room, which, in turn, derives from the Latin "stare," to stand (OED). Birney, it should be remembered, was a Chaucer scholar and a creative-writing teacher as well as a poet.

     That knowledge is more obviously pertinent to the first of the three pieces that accompany the next four pages of photographs of Modern public and recreational buildings that include three schools (see: i, ii, iii),13 the Vancouver Public Library (see also: i) (1953-57), and the Vancouver Lawn Tennis and Badminton Club (see also: i) (1956). Probably because of the innately unpoetic quality of most institutional architecture, all three pieces find Birney straining for inspiration and, finding little, resorting to trite comparisons and sexually demeaning fatuities. In the first, "The immortal problem / of filling / a hundred thousand voids/with the right solids/in the right volumes" is proposed as a link between "the architect" and "the teacher" (140). In the second, "Taste" – presumably Modern architectural taste – is figured as "the Honourable Chief Justice" to whom "appeal" can be made from juries that may contain a "chancy mixture" of "stout Habits," "unpredictable Associations," and "ladies of Fashion"(141), a phrase that is as impeccably Modern in its association of women with outmoded and inauthentic artistic modes as Scott’s "Virgins of sixty who still write of passion" in "Canadian Authors Meet" (248). In the third, Empire Stadium (1952-54), the Vancouver Public Aquarium (see also: i) (circa 1953), and the U.B.C. War Memorial Gymnasium (see also: i) (1947-49) (the first "new building … of modern design" on the campus [Kalman 2:711]) elicit a quatrain in which a poor formal decision to use the same rhyme for all four lines results in a reductive and denigrating doublet that sabotages whatever potential might have flowed from the chiasmic wit of the first two lines:

Mass to hold spaces,
     Space to hold masses,
Springboards to races
     Of fishes or lasses.

It is as if "Robbie Burns" had been disinterred to sing cheek to cheek with Le Corbusier, in English.

     Fortunately, the commentary that follows is far more accomplished and appealing both poetically and architecturally. Placed beside two series of photographs, the first depicting the designs and textures on the external walls of three buildings (a Haida long house, a log structure, and the BCE Building) and the second depicting the murals on the interior walls of four other buildings (a school, a bank, a radio station, and a private home), it consists of five units, each of which is a verbal ideogram that reflects and reflects upon the adjacent and surrounding photograph(s). Individually and as a series the five units constitute the most audacious attempt in Birney’s commentary to make words mimic the shapes of the graphic and architectural objects that they describe.

     The first unit, which is set beside a photograph depicting a painting of "Thunderbird and Whale" on the front of the Haida longhouse, takes the reader’s eye first from left to right and upwards and then from left to right and downwards to describe, in the first instance, the load-bearing function of walls and, in the second (and more fancifully), their gravitational function14:

Some walls are said to
when perhaps they only

The second unit, which is placed below the longhouse, initially uses its visual layout to point the reader to the huge mural that graces the house’s vertical wood panels and subsequently to observe that walls also conceal the contents of a structure from sight15:

Others reveal a
                              or bland-

The third unit, which is placed beside the photograph of the log structure, also focuses on the concealing and occluding function of walls, but consists of a vertical column of letters that mimics the building’s striations of logs and chinking:





The fourth and fifth units, which refer to adjacent photographs of exterior and interior murals, reiterate and expand the notion that walls can be bearers of "view[s]" as well as weights. In the fourth, the triangles and rhomboids of the interlocking lozenges of a mural on the plinth of the BCE Building are mimicked by a typographical chiasm and in the fifth, the eyes of the reader are invited to follow a pattern similar to those encouraged by the murals in the four adjacent photographs, especially the ones depicting a map of the world and children of different sexes and races playing in a park:

     None of the verbal/visual overlap of the units in the wall series is present in the two remaining pieces in the "Photostory." Perhaps intimating a knowledge of the American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s notion of parks as the lungs of a city, the penultimate poem seizes upon the presence of a photograph of the Stanley Park Penguin Pool in the group that it addresses to toss a feeble Marxian squib in the direction of the "penguin classes" whose "yachts" are visible on the Vancouver waterfront in another of the photographs (146). Below a spectacular closing photograph of a mountain valley in the B.C. Interior, the final poem rounds off the sequence by looking first to the establishment of the colony in 1858 and then to the architectural future of the province:

A hundred years ago this spill
of rock, torrent, tree decreed the forms,
outlawed both slum and artful tower.
Now whether this wild shape abide
vanish, or to the print of art or slum
submit, is our decision
                                        and our fate.

Although the deterministic assumptions and historical accuracy of the first three lines of this poem are dubious, its concluding emphasis on humanity’s responsibility for British Columbia’s natural as well as built environments is as salutary as its recognition that the "decision" made in both respects will affect the "fate" of all British Columbians and, indeed, all of humanity.

     After seeing/reading the religion, walls, murals series in Birney’s "Photostory" commentary, it is difficult to doubt that by 1958 he was familiar, if not with the concrete poetry of Eugen Gomringer and the Brazilian Noigrades group that had made its presence known internationally in 1956 at a major exhibition of concrete art in Sâo Paulo (see Bann, Seaman, and Solt), then certainly with the work of the seminal twentieth-century precursor of the mode, Apollinaire. In a 1976 interview with Caroline Bayard and Jack David, Birney is characteristically cagey about his influences and similarly keen to protect and consolidate his reputation as Canada’s foremost experimental poet. Asked about his "visual experimentation," he mentions Apollinaire in passing as one of "the first experimenters with type," noting that "[h]e altered the linear shape of his poems to suggest the theme, as in his rain calligramme" (110-11) – that is, Mon cher ami …," which by 1958 had been published in facsimile as well as in the editions of Janine Moulin (1939, 1952)16 and, of course, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade’s Oeuvres Poétique edited by Marcel Adéma and Michel Décaudin (1956).17 To the question of whether he was "relating to any poets … who were interested in concretism" when he was living in France in 1953, he mentions "g[etting] to know Samuel Beckett and other English language writers" such as Henry Miller and states that he wrote one "visual" poem, "On the Beach,"18 while there but attributes it to "the influence of Lewis Carroll" (111). Despite the striking similarity between the pieces in the religion, walls, and murals series of Birney’s commentary and the arrangements of words and letters into the shapes of buildings, crosses, trees, and other built and natural entities in Apollinaire’s "Paysage," Poèmes à lou II, III, and XII, and elsewhere, Birney would have it believed that he happened quite independently of the author of Calligrammes on the typographical devices upon which his reputation as an experimental poet so heavily rests.19

     This is not to say that unconventional typography was entirely absent from Birney’s poetry prior to the mid ’fifties. "Ballad of Mr. Chubb," which incorporates words and phrases taken from signs and billboards, was first published in 1950, as was "Takkakaw Falls," which uses irregular line lengths to "suggest [its] theme."20 But Birney’s claim that "Mammorial Stunzas for Aimee Simple McFarci," which uses letters visually and deploys lines irregularly very much in the manner of e e cummings, dates from 1931 (Collected Poems 1: 48) invites scepticism of the sort circumspectly mooted by George Woodcock in "The Wanderer: Notes on Earle Birney" (see 101), and Birney’s response to the question of why he "seem[ed] to abandon … [typographical experimentation] after ‘Mr. Chubb’"– "I didn’t … [b]ut I couldn’t get them accepted by editors" ("Interview" 111) – ignores the fact that the editor of the RAIC Journal not only accepted his commentary, but also credited it with "add[ing] dignity and interest to every page" of the "Photostory" (Arthur). Indeed, Birney ignores the existence of his commentary entirely in his interview with Bayard and David, preferring to offer the following narrative of how he came to write architexts:

I went to Mexico for the summers of ‘55 and ‘56. Out of that came "Six-Sided Square, Actopan" [which was first published in 1961]. I was in this old village, Actopan, and its plaza was six-sided, and very big – everything was going on. So I thought, I don’t need to describe the architecture of this, I’ll shape the poem as a six-sided square. This was one of those simple solutions that help create a form for a poem.
      It got me going on architectural poetry for a while, like "Buildings," published in 1957.21 (111)

In Birney’s Collected Poems (1975), "Buildings" is dated "Vancouver 1947/1957" (1:140), but there are at least two good reasons for doubting that it was conceived in 1947, the first being that it is obviously an agglomeration with variations and supplements of pieces in his 1958 B.C. Centennial "Photostory"22 and the second being that many of the buildings and murals that inspired those pieces, including the BCE Building and its decorative design of interlocking lozenges, did not exist until the mid-‘fifties. Nevertheless "Buildings" is Birney’s most elaborate "architectural poem" and, as such, provides a fitting conclusion to the present essay and a salutary reminder of the dangers of ignoring the complexities of the relationship between Modern Canadian poems and buildings to the sources of their inspiration.



  1. In an address to the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada a little more than a quarter of a century earlier the Toronto architect John M. Lyle had made much the same point with respect to design but with the hope that the "new medicine called...’Modernism’" might change matters, in part by "offer[ing] a new field in the use of Canadian decorative forms": "[w]hile we cannot claim, as yet, a distinctive Canadian style, may we not hope that this new freedom for the designer will sweep us along towards a national architecture, for there are present in this modern movement the same great principles of development that held true in the past" (70). In the wake of Modernism, Leon Whiteson would write in Modern Canadian Architecture (1983): "It has to be said here, quite emphatically, that modern architecture is the one major field of cultural endeavour in which Canada is considered world class. It is perhaps the only art in which we not only have a few outstanding stars but, more importantly, achieve and maintain an internationally recognized level of excellence, a body of substantial work. Yet ... we are famous more for our humanism than our brilliance. No innovators, we are best at domesticating borrowings from more fervently original cultures. The archetypal images we so imaginatively fuse are usually dreamed up elsewhere" (15). [back]
  2. Wade places both of these terms in quotation marks, "modern" because it "now conjures up in the uneducated mind a pale imitation of the Bauhaus with rounded corners and glass block" and "contemporary" because it is "being beaten to a standstill" and "seems to mean an unhappy salad of curtain wall and applied F[rank] L[loyd] W[right] details" (119). "Let us do more buildings which are good enough not to require labels," he pleads, though not ones that "defy description….‘Good,’ ‘different,’ and even ‘interesting’ do not mean the same thing; only some of us have found this out." Wade concludes his Introduction by expressing certainty that "in B.C. there is a Renaissance" in which lies "the re-discovery of our fellow Artists and of ourselves as Artists too." He also observes that the cover of the special number is by the Vancouver artist Don Jarvis (1923- ) "who sat sometime with the [editorial] Committee." In "Poets and Painters: Rivals or Partners," published during the previous year in Canadian Art, Birney had waxed eloquent on the tradition and potential of partnerships between "verbal and visual" artists, predictably citing William Blake as the supreme example of a painter-poet (149). [back]
  3. The literature on architecture in British Columbia is copious and now includes numerous articles and books on particular buildings, architects, and movements. A rich and sympathetic overview of the locale and period most relevant to the present chapter is provided by Rhodri Windsor Liscombe in The New Sprint: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1963, to which the present essay is gratefully indebted for much information about the architects and dates of conception and construction of many of several of the buildings to which Birney’s commentary relates. [back]
  4. It may or may not be a coincidence that the structure of the BCE Building is often conceived as tree-like: "[t]he floors are branched from the structural core" (Kennedy 137); "[t]he floors are cantilevered from the bearing walls of the core like branches from a tree" (Kalman 2: 790). The black, blue, and green tiles with which it is decorated, go a small way towards naturalizing the steel, glass, and porcelain of its curtain walls. [back]
  5. Kennedy 146. In the "Building Credits" of the "Photostory" the architect of "Neighbourhood Housing, Kitimat" is given as Aluminum Company of Canada Ltd. and those of "Civic Centre, Kitimat" (two photographs) as Semmens and Simpson of Vancouver. [back]
  6. As John Sewell points out in The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning, Stein’s "clarion call" for development was published in the May 1952 number of the Canadian Community Planning Review in an admiring review of his Toward New Towns for America by Humphrey Carver, "Canada’s leading planning theoretician" (44). [back]
  7. The phrases "line totemic" and "the Shape emblazoned" in the last line of the second verse paragraph are also reminiscent of A.M. Klein and, more generally, of pre-Modern poetry. The un-inversion (so to say) of the latter in the final line of the piece may be seen as its modernization. [back]
  8. In A Pattern Language (1977), the Zen-inspired Christopher Alexander and his colleagues argue persuasively that, although “people [initially] thought that [plate glass windows] would put us more directly in touch with nature,” “[i]n fact, they do the opposite:”: “[t]hey alienate us from the view…. Modern architecture and buildings have deliberately tried to make windows less like windows and more as though there was nothing between you and the outdoors…. It is the function of windows to offer a view and provide a relationship to the outside, true. But this does not mean that they should not at the same time, like the walls and roof, give you a sense of shelter and protection from the outside. It is uncomfortable to feel that there is nothing between you and the outside, when in fact you are inside a building” (1109-10). [back]
  9. Both Bobaks are shown reading, she what appears to be a magazine, he a large format art book. Several similar books are in evidence, two on the "coffee table." [back]
  10. See also the "number, an x," by which "Mr. Smith" "is, if he is at all," in Klein’s "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" (1948) and "agonized Y" that "initials the [Roman Catholic] faith "of the audience in his "Political Meeting" (1948) (2: 635, 657). [back]
  11. In the "Building Credits" these are given as William R. Wilding, Toby and Russell, and Gardiner, Thornton, Gathé and Associates," all Vancouver architects or firms. [back]
  12. The engineering firm of Swan, Wooster and Partners of Vancouver is credited with B.C. Sugar Refinery Warehouse No.1 (1957-58) and the PGE station to the architectural firm of Hale and Harrison of Toronto. Because the photograph of the Warehouse is on the previous page, it may not be a referent for "A roof to work under." [back]
  13. Architects: Wade, Stockwell, and Armour, Davison and Porter, Duncan S. McNab and Associates, Semmens and Simpson, Thompson, Berwick and Pratt, and McCarter, Nairne and Partners, all of Vancouver and the last two in association with Fred Lasserre. [back]
  14. So as not to interfere with the visual effect of the units, the numbers of the pages on which they appear are given here as 54 and 55. [back]
  15. "Bland" may mean smooth, gentle, polite, and even ironical as well as mild and dull in the sense of unexciting (OED). [back]
  16. See Oeuvres poètiques 797 and 1170 for the text and publication history of "Mon cher ami…." [back]
  17. Also available by 1958 were Michel Décaudin’s edition of Calligrammes (1955) and Pascal Pia’s Apollinaire par lui-même (1954), which contains three calligrammes. In J.B. Zenchuk’s "Earle Birney’s Concrete Poetry," the most detailed and extensive study of its topic to date, Apollinaire is scarcely mentioned. [back]
  18. In Birney’s Collected Poems of 1975, "On the Beach" is dated "St. Jean de Luz, 1953" (1: 171). [back]
  19. The calligrammes mentioned above appear in Oeuvres poètiques 177 and 377-78. Several of Birney’s non-architectural visual poems such as "Loon about to Laugh" and "CHAT Bilingual (Collected Poems 2: 170, 161) also appear indebted to Apollinaire’s calligrammes (see Oeuvres poètiques 607, 677-81, and elsewhere). [back]
  20. See Collected Poems 1: 45 and 47-48. [back]
  21. In "Earle Birney: an Annotated Bibliography," Peter Noel-Bentley records that revised excerpts from Birney’s commentary appeared as "Schoolhouse" in the January 1959 issue of Blew Ointment and as "Buildings" in the Winter 1967 number of Prism International, that revised and expanded versions of four pieces in the commentary appeared as "Architecture" in Birney’s pnomes jukollages & other stunzas (1969), and that thee of these, further revised, and expanded constitute "Buildings," which was first published in Birney’s Rag and Bone Shop (1971) and then further revised and excerpted in Collected Poems (1: 140). Noel-Bentley also follows the publishing history of other excerpts from the commentary, noting, for example, that revised versions of the first two poems in the "Photostory" under the title "The Shapers: Vancouver," are included Ghost in the Wheels, Birney’s Selected Poems of 1966 and in Collected Poems (where it they are dated "Point Grey 1958/Kitsilano 1968" [1: 166]). [back]
  22. That the poems did not pre-date the "Photostory" but were written for it is confirmed by H. Peter Oberlander (1922- ), a Vancouver planner, in a telephone interview with Liscombe on January 23, 1996: "‘Earle looked at the photographs and wrote to them … It was a community effort. We did it around the table. He would challenge us, we would kick him’" (10). It seems highly likely that the artist, designer, architect, and aptly named B.C. Binning (1909-1976), whom Liscombe describes as "a pivotal figure in the emergence of Modernism in British Columbia," played a key role in the genesis of Birney’s commentary. Liscombe observes that the editors of the B.C. Centennial number of the RAIC Journal "conferred" with Binning, and in his interview with Bayard and David Birney – with what degree of accuracy it would be difficult to ascertain – states that "one of the committees" at U.B.C. that "stimulated [him] visually" was the Fine Arts Committee: "one of the committee was B.C. Binning, the Canadian painter. Bert Binning is an old friend of mine, so the two of us always tried to sit together. I used to get fascinated with his doodles. You could take them right out and sell them because he doodled much the same way as his early paintings. The masts and prows of boats. At that time we were often getting mail for each other, because I was E. Birney and he was B.C. Binning. This gave me an idea. I began signing all my doodles B.C. Birney, and leaving them on the table afterwards, alphabeings like ‘Figure Skater’" (112-13). [back]


Works Cited