(Essay printed to accompany artist’s project in Cabinet Magazine #26, Autumn, 2007)
The Bass House is number 20 in a series of “Case Study Houses” published in the California monthly magazine, Arts and Architecture (1958). The Case Study House Program was initiated in the late 1940’s to propose design solutions for the postwar lifestyle and to showcase affordable and innovative building methods and materials.
In the postwar lifestyle, middle class families lived without servants and more women pursued careers outside the home. Nevertheless, women were still expected to run the household. The kitchen was thus redesigned for maximum functionality and as the new control centre of the home. Architects looked for new technologies and more efficient layouts for these kitchens: Cabinets and counters were redesigned ergonomically and electrical appliances were built in.
The architects of the Bass House—Buff, Straub and Hensman—spoke of the kitchen as a “laboratory”, evoking Le Corbusier’s technological metaphor for the house as “A machine for living.” The laboratory metaphor was especially fitting for the Bass House kitchen, designed in consultation with the woman of the house, Dr. Ruth Bass, a practicing biochemist.
In interviews, the architects involved in the Case Study House Program recall being caught up in the excitement of designing what a few described as a “brave new world.” The use of new layouts and building technologies as a means to reconfiguring how the family functions—and by extension, how society functions—infused the program with a strong sense of purpose and a vision of a utopian future attainable through good design.
My father, Terry Gower, worked for an architectural firm in San Francisco before opening his practice in British Columbia in the late 1950’s. His early work in Canada was infused with the optimism and ideals of the California Modernists. Setting up his office in a small town rapidly led to opportunities to collaborate on major civic projects and to design residences for the town’s elite. His firm was involved in the planning of a Corbusian civic plaza consisting of a city hall, police headquarters, museum, and library, laid out in a super-block of gardens, plazas and fountains. This complex was built not far from his recreation centre project, which housed the town’s concert hall and sports facilities.
I grew up surrounded by my father’s architecture: Our friends’ houses, all civic buildings, schools, even the local ski resort. Once my parents had to retrieve me from my father’s police station after my first run-in with the law. So much of our environment bore the mark of my father, my family seemed to be taking part in some kind of utopian experiment. What you see in the image of the Gower House kitchen is my mother posing for an architectural photographer’s camera. Similar to Ruth Bass’ performance for Julius Shulman’s camera, my mother is shown performing the role of the Modernist Mother. Taking up her position in the home’s security and control centre (the kitchen) the elegant, empowered Modernist Mother is depicted preparing food for her children. The experiment didn’t last for ever: My mother quickly tired of her role, and, pursuing a career in government, hired a replacement to take over her position in our Modernist kitchen.