Brian Hemingway’s architecture is deeply rooted in the West Coast environment, where thickly forested mountains slope steeply to the ocean. From this he has distilled a refined palette of materials: Douglas fir timbers and stone. A residential architect from Vancouver, Brian’s homes have remarkably few walls, with glass infilling between the timber post and beam frames, allowing a minimum of artifice separating the inside from nature. Wooden post and beam design is central to his work, but these are no rustic log cabins, but highly refined, temple-like structures, with precise beams resting on perfectly square 12” posts of exquisitely finished douglas fir.
I had the good fortune of working with Brian during a four-year period while we collaborated on the design of a house in New England. Our client had discovered his work, featured on the cover of Robb Report, and asked us to work together, Brian Hemingway as the Design Architect and my firm, Flavin Architects, as the Architect of Record. He has been a generous mentor to me, showing by example how the spiritual realm can be brought into design. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright thought of Louis Sullivan as his “Lieber Meister” (Dear Master in German), I think of Brian the same way. Perhaps my fondest recollection was sitting in Brian’s West Vancouver studio, where he and his precise German émigré draftsman Fred, gave me drawing assignments to learn their distinctive approach to detailing wood structures that carries through from the exposed timber framing to the filigree detailing of custom light fixtures. I also suspect they wanted to learn if I were up to the task.
Brian’s work reflects his other great interest, comparative religion. He thinks of his homes as symbols of life’s journey. From the front gate, we are on a path leaving the daily mundane world behind and experiencing a series of layers that Brian describes as almost like chakras. Placed along the entry path of many of his homes is a shallow pebble bottom pool that laps at the building and represents the emergence of life. The interior of the home is organized around a great chimney along with kitchen and living areas that represent the heart of the home. Deepest inside are quiet contemplative layers of the home, including bedrooms and study. The final layer, Nirvana, cannot be reached inside the home, but is found in nature beyond as the waves lapping on the shore or the sun setting over distant islands.
These words may sound a bit intellectually vague, but the reality of his work is anything but. He works methodically, starting with plan layouts that adhere strictly to a module or grid, often in two or three foot increments, instilling a rigor to the work. He describes the repetition of the module, for example locating all columns in multiples of the two foot dimension, as kind of the bass rhythm that that provides structure for later decisions. This rhythm whereby large and small design decisions are united brings a harmony to Brian’s houses that resonates as a feeling of well-being.
Text by Colin Flavin AIA