May 25, 2017 | Barb Livingstone
Persistence pays off
How a massive flood couldn't stop Brian Beck's vision of a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired inner-city home
Twelve years ago, Brian Beck, wife Lynne Rennie and two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Kate, jumped into their newly acquired airstream trailer and hit the road for three months.
With no real itinerary, only the desire to travel south in advance of winter, the family stopped at the Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) Fallingwater house, built in the 1930s over a waterfall in southwest Pennsylvania.
That stop led the Calgary corporate lawyer – now president of Cococo Chocolatiers with Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut stores across Canada – to nine other FLW sites during those travels.
This began a journey transforming the couple's original 1,340-square-foot, 1950s Bridgeland bungalow into an homage to the brilliant Wright, who designed more than 1,000 structures over a 70-year span.
"The bug took hold," said Beck. "If we had bulldozed the house it would have been much cheaper, but that seems so wasteful."
The now 3,400-square-foot, inner-city home is not exactly a FLW home. Instead, the couple has taken ideas from various Wright homes and added open space, with interesting sightlines and angles. With 104 windows, outdoor views are a prominent part of every room's living space.
"We liked Wright's view that architecture could transform your life," said Beck. "He implemented it for himself and for his clients, and he was always pressing ahead on the limits of technology."
We liked Wright's view that architecture could transform your life. He implemented it for himself and for his clients, and he was always pressing ahead on the limits of technology.
The Beck/Rennie home includes technological additions, such as in-floor hydraulic heating and climate-managed temperatures. It is also designed to be multi-generational, as each of the sizeable four bedrooms fits two adults.
Function and beauty are the main goals. The small entryway acts as the gateway, through sliding doors, to the office and the family's main living space on each side.
The circular main floor includes a large, bright kitchen and a beautiful movie room with banked seating, more than a dozen windows and a descending projection screen that takes inspiration from Wright's Coonley house in Illinois.
When the doors are open, the main floor is often repurposed as an in-line skating rink or a soccer field for their youngest children, 10-year-old Ella and eight-year-old Will, or as a reading room for the oldest, Kate, now 14.
"It is basically mayhem in the middle room," said Beck, especially if the family's three rescue dogs, Rufus, Bailey, and Luna, are involved.
"But FLW houses were designed to handle a lot of mayhem and still look good."
The massive architectural redesign of the home is perhaps not a journey expected of a corporate lawyer or any businessperson. But Beck is not typical of either. In his 20s, he backpacked for a year, which saw him marveling at India's unique style of architecture.
He is also a do-it-yourselfer, and kept the original rafters from the old home to turn into desks for his children. He even considered giving up law and going to school for professional fine woodworking training.
The timing was never right, but the transformed Bridgeland home displays an eye for detail that reflects both Beck and graphic designer Rennie's skills. The home features wood throughout, unique stained glass windows representing each child, and a moveable library ladder reaching into a loft above the master bedroom. Each tile, each nook and each piece of furniture has its own story.
When Beck and Rennie bought the home on a hill overlooking the city, it was, "wild and crazy, completely overgrown."
In 1998, when they moved in, they embraced the 1950s frozen-in-time vibe. The family adapted existing space in response to various life events – both of the kids' grandmothers have lived with the family.
In 2010, the family moved out in order to facilitate construction with a builder. Part of this work included construction of a second level to the home.
"At the time, we wildly guessed it would be a year and a half, but then real life intervened," said Beck.
There were extended family crises and Calgary's massive 2013 flood consumed the Cococo Chocolatiers head office/production facility in Victoria Park, where 90 per cent of the operation was housed in the 15,000-square-foot basement. Critical pieces of equipment and raw chocolate were destroyed.
Their homebuilder changed gears to help Cococo get back into operation while the home renovation came to a total stop.
While much work has been completed on the home since 2013, there is still a vision to be fulfilled.
A stained glass etching of a quote, from philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, will mark the house's entrance when Rennie finds time to design it: "Build, therefore, your own world."
architecture | Brian Beck | Cococo | Frank Lloyd Wright | House and Home