New Housing Development

Molly Lamb Bobak – one Canada’s great war artists – died a year ago today. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d reflect of on one my favourite pieces.

Painted in 1956, New Housing Development contemplates urban growth during the post-war boom, when massive new developments re-shaped North American cities. The painting juxtaposes old and new, asking a question still pertinent today: how do we grow?

The painting contrasts a pre-war home with a new, mass-produced development. The new houses shine in the distance, but the eye eventually wanders to an old house at the bottom left. We see things differently there. The old house is lived-in and human. The glowing new development begins to feel like a threat.

Geometric shapes dominate the new: triangles, rectangles and trapezoids form walls and roofs. Lines are thin and angular. Vertical strokes create an architectural feel, not just straight, but slightly overlapping where they join their horizontal counterparts. The new development is engineered over the existing landscape.

Closer to the viewer, the old house is textured and detailed, revealing age and character. Lines are soft, almost disappearing; the home appears sculpted and weathered.

Painted in soft shadows and muted pastels, value and colour work together to emphasize differences. The new housing is washed in light, the old is cast in shadow. Complementary colours emphasize value changes – the central light has a yellow glow, while the shaded areas take on a blue-violet hue. The subtle contrasts belie the danger. The new development appears entirely harmless.

Repetition is also key. The new houses overlap in a huge unending mass. The horizon line is placed very high, nearly off the canvas. The new housing goes on indefinitely in sameness, an engineered chaos. It’s an aggregate, not individual houses. The house and tree at the bottom left of the canvas stand alone.