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Why you know John Di Castri, iconoclastic architect who reshaped Victoria

Buildings by flamboyant Di Castri jarred with their neighbours on fusty late-Victorian streetscapes. An exhibition of his work is at Wentworth Villa until Sept. 10.

Even among the group of young architects who were transforming Victoria’s post-war urban landscape with their ambitious designs, John Di Castri was an outlier.

He was Victoria’s most creative architect of the day, noted for his flamboyant, even what some might call “idiosyncratic,” designs.

Avoiding the clinical spare forms of local post-war architecture, his work was a powerful celebration of his West Coast environment: stunning topography and a rich palette of as-found building materials.

He joined an international movement that attempted to break decisively with the past, in a style known as Modernist. This meant simplifying forms, revealing the bones of a building’s construction, and stripping away the elaborate ornamentation of the historic styles — letting the function and materials speak.

Buildings by Di Castri jarred with their neighbours on the fusty late-Victorian downtown streetscapes.

Consider the undulating curves of the CNIB headquarters that appeared at 1609 Blanshard St. in 1951, followed three years later by the geometry of Ballantyne’s Florist at 900 Douglas St., and the Mosaic Building at 1061 Fort St. in 1963.

Victoria was comfortably anchored in its historic love affair with the esthetic established by Edwardian architects such as Francis Rattenbury and Samuel Maclure.

Both celebrated the famed garden climate, complex topography and dramatic vistas in every direction. In the 1950s, this landscape still provided a myriad of unique building sites, each prompting a singular and creative design response.

Di Castri constantly challenged long-held local building traditions and the new work of his more constrained contemporaries.

His early residences, including two from 1954 — the Trend House, on the west slope of Mount Tolmie, and the Charles Watts house, atop a craggy outcrop in the Uplands — shocked Victoria’s staid establishment, comfortably ensconced in their vaguely Tudor-style manor houses nestled among the leafy streets of Rockland Avenue and parts of Oak Bay.

Born in Victoria, Di Castri was raised in an Italian immigrant family. His father was a bandmaster and voice coach. But Di Castri’s early ambitions for a career as a concert pianist gave way to the reality of family finances. On graduation from Victoria High School in 1942, he joined the provincial public works department as a trainee draughtsman.

In 1947, he joined the architecture practice of Birley Wade and Stockdill, and the next year left to study at the University of Oklahoma under Bruce Goff, a noted disciple of American architectural icon Frank Lloyd Wright.

Goff immersed his students in a radical brand of highly innovative Expressionist design, pushing Wright’s “organic” idea of architecture to new limits. Goff encouraged his students find their own design vocabulary, but he believed personal expression should be rooted in the site and place, as if organically embedded in it.

In his graduation thesis, a proposed community arts centre for Oklahoma City, Di Castri amalgamated notions of sci-fi futurism, an idealized creative community and as-found urban planning.

Di Castri and his wife, Paddy, returned to Victoria in 1950 via a cross-continental tour of Wright’s major commissions, including meeting the great man himself at his architectural school, Taliesin West in Arizona.

Di Castri also brought a print portfolio of some of Goff’s imaginative designs. Many of Di Castri’s most innovative design ideas can be traced to this portfolio, housed along with his own architectural drawings in the special collections division at the University of Victoria library.

He started his practice in 1950, first in partnership with F.W. Nichols, then, in 1952, on his own. Victoria was poised at the edge of a multi-decade building boom as the “boomer generation” came of age. Aspirations were unbounded.

Di Castri quickly became known for working within a rigorous geometrical framework, using local materials, and scaling each building for the people living in and around it.

His major breakthrough came in 1953 with the commissioning of the Trend House. It was one of 10 demonstration houses commissioned by the B.C. Coast Woods Extension Bureau to promote wood products.

Completed in March 1954, Di Castri’s work was immediately celebrated as the most innovative. The design pushed materials and technology to the limit.

A polygon plan supports a diamond-form roof truss system that seems inspired by wooden airframe technology. A massive masonry chimney slices diagonally through the body of house as if to pinion the complex roof forms in flight.

Exterior wood and masonry finishes are carried through to the interior. All these elements would become Di Castri design hallmarks.

Mayor Claude Harrison cut the ribbon to open the Trend House. Thousands of people viewed it over the following weeks.

Di Castri was a noted pioneer of West Coast Modern Style, but he was not constrained by the minimalism of contemporaries such as Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom, and other locals such as John Wade, David Hambleton or Alan Hodgson.

West Coast Modern Style houses usually featured open post-and-beam construction, flat or gentle sloped roofs and large windows opening into the landscape. Di Castri preferred to establish a theme drawn from nature, such as organic intersecting curves.

His commission for Robin Dunsmuir in 1954 responded to a seafront location on Ten Mile Point by using a seashell motif to generate the scrolled plan. Massive boulder walls rise from the rocky exterior site, snaking their way through the interior.

His 1958 house for Walter and Mary Thomson, with its innovative display of structural beams reaching out into the landscape, clings spider-like to the Rockland escarpment.

Di Castri often sought inspiration in abstract geometric forms: the 45-degree angle and diamond form worked into the Trend House, or a segmented arc for the 1954 Alexander Smith House on Goldstream Avenue. Both have been handsomely restored by recent owners.

His drawings, both in plan and elevation, often reveal complex mathematical structures that underpin, indeed discipline, many of the designs: octagonal grids, layered equilateral triangles and, in particular, a common reference, the 15-degree angle.

An excellent example is a proposal for Dr. John Hunt’s house in Saanich which, unfortunately, was not built.

Contractors often noted privately that Di Castri commissions could be “difficult builds.”

Many of his commissions were documented at the completion stage with photographs by Hubert Norbury, Victoria’s premier architectural photographer of the day.

Di Castri never lost his love of music, and for many years he chaired the Victoria Symphony Board. In later life, he studied at the Victoria Conservatory of Music under the noted jazz maverick George Essihos.

A closer look at his approach to design reveals the mind of a musician. It is as if each building is played from a score, an orchestration of forms, shapes, voids and volumes.

Some — including churches such as St. Patrick’s in Oak Bay, residences such as the Watts home, hovering above its granite bluff in Uplands, or Windsor Utley’s “Castle” in 1967, nestling into the conifer woodland on a Salt Spring Island foreshore — exhibit the drama of a visual crescendo.

Raised a Roman Catholic, Di Castri remained a serious adherent throughout his life. He was noted for his many Catholic church commissions, including St. Patrick’s in 1959, St. Joseph the Worker at 753 Burnside in 1962, Queenswood House of Studies (built in 1965-67, but now demolished) for the Sisters of St. Ann, and others.

His last commission for the University of Victoria was a multi-faith campus chapel in 1985. The congregate space of the chapel, sheltering beneath the generous spread of its dominant hipped roof, brings together gardens and woodland-forest with a traditional Victoria house-form, the colonial bungalow. It also has a vague reference to the ancient bronze age “sacred hut.”

Many of his church commissions also reveal a profound meditative quality, a sense of the sacred that informs the iterative manipulation of complex spaces, forms and textures.

Di Castri died in 2005, but his work, and words, are still with us.

Years ago, Di Castri wrote: “People yearn for buildings which are based on the timeless standards of beauty, quality, harmony and integrity. We must not only desire these standards but demand them of all those responsible for the built environment, including the whole political structure which permits the type of communities we now have.”

Would that this was more often taken to heart today.

Martin Segger is an architectural historian and urban critic. He has written extensively on Victoria’s built environment.

Exhibition at Wentworth Villa

A John Di Castri retrospective exhibit is featured at the Wentworth Villa Architectural Heritage Museum, 1156 Fort St., Victoria.

The exhibition is sponsored by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and co-curated by local architect Chris Gower with design arts specialist Allan Collier.

It includes photographs, drawings, paintings and architectural models from more than 50 years of Di Castri’s practice. The exhibit features dozens of local commissions, including churches, schools, shopping malls and domestic buildings.

It is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays, until Sept. 10.

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