Article (November 01, 2001)

A few weeks ago I received a note from a colleague expressing concern that Canadian architecture “is slipping behind on the world stage.” If this is indeed true, it is no trivial matter, given the ever-increasing global scope of architectural culture. This was recently illustrated by the Royal Ontario Museum’s announcement of a long list of architects competing to design the Toronto institution’s expansion. Of the 12 firms selected from some 50 submissions, only two are Canadian: Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver and Adamson Associates Architects of Mississauga, who are teamed up with Cesar Pelli and Associates of New York. The balance of the list is mostly made up of high-profile architects from the U.S. and Europe (see “News,” CA October 2001).

That the ROM is conducting a search for an architect of international status reflects the museum’s ambitions to create a facility of global significance. In doing so it joins the ranks of major cultural institutions worldwide, like Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library, Renzo Piano’s addition to the Art Institute of Chicago and, most famously, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. There is also talk of a Gehry-designed addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the U.K.’s Alsop Architects are designing, with Robbie, Young + Wright of Toronto, the Design Centre for the Ontario College of Art and Design. If these projects live up to the standard set by an earlier generation of visiting architects–Viljo Revell’s Toronto City Hall, Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre and Westmount Square, I.M. Pei’s Place Ville Marie and Commerce Court–Canada will be the richer for it.

While this approach may bring Canada to international attention, as Revell’s City Hall did for Toronto, it is also the subject of some debate. It succeeds at the level of achieving notoriety for individual projects, but does it address concerns about Canadian architecture’s role on the world stage? Does it contribute to invigorating Canadian architecture–based on the notion that “high water raises all boats”–or does it, as some critics argue, prize the international while neglecting the local? These are important questions as Canadian architects are increasingly challenged to participate on a global playing field.

If Canadian architecture is indeed slipping from the world stage, it hasn’t always been so. Writing in the March 1994 issue of this magazine, former Architectural Review editor Peter Buchanan described the 1960s and ’70s as a time when “Canada was emerging as one of the world’s few key centres of innovative architecture.” He recalled how projects like the University of Alberta’s HUB and McMaster University Health Sciences Centre (pictured above) “reduced architects’ offices everywhere to a hush of awed admiration.” The socio-political and economic conditions that led to that flowering of Canadian architecture are things of the past. But, Buchanan reminds us, “these buildings provide relevant models, not as solutions to be emulated, but in confronting the larger issues and opportunities of their day.” Significantly, he noted that these pioneering projects were rooted in Canadian society, landscape and culture, and designed by “local unknowns.” This may be an important lesson. Judging from the international admiration directed at what Buchanan dubbed the “heroic period” of Canadian architecture, we may find that however astutely we borrow from other cultures, what may restore our status on the world stage is how boldly we go about creating our own. Marco Polo