Book Excerpt: Canadian Architecture—Evolving a Cultural Identity

For back-to-school season, here are some of the country’s best university and workplace designs, excerpted from Leslie Jen's new book on contemporary Canadian architecture.

What is Canadian architecture? For author Leslie Jen, a former associate editor at Canadian Architect, there is no single satisfactory response—but exhibiting sensitivity to local contexts, creating socially-minded places, responding to urban intensification, designing for health and aging, and meeting ecological challenges all play a role. Her new book Canadian Architecture: Evolving a Cultural Identity (Figure 1 Publishing, 2021) profiles 68 recent projects that address these themes, testifying to the country’s thriving design culture.

For back-to-school season, here are some excerpts from the book, presenting Leslie Jen’s selection of some of the country’s best university and workplace designs.


Brook McIlroy
Indigenous Cultural Markers at Humber College
Toronto, Ontario

A cluster of recent small projects are meaningful examples of placemaking for culturally specific communities in Canada and exemplify Brook McIlroy’s heavily collaborative and inclusive approach to design that respects and encourages under-represented communities to be heard, seen and experienced. All the projects occupy a variety of public spaces—mostly outdoor—and are united by the notions of gathering, contemplation and celebration, engendering pride and reinforcing a sense of identity and belonging.  

Indigenous Cultural Markers (page 62 – Tom Ridout)

Led by Brook McIlroy’s Indigenous Design Studio, two recently completed projects aim to recognize First Nations presence and to advance truth and reconciliation for Canada’s Indigenous communities: the Awen’ Gathering Place and the Indigenous Cultural Markers at Humber College. Powerful projects that embody a great deal of symbolism and meaning, they both perform an important educative function for those unfamiliar with the history and customs of our country’s Indigenous populations. 

Awen’ is sited in Harbourview Park next to an arboretum on Collingwood’s waterfront, an open-air pavilion that was designed in collaboration with Ojibwe poet and elder Duke Redbird. Based on the Seven Ancestor Teachings, the seven layers of the food forest that sustained the Anishinaabe people of the area are expressed in a circle of tree-like forms with sheltering canopies overhead; the supporting Alaskan cedar poles are precisely 7 metres tall, and the seemingly delicate white steel canopies are laser-cut with beautifully intricate patterns of the plants from each layer of the food forest. Below the canopies, wooden seating platforms are engraved with ancestral Ojibwe teachings, encouraging visitors to engage in rest, respite and contemplation. 

Indigenous Cultural Markers (page 62 – Tom Ridout)

Located on three highly visible sites across Humber College’s two campuses, the Indigenous Cultural Markers are intended to place the college in the context of the long history of Indigenous peoples in what is now called the Greater Toronto Area. The first site where the markers appear is the Student Welcome and Resource Centre: here, colourful animal graphics emblazoned on the windows establish a narrative of the seven clans, and coloured concrete symbols and patterns underfoot tell the story of the great migration of the Anishinaabe Nations as they moved west along the Great Lakes to Lake Superior. The Carrying Place Trail in the second site of the campus courtyard is symbolic of the Humber River Valley—an ancient path the Anishinaabe would have travelled. Engraved weathering-steel beacons represent markers in this trail, culminating in the Gathering Place, a faceted shell-like enclosure whose patterning evokes the woven texture of the reed mats typically used to cover such shelters. And lastly, installed in the atrium of the newly constructed Barrett Centre for Technology Innovation, a towering wooden sculpture hand-painted with patterns and symbols is meant to represent the path of life. Programmable sound and lighting increase its impact in this highly visible space—both day and night.  

Dubbeldam Architecture + Design
Dubbeldam Building
Toronto, Ontario

In 2017, Dubbeldam Architecture + Design acquired a century-old, three-storey brick building in Toronto’s Regal Heights neighbourhood in which to develop a creative, mixed-use community by integrating complementary businesses—including the firm’s own headquarters—under the same roof. The ambitious project demonstrates the studio’s belief that well-designed architecture can catalyze change and have a positive impact on its community. A prime example of urban revitalization, the building has kick-started new developments in the neighbourhood, introducing welcome diversity and vibrancy. 

Occupying a corner site on busy St. Clair Avenue West, the underutilized building was in disrepair from more than a decade of neglect before the studio began the process of transformation. Dubbeldam’s office now occupies the top floor of the building; one floor below, Lokaal welcomes freelancers from creative industries into a warm and inviting co-working space. On the ground floor, a marketing agency is joined by an independent coffee shop to form the critical retail anchor that serves not only the building’s inhabitants but the surrounding community as well. In the raised basement, a residential unit provides a much-needed opportunity for rental accommodation in a rapidly densifying city. 

Dubbeldam Building (page 79 – Scott Norsworthy)

The previously tired and faded façade defined by mismatched bricks and delaminating stucco received a dramatic makeover that has transformed the building into a landmark. Suggestive of the creative inhabitants within, the two primary elevations activate the streetscape with a bold and playful graphic presence; painted drop shadows surrounding the windows create a three-dimensional trompe l’oeil effect to passersby. The example set by the striking exterior graphics continues throughout the project, from the distinctive signage at the building’s entrance to the expressive and materially rich wayfinding on all three floors of the interior. A custom Baltic birch pegboard panel on the first-floor landing provides a directory for the businesses in the building and doubles as a thriving green wall populated with lush plants in fragrant cedar boxes. 

Collaboration is key to the firm’s working methodology, and much of the office is given over to open workstations, along with a breakout space equipped with a large table for group work and discussion. This space doubles as a library of reference books and material samples, with shelving around the perimeter, and is bathed in natural daylight from the expansive corner window carved out of the north and east façades. High ceilings and sliding walls provide ample room for pinup boards, conducive to sharing and exchanging ideas, critical in the design development process. A Scandinavian-inspired natural material palette is timeless, warm and varied, comprising exposed brick, maple floors, and Baltic birch slats and millwork.  

Sustainability measures include retaining as much of the existing building as possible, minimizing the carbon footprint of waste materials hauled to landfill. Repairing and tinting exterior brick walls preserve their integrity over the long term, and installing numerous operable windows encourages the transmission of natural daylight and passive ventilation—resulting in an 80 percent reduction in mechanical cooling costs in the building’s first year of operation.  

KPMB Architects
Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building & Louis A. Simpson International Building at Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

Demonstrating the particular skill that KPMB has in integrating historic buildings with modern architectural insertions, this project involves the complete renovation of and addition to the Frick Chemistry Building—designed by Charles Klauder in 1929—and its 1964 extension on the Princeton University campus. The project fulfills the university’s master plan to create a hub for social sciences on its east campus, and its new identity as the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building and the Louis A. Simpson International Building is matched by its new functions: it provides a home for the university’s Economics Department, several international offices, and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. 

Julis Romo Building (117 – Adrien Williams)

The original Collegiate Gothic building has been completely renovated and augmented with three glazed rooftop pavilions for use as meeting rooms, offering fresh new perspectives of the surrounding campus. A strategy to create a light-filled and welcoming interior was achieved largely through two multi-storey atria that were carved into the existing spaces of the building. Within these expansive volumes, glazed seminar rooms are dramatically suspended, appearing as floating, milky translucent vessels. Additional spaces for teaching and research are spread throughout the building, which locates the Economics Department in the western half (Julis Romo Rabinowitz) and International Initiatives in the eastern half (Louis A. Simpson). 

In adherence to a stringent sustainability strategy, 86 percent of the original building was repurposed, and all the additions remain within the existing footprint. Deference was shown to the existing building, with great care taken to preserve the historic character of the original entry, the second-floor library, and the textured argillite stone walls and limestone-framed windows—which form an evocative backdrop to the buzz of activity in the International Atrium. Formerly an exterior courtyard, the enclosed atrium now serves as the entry foyer. 

Julis Romo Building (117 – Adrien Williams)

Multiple points of access to the building ensure the critical permeability required of a hub: the main entrance to the building has been shifted from Washington Road on the west to the south elevation facing Scudder Plaza, and a third entrance can be found on William Street on the north side. The new façade is a complementary yet thoroughly modern expression of stone and glass. To modulate the glare from southern exposure, a limestone sunscreen installed in front of the glass curtain wall compellingly articulates the building’s entry volume with a horizontally striated pattern.  

The building’s relationship to the campus as a whole was improved through substantial landscape interventions, including bluestone pathways, restored heritage plantings, and next-generation magnolia trees lining the plaza. The extension of Shapiro Walk along the building’s south perimeter to Washington Road facilitates greater linkage between east and west. Most importantly, the building makes a meaningful connection to adjacent Scudder Plaza: one of Princeton’s primary outdoor spaces of engagement, it contains a sizable reflecting pool within which a landmark abstract bronze sculpture by James FitzGerald called Fountain of Freedom rises. From across the plaza, the transformed building initiates an intensified relationship with the architecturally significant Minoru Yamasaki–designed School of Public and International Affairs (1965)—which KPMB was subsequently commissioned to redesign. 

LGA Architectural Partners
Laurentian University McEwen School of Architecture
Sudbury, Ontario

As Canada’s 12th school of architecture and the first to emerge in 40 years, the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University in Sudbury promotes a tri-cultural and inclusive agenda serving Indigenous, francophone and anglophone students, reflective of Northern Ontario’s resident population. Its curriculum was developed to address unique issues pertaining to the region, including resilient architecture and fabrication techniques for northern latitudes, with an emphasis on Indigenous culture, wood construction, local ecologies and resources, and design for the impact of climate change. Importantly, the new school enables prospective students from the region to study architecture without having to relocate a significant distance away, while also encouraging graduates to stay close to home, contributing to the development of a local design culture and community. 

McEwen School of Architecture (131 – Bob Gundu)

Sited at the crossroads of the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks and the TransCanada Highway at the edge of the downtown core, the small campus features two repurposed heritage structures formerly owned by Canadian Pacific Railway, and two new buildings, all of which define a series of courtyards on this unusual triangulated site. Administrative functions and faculty offices are housed in the former ticketing and telegraph building; labs and shop workspaces occupy what was previously a rail shed. Although the two new buildings connect seamlessly on the interior, their material expression is markedly distinct: the Library Wing running parallel to the railway utilizes cross-laminated timber (CLT) for both its structure and finish—the first institutional building to do so in Canada—and the north-facing Studio Wing features a cooler “temperature” of steel-and-concrete construction. To fulfill the design team’s objective of integrating a didactic function into the project, the structural and aesthetic properties of wood, steel, and masonry construction in each of the four buildings behave as instructive tools, enabling students to learn first-hand the subject of their study. So that students will also learn valuable lessons in sustainability, passive design strategies maximize energy efficiency and occupant comfort, with energy modelling studies suggesting that the school requires 44 percent less energy than the Ontario Building Code’s specified minimum.  

McEwen School of Architecture (131 – Bob Gundu)

Outdoor space is as equally considered as the buildings. A green roof and patio accessed from the mezzanine of the Studio Wing give students a valid excuse to break from their studies for fresh air, allowing them to take in views of the city both near and far. The wind-protected and sheltered courtyard spaces created by the relational geometries of the buildings encourage gathering outdoors to engage with seasonal variations, and the southernmost courtyard features a ceremonial fire pit, presenting an opportunity for students and community members to partake in certain First Nations traditions. 

office of macfarlane biggar architects + designers
College of New Caledonia Heavy Mechanical Trades Training Facility
Prince George, British Columbia

The College of New Caledonia is a post-secondary institution with six locations in the central interior of British Columbia, offering educational programs in myriad disciplines. One of the key areas of study focuses on trade apprenticeships that teach students the operation, repair and maintenance of heavy machinery and equipment required by the region’s predominant industries of forestry, mining and agriculture. 

College of New Caledonia (167 and top 168 – Andrew Latreille)

As the most recent of several buildings that omb has designed for the college, the 25,000-square-foot Heavy Mechanical Trades Training Facility on the Prince George campus is the final piece of a master plan that arranges a cluster of trades-related buildings around an outdoor plaza, and along a landscaped pedestrian axis that links these buildings to the main campus building and cafeteria. The program is designed to meet current industry practice and includes the main shop space, off which are secondary zones to accommodate engine testing and overhaul, vehicle lifts, small parts shops, a computer lab, and rooms dedicated to batteries, tools and storage. A wash bay is located just outside the north doors, which gives way to a 22,000-square-foot enclosed works yard.  

College of New Caledonia (167 and top 168 – Andrew Latreille)

The architectural vocabulary expresses the rugged, industrial nature of the building’s purpose and program through uncomplicated massing and thoughtful detailing. Structural elements once again do double duty as the final architectural finish, apparent in the ground-face concrete blocks visible on both the interior and exterior of the building. The same principle applies to the heavy timber roof that enables the long-span interior spaces: here, modular laminated-veneer lumber roof panels were fabricated off-site for an efficient and reduced construction timeline, and lend richly hued warmth to the interior finish palette. Overlapping, angled rainscreen panels of weathering steel form a textured façade, a strategy also employed for the fence enclosing the works yard. The effect is one of depth and dimension, offering a dynamic performance of shifting light and shadow as the day progresses. To supplement the abundant natural light streaming into the facility through triple-glazed windows running along the east and south elevations, translucent polycarbonate panels form a clerestory band on the otherwise solid north elevation, admitting soft light into the main shop space.  

A thorough and innovative approach to sustainability premised on occupant health and well-being earned the facility LEED Gold certification. That the project is so beautifully executed is all the more remarkable because the exceedingly compressed schedule meant that design, documentation, bidding and construction was achieved in an astonishingly brief 18 months.