Banff Session 2006: 50 Years of Architecture

Text David Down

The recent Banff Session marked the 50th anniversary and the 26th session of what has become an important tradition for the architectural profession in Alberta, and a unique conference event in North America. In 1955, the Alberta Association of Architects Council led by H.L. Bouey, proposed a “refresher course” in architecture. It was thought that such a course might give those who attend a “revitalized interest in the ideas and purposes of our profession, and in particular to give us a fresh concept in the field of architectural design.” It was also thought that the course might “…be isolated in a place such as the Banff School of Fine Arts where members attending would live communally without other distractions.” The idea was supported by the membership, and Continuing Education for Architects was born in Alberta. The first architects approached included Richard Neutra, Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen, and Pietro Belluschi. Althrough they all responded in the courtly, often handwritten manner of the day, after some negotiation Richard Neutra agreed to lead the session single-handedly.

For a full week in January 1956, Neutra gave a series of illustrated lectures as well as chaired panel discussions whose titles included “Old Architecture and New Problems,” “The Architect and Society,” “The Architect–His Means and Methods,” and “The Architect’s Training.” A group of 38 architects from Alberta listened and participated while Neutra’s wife Dionne entertained the group with her cello during the evening. Neutra was so taken with the whole experience that he insisted on returning the following year to present “Design and its Proof” together with sociologist George Lundberg and psychologist Norbert Mintz.

At a time when international travel was not so common, the event brought to a small community of architects located well outside the metropolitan hubs of North America some of the greatest design thinkers of the day. Over the years, the Banff Sessions have mirrored the changing trends in architectural thinking and practice as organizers consistently attempt to capture the design zeitgeist of the day, often intentionally bringing together opposing viewpoints from such notables as Paul Rudolph, Arthur Erickson, Ray Affleck, Stanley Tigerman, Romaldo Giurgola, Antoine Predock and Zaha Hadid.

In 1970, The Dynamics of Change exemplified the decade with speakers such as Ray Affleck, Stanton Legatt, William Stayton, and Lazarus Wesley, chief of the Stoney First Nation. As per the spirit of the times, the session set out to discuss how architecture fit within the broader social context, and the wide range of participants reflected the social, behavioural and ecological concerns of the time. This session is most notable for what closed it: a large group of First Nations dancers were ejected by management from the Banff Springs Hotel, and the architects involved were at the forefront of an ensuing important public discussion over the incident. The 1980s, a decade of broad stylistic mood swings in architecture, featured session themes like Futuristic Architecture, The Spirit of Architecture and Directions for the City. In 1984, for example, two of the decade’s greatest showmen–Ricardo Bofill and Peter Eisenman–squared off in response to a challenge statement by Michael Graves (a participant the previous year) in the classic ideological battle of the ’80s: being for or against Postmodernism. In the 1990s, the sessions moved away from theory to focus back on the work itself and modes of practice, consequently rarely generating the standoffs of previous years. The 2006 session, though rigourously civil, hinted at the tensions inherent in the clear philosophical divide between the formalist explorations of Heatherwick and Asymptote and the regionalist, intensely site-specific work of Blackwell and Cutler.

David A. Down, Architect, AAA, FRAIC is Senior Architect with the City of Calgary. With the endorsement of the Alberta Association of Architects and financial support from the Canada Council for the Arts, Down and Katherine Wagner are currently working on a book entitled Banff Session: 50 Years Architecture, due to be completed in 2007.