Book Review: 305 Lost Buildings of Canada

Adele Weder reviews a recent book by architecture critic Alex Bozikovic and illustrator Raymond Biesinger.

Illustrations by Raymond Biesinger. Courtesy of Goose Lane Editions

By Alex Bozikovic and Raymond Biesinger. Goose Lane Editions, 2022.

REVIEW Adele Weder

Contemporary cities have evolved from a plethora of buildings that, in most cases, no longer exist. A survey of this phantom architecture might seem like an odd exploration for the here and now. But a newly published compilation of once-beloved and now-demolished landmarks reminds us of the usefulness of paying homage to our vanished past.

Written by Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic and illustrated by Raymond Biesinger, 305 Lost Buildings of Canada is like a stroll through an urban graveyard. Pause to read the terse summary of a building’s name, purpose, and life dates, with the odd anecdote that hints at the prestige or notoriety of each one. Even the book’s black-and-white line drawings look a little like tombstones. Then as now, these edifices were usually victims of profit-seeking and expediency, in some cases despite an outcry from the local community, though others simply died of old age.

Most of these buildings would not be considered architectural masterpieces, not even in their own lifetimes, but all contributed something vital to their neighbourhoods. The Little Mountain housing complex in Vancouver provided affordable accommodation and a sense of community to dozens of families. Its low density made it a target, yet as Bozikovic reports, its large site still lies mostly empty, to the fury of the activists who opposed its demolition.

Other dearly departed edifices deserve to be remembered for their experiential qualities. Saskatoon’s Capitol Theatre, for example, offered movie-goers the enchanting experience of a mythical Spanish town, with plastered walls, arched doorways, and faux backlit windows—a wonderful kind of kitsch that worked for its escapist purpose. Its owner commanded a wrecking crew to pulverize it over a weekend, despite an intense effort by locals to save it.

Thirty-five years later, the same fate befell Vancouver’s Ridge Theatre, demolished in 2013 for a condo development. Like Saskatoon’s Capitol Theatre, it is sorely missed by locals, but not for its architecture or interior design. The Ridge Theatre animated its sleepy residential neighbourhood in a way that the grocery store at the base of the new condo complex simply does not.

Another irreplaceable attribute of this and certain other lost buildings is their signage, which contributed to the distinctive character of their respective neighbourhoods and cities. Vancouverites had loved the large, bulb-studded Ridge sign that topped its eponymous cinema. That sign has been “saved” and repositioned atop the new condo complex, but it reads like a framed buck’s head in a hunter’s den: a lifeless trophy devoid of its original context and meaning.

The loss of visually emphatic and unique graphics and signage is sometimes greater than the loss of the building itself, in all sorts of neighbourhoods. As Bozikovic writes, “No one paid attention to the building that housed Sam the Record Man in Toronto. It was the spinning records of neon on the front that were important. They became icons of a street and a city.” That signature signage has received similar trophy-sign treatment, hoisted atop a building around the corner—but it just isn’t the same.

Especially refreshing is the number of vernacular buildings, a huge and woefully underreported subsection of architectural history. The short entries, comprising one paragraph and a line-drawing of each façade, are useful as portals to a longer understanding. It is gratifying to learn the name of the architect of that demolished Capitol Theatre in Saskatoon: Emmanuel Briffa, a Montreal-based Maltese Canadian. I became intrigued enough to investigate further: he had been one of North America’s most successful and revered theatre designers in the 20th century. (Want to know more? Check out Philip Dombowsky’s 1995 master’s thesis on Briffa.)

The paragraph-long texts do not allow for much explanation, but for many of these buildings, the Wiki-stub-like texts are the only eulogy they will get in the 21st century. The accompanying line drawings are also terse but fun, like avatars for the buildings they illustrate. They work well enough to give a visual sense of the 19th-century and prewar entries, which are largely defined by their facades, but they look strange when accompanying modernist landmarks like Arthur Erickson’s 1963 Graham House. (Orthogonal line drawings can’t give a sense of cascading volumes.) So, like the short texts, you can think of these illustrations as an invitation to look up the real thing.

It makes for wistful reading, these reminders of what we’ve lost, even in those cases when buildings more functional and “important” have taken their place. But it’s a worthwhile journey just the same. As Bozikovic notes, “it’s never practical to hold onto every trace of the past. But what we ignore today, we may well see as a treasure tomorrow. Buried treasure, perhaps, but still valuable.”

Architectural curator and critic Adele Weder is a Contributing Editor to Canadian Architect.