Book Review: Canadian Modern Architecture, 1967 to the present

Cover photo by Christopher Erickson.

The Near-Empty Shelf

The appropriate shelf in the library tower at the University of Calgary was almost empty, so I convinced myself I had scrambled the Library of Congress “NA” catalogue number. I’d been given a research paper assignment from Professor Michael McMordie in his pioneering 1977 “Canadian Architecture” class, and wanted to browse the books, seeking inspiration. There were less than a dozen books at the appropriate spots for Canada—fewer than that library’s holdings on Dutch or Mexican architecture. I inquired with the reference librarian if their other Canadian volumes had been checked out. She replied, with a tinge of melancholy: “This is all we have.”

As I was pivoting from my undergraduate background in the humanities and fine arts towards architecture, this lack of a local literature for my chosen discipline was unsettling. From my reading in global design history, I knew that books, like buildings, are complex creations. And architecture books—like the best buildings they describe and illustrate—are not worth indulging if they do not have a clear authorial voice. Before starting architecture school, I had only read three books about Canadian architecture, but they were, and remain, some of the finest books ever produced about the design ideas shaped by, and for our country. 

Designed by Étienne Gaboury in 1968, the Paroisse du Précieux Sang remains a Prairie icon in St. Boniface, Manitoba. Courtesy GPP Architecture

Carol Moore Ede’s large-format Canadian Architecture 1960/70 was a revelation. It is the work of a journalist who first travelled Canada by car looking at buildings and taking her own stunning black-and-white images. I was struck especially by the power of the Prairie buildings she selected that were close at hand to me—designs by Etienne Gaboury, Clifford Wiens, Jack Long, and Douglas Cardinal. The Architecture of Arthur Erickson from Tundra Books had an even larger page layout in a landscape format, plus sumptuous illustrations. Simon Scott’s glowing colour photography and the architect’s elegant and thoughtful prose had me hooked. 

The only Canadian architectural history I could find as an undergraduate was University of Victoria art historian Alan Gowans’ Building Canada: An Architectural History of Canadian Life. Like Ede’s, this book was also produced by criss-crossing the nation each summer—in his case in a beat-up station wagon. I loved this book for the same reason many staff historians at Parks Canada and provincial heritage agencies hated it. Rather than the staid, fact-based accounts they had been obliged to produce at work, Gowans ventured interpretations, theories, conspiracies—in short, stories about who we are and how we live in our buildings.

What does one do in an intellectual vacuum, a nation of buildings without names and stories? For my mentor Michael McMordie, it meant co-founding the Canadian Architectural Archive at the University of Calgary, our nation’s most important collection of materials from leading Canadian modernist architects. My own trajectory in architectural criticism was launched with an article in the late, lamented Toronto magazine Canadian Forum. It had been produced by travelling by rail across the plains to look at buildings, talking to ultra-friendly architects, just as Ede and Gowans had done before.

Montreal’s Place Bonaventure, designed in 1967 by Affleck, Debarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise, was the subject of international interest for its megastructural approach. Photo by H. Roger Jowett, courtesy Alexander Jowett and Canadian Architect magazine fonds, Ryerson University Library and Archives

Building With Words

In the decades since I graduated in the 1980s, the shelf of books on Canadian architecture has grown rapidly. Parks Canada issued a fine series of studies on the key architectural styles of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cottage industries of publishing catalogues and modest architectural books—mainly on houses, and those who shape them—began at either end of the country, with TUNS (now Dalhousie Architectural) Press in Halifax, and Greg Bellerby at Emily Carr University in Vancouver producing volume after volume. The big university presses sponsored the occasional architecture book, and UBC’s SALA has recently produced a series of ten books on West Coast Modern houses, although visuals suffered from the pocket-book format. Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver produced exhibitions with related catalogues about their modernist legacies. Toronto’s Ruth Cawker produced a wonderful collection of writings by architects in 1981, Building With Words. Zimbabwe-born Leon Whiteson produced a 1983 survey during a short period writing for the Toronto Star, while in 2016, Michelangelo Sabatino and Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe issued a theory-laden history of modernism.

Much of this writing and publishing was made possible by new streams of funding for architectural research and writing from the Canada Council, proving to be as catalytic for architecture books as the Massey (now Governor-General’s) Medals for Architecture had been for creative new buildings themselves, after their establishment in 1956.

The publishing situation is more variable among Canadian monographs dedicated to the work of a single current architectural practice.  Some of these books—like those by Richard and Gregory Henriquez, Todd Saunders and Pierre Thibault—have intellectual ambitions, a singularity of voice and prospect, a meticulous craft of drawing and photography. Others are major disappointments, however, little more than brochures wrapped in hard binding. Even with this, crucial figures such as Peter Hemingway, Jim Donahue, Peter Cardew and Carmen Corneil today remain without comprehensive books documenting their ground-breaking designs. But the biggest caesura in Canadian architectural publishing is critical and comparative works, and full-blown histories.

An aerial view of Expo 67, one of the flagship projects of Canada’s centennial year. Photographer unknown, Libraries and Archives Canada

The Architecture of a Book

Canadian Modern Architecture, 1967 to the Present is an astonishing achievement by editors Elsa Lam, Graham Livesey and their fifteen essayists. The book is essential for anyone who cares about architecture, or who cares about Canada, and we’ll be talking about it for decades. The gracious and to-the-point Introduction begins with a nod from the editors to the survey of our built history produced by Alan Gowans’ leading protégé, Harold Kalman. But they point out that his “magisterial” A History of Canadian Architecture “devotes only one of fifteen chapters to modern architecture.” The editors argue that “distinctly Canadian architecture only emerged mid-century and fully blossomed after Expo 67.” In broad strokes, I agree.

The first thing one needs to know about Canadian Modern Architecture is that it is decidedly, even polemically not a history, in the conventional meaning. The fifteen separately authored and lushly illustrated essays of around five thousand words each, forming the book’s chapters, are group­ed by theme, region, even city-state, but most assuredly not historical sequence. The book refuses to present a fully rendered image of Canadian architecture, rather offering a mosaic—that preferred representational mode for this country. One quarter of the book is devoted to “International Influences,” itself a very Canadian thought.  “International Influences” exist in all architecture, everywhere, as universal as brick or stone.

Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects’ Kitchener City Hall (1993) is influenced by the discourse of postmodernism. Photo by Steven Evans Photography, courtesy KPMB

There is an impressive range of information and visuals collected within the book’s 544 glossy pages, but trying to read it straight through is confounding. The editorial decision to include multiple authors and overlapping themes means that the same building or architect will pop up in various essays, as does Erickson-Massey’s Simon Fraser University, and names like KPMB and Moshe Safdie. Despite the sense of déjà-vu that sometimes occurs, I frankly do not know how Lam and Livesey could have organized their book any other way, so diverse and unknown to itself is our country.

But it is in the nature of such books that very few will read it right through, as this reviewer was obliged to. Everyone knows that architecture books are skimmed for their visuals, dropped into for reference drawings, sometimes even read, episodically. Many of our architects will browse a copy in a bookstore and first check the index for names of their rivals and classmates, then actually buy a copy if they find reference to any firm they have worked for. And they will. I estimate there are proper name references to one thousand Canadian architects in this book, as naming is a crucial initial task for any higher order writing, be it history or criticism. 

While the book is not a history, it also resists a single axis of interpretation, and argued architectural criticism makes an appearance in only about half of the essays. Canadian Modern Architecture does exhibit some overarching academic apparatuses however, including birth and death dates of the architects mentioned. From the accretion of these dates, we learn that 1939 produced a bumper crop of Late Modernists, architects born in 1959 have the highest likelihood of becoming academics, and 1969 produced most of the innovative young designers whose work we see too little of in the book.

A rendering of the central mall of Simon Fraser University, one of the signature spaces of the campus master-planned by Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey in 1963. Courtesy Arthur Erickson fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives, University of Calgary

Portrait of a Nation

All but three of Canadian Modern Architecture’s 17 essayists are current or emeritus full-time academics. At times, the book reads like the proceedings of an academic conference convened to define the subject from all approaches. But define the subject it does, and with considerable editorial élan, no small accomplishment. Some of the chapters, though, feel like 20-minute slide talks, each of them eagerly trying to usher their charges into the now-emerging canon of Canadian architecture. In accumulation, one of the key weaknesses of the book is that there are too many buildings included, and too many of these have but one or two sentence perfunctory descriptions—single idea, Instagram-like snapshots insufficient to do the projects full justice.

Not surprisingly, active critics and professors of architectural history and theory with books under their belts have the best essays, with insights and syntheses marching along with the parade of facts and names. George Baird’s essay on “Megastructures and High Tech” is a fine example of how knowledge of architectural history and ability as a descriptive writer can shine a light on one of the most internationally prominent Canadian moments in global design, now all but disappeared. But in not mentioning Arthur Erickson’s heroic visualizations of a future Vancouver in his “Plan 56” (thankfully picked up by Ian Chodikoff in his essay on urbanism) Baird misses including this essential Canadian alongside the Japanese and European inventors of the megastructure. He gives Erickson his due, however, in gracious accounts of Lethbridge and Robson Square as late examples. Some of our scholars till previously productive thematic soil, be it Ryerson’s Marco Polo and Colin Ripley on the architecture of the Centennial projects, or Lateral Office’s Lola Sheppard and Mason White on design for the arctic.

Peter Cardew’s Stone Band School in Chilcotin, BC (1990) was part of a government program of creating design-led schools for Indigenous communities. Photo courtesy Peter Cardew Architects

One of the standout pieces of writing is Odile Hénault’s “First Nations Architecture: A Long Journey Forward,” which collects innovative, largely under-published new work from Pacific to Atlantic to Arctic oceans by and for our Indigenous citizens, then makes sense of it. This is sterling criticism in a field that deserves reflection—I dearly hope that she expands her essay into a book. Lisa Landrum’s essay on campus architecture is nearly as good, although I would quibble with her on the inspirations behind Simon Fraser University’s massing. Sherry McKay produces the best of her string of overviews of the evolution of architecture on the Pacific Coast, from Ron Thom to the Patkaus, with pointed critical perceptions and apt, artful photographs and drawings, marred only by occasional lapses into Harvard studio-speak.

Arthur Erickson makes an appearance in all three of these chapters, and Lam and Livesey really had no choice but to put an Erickson work on the cover of the book. The UBC Museum of Anthopology was a clear choice for its association with First Nations, its brilliance of form, the cadence and conviviality of its plans and sections, and the tour-de-force of its interiors and display systems. The museum is a standout masterpiece in a nation that admits to few such words or works.

A.J. Diamond & Barton Myers’ York Square in Toronto (1968). Photo by Ian Sampson, courtesy DSAI

Larry Wayne Richards’ very finely argued account of postmodernism in Canada makes it clear that, with the exception of Vancouver’s Richard Henriquez and Anglo-Montrealer Peter Rose, PoMo here is almost entirely an Ontario phenomenon. Why? Is Kitchener City Hall not a mutation of PoMo, with its multiple quotations of the modernist canon sparking Toronto’s taste for Neo-modernism (which the Prairie originals will tell you, loudly, is not modernism at all)? This kind of national surmise, the finding of broad themes, is largely missing in the book, given its structure and its lack of a concluding chapter.

Another great unspoken of this vast book is the question of why Quebec was not home to a wave of highly original architecture after the World’s Fair catalyst—as was constructed on our Prairies, of all places, as made clear in Graham Livesey’s essay. There can be no doubt that some of Canada’s best architecture of the 1970s is found in the works of Cardinal, Hemingway, Atkins, Wiens, Gaboury and the Patkaus. Edmonton was home to two great Diamond-Myers designs: the HUB Mall (Canada’s last megastructure) and the Citadel Theatre (ur-project to the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto). David Theodore picks up with the Quebec innovations of Dan Hanganu, Atelier Big City, Saucier + Perrotte and many others, mostly recent—but the two decades after Expo remain a void, telling in their absence. If we ever start a truly national dialogue on architecture’s relationship to Canadian political, economic and cultural evolution, themes like this will be explored by writers to come.

Designed by Pin/Taylor Architects, the MacDonald Drive Condominiums in Yellowknife (2008) respond to the demands of building in the North. Photo by Ihor Pona, courtesy Taylor Architecture Group

The production of the published object by New York’s Princeton Architectural Press is excellent, though its slick paper makes it weigh four pounds and its bulky hard cover renders it a tough book to cuddle up with. Not to worry; Trudeau the Elder defined us as a nation that knows “how to make love in a canoe,” so surely we can manage. While there are excellent endnotes and the best possible range and colour rendering of visuals, somewhat strangely, there is no bibliography. For now at least, the length of the no-longer-empty-shelf of books on Canadian architecture shall remain indeterminate.

The real point of this book is that it will help others write the books—reflective, critical, synthetic, risk-taking—that Canadian architecture deserves. Canadian Modern Architecture is a heroic accomplishment, and its editors and contributors have earned a standing ovation.  Hurrah, everyone, this book is Canada: for good and bad; innovation and tory timidity; metropolitan ambition and rural redoubt. Chapter and verse, Lam, Livesey and their fifteen contributors have nailed the names and listed the key works of the last half century of architecture here.  It will now be up to future books, and future writers, to make critical and historical sense of it all.

Vancouver-based Trevor Boddy’s first book was a regional history of modernism, Modern Architecture in Alberta. He has subsequently created books or exhibitions and catalogues on designers including Douglas Cardinal, Clifford Wiens, Bing Thom, Arthur Erickson, Fast + Epp, Bjarke Ingels, KPF (San Diego), Stantec (Airports), HCMA (Pools), Blue Sky, Gino Pin, Cornelia Oberlander, Jeremy Sturgess, James Cheng and Alfred Waugh.