Todd Saunders: Architecture in Northern Landscapes
Edited by Jonathan Bell and Ellie Stathaki. Boston: Birkhäuser, 2012.
Building in the remote North is often seen as a unique aspect of Canadian architecture. Obviously, Canada isn’t the only place up North, nor the only one oscillating between an earnest search for a Northern identity and the savvy marketing of its icebound landscapes. In many respects, Scandinavians are similarly fascinated by their geographical location.

The work of Todd Saunders, a Canadian architect based in Norway, epitomizes a currently popular approach to building in the North. On both sides of the North Atlantic, Saunders sensitively inserts contemporary architecture into magnificent empty landscapes. In this respect, the cover of the new book Todd Saunders: Architecture in Northern Landscapes is in complete accordance with its title. A dramatic picture shows a Newfoundland landscape with, off-centre, a white box that occupies only a small fraction of the total image. This modest abstract object is one of the artist-in-residence studios Saunders designed on Fogo Island for a foundation set up by philanthropist Zita Cobb.

Inside, the book offers many similarly impressive photos, along with rather unconvincing texts by editors Jonathan Bell and Ellie Stathaki. The latter are sullied by crooked reasoning (“romantic yet powerful”) and shallow descriptions (“his architecture is about how space relates to place”). Bell and Stathaki do not offer much insight into what it is to build in Northern landscapes, and the rather detached presentation of the architecture, mainly through exterior photos, deprive it from the content one is inclined to project on this work. It simply looks too good to believe there is nothing more to the story than this delicious cocktail of unspoiled nature with a pinch of delicate architecture. Canada and Norway offer plentiful opportunities for this blend, thanks to an overall average density of 3.3 and 14.5 inhabitants per square kilometre respectively, with around four-fifths of their populations concentrated in urban areas.

Just as the North isn’t exclusively Canadian, the idea of a harmonious combination of architecture and landscape doesn’t really distinguish the North from other cardinal directions. The same formula is at work in thinly populated places elsewhere, such as in Chile (Smiljan Radic, Pezo von Ellrichshausen), rural Switzerland (Valerio Olgiati) and Australia (Glenn Murcutt). Geography, vegetation and climate may be totally different in each case, but the components are basically identical: contemporary shapes in a bucolic or sublime natural setting, using local materials and often relying on vernacular construction methods.

In Scandinavia, the idea of the North is informed by another idea: that of the South. Throughout his career, the Norwegian architect and writer Christian Norberg-Schulz explored the complex relationship many Scandinavian architects hold with the Mediterranean. In his book Nightlands: Nordic Building (originally published in Norwegian in 1993, translated to English in 1996), he contended that the best way to examine “what Nordic building truly is” entails “contrasting it with its counterpart: the classical architecture of the South.” From Aalto and Asplund to Lewerentz and Utzon, many Scandinavian architects have produced work whose “Nordicness” at least partly relies on classical Roman and Greek motifs of the South shining through.

While in Scandinavia there is a longing for the South and for something beyond its own borders, in Canada there is a longing for the North within its territory. In the usual national narrative, Canada’s North and South are contrasted with the innocence of a children’s book. On one hand stands the essential purity of sensitively designed and executed buildings in full harmony with the equally pure nature of the North. On the other lies a grotesque confederation of shopping centres, suburbs and downtowns. Since that alleged ugliness is the daily reality of 80 percent of Canadians, one could claim that the essence of Canada resides Down South instead of Up North. The North is ultimately a place–or a concept–as foreign to most Canadians as the Mediterranean is to Scandinavians.
Hans Ibelings is an architectural historian based in Montreal. 

Place and Occasion: Montgomery Sisam Architects
Edited by David Sisam. London: Artifice Books, 2013.
Starting in the 1970s, Toronto firm Montgomery Sisam Architects built a body of fine work, testing ideas mainly on small commissions. Then, over the last decade, the firm had a boom in output, resulting in an extraordinary group of projects varying in size and program. The new monograph Place and Occasion highlights these efforts. The projects are generally public in nature: a horticultural centre, a treatment facility for children, long-term care facilities, a yacht club, a convent. Of the drawings that accompany the photos and text, almost all are site plans or axonometric drawings, as if the architects are showcasing how their buildings are linked to something larger–an existing urban site, a rugged landscape, a campus.

The joy of the projects lies behind the straightforward volumes, in the interiors. The Norview Lodge Long-Term Care Facility, for instance, is a green-clad collection of simple, gable-roofed housing wings. Inside, wood-covered spaces are washed in natural light: the interior public spaces show an attention to detail and craft more common in a museum. Or consider the dining and common area of the Island Yacht Club, with its wood floor, wood ceilings and full glazing on three sides. A narrative titled “Light and Air” introduces design themes as clearly as the projects presented. Architectural ideas like the Fresnel Square, a diagram comparing the similar areas of a big block and a thin, corridor-like building, are meaningful; indeed, this diagrammatic organization is evident in buildings such as the convent for St. John the Divine.

Essays by design luminaries Bruce Kuwabara, Beth Kapusta and Ken Greenberg bracket the work. A singular theme runs through them: with an economy of means, Montgomery Sisam Architects designs effective buildings that are smart and beautiful, regardless of their function. You could ask no more of an architect.
Freelance writer David Steiner lives in Toronto.