TEXT Sharon Vattay
At the mid-point of the 20th century, prosperity and postwar optimism coupled with a growing population fuelled an unparalleled construction boom in Canada. The tally of contracts awarded in 1955 amounted to the biggest construction year in Canadian history. At the same time, the desire to foster a distinctive Canadian culture was validated by the Royal Commission on the Arts, Letters and Sciences, established by Vincent Massey, the country’s first Canadian-born Governor General. It was in this period of social, economic and cultural transformation that The Canadian Architect was launched.
The motivation for introducing a new architectural journal was explained in a short editorial simply titled “Why” in the premier issue. Founding editor and architect James A. Murray noted an anxiety that increased construction could very well be detrimental to the art of architecture. Murray vividly described the cause for concern—in terms only a mid-century editor in a male-dominated profession could: “[Construction] booms, with manic haste and rising costs, are notoriously destructive of good building, and an additional contemplative mirror may be particularly relevant when the pregnant conditions of our Mother of the Arts may have prejudiced her figure.”
Murray’s “additional contemplative mirror” referred to the RAIC Journal, then in its 30th year of publication. The Canadian Architect was to perform a different function than the RAIC Journal, which was slightly more international in scope. Both, however, would act as sounding boards to critical debate, reviewing recent projects and participating in architecture’s general discourse in order to allow for introspection among professional architects.
The magazine’s inaugural November/December 1955 issue, along with the subsequent 11 issues published over the course of 1956, provide a snapshot of Canadian architecture at mid-century. The content in that first year was by no means geographically comprehensive, focusing primarily on Ontario, followed far behind by British Columbia, with only a minimal amount of reporting on the built environment in Quebec, Alberta and the North. While the lack of balanced coverage was attributed to the size of the country, it was also due to the location of the magazine’s correspondents and contributing editors—by the end of the first year of publication, The Canadian Architect only had correspondents and editors in the major centres of Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
Geographic obstacles aside, The Canadian Architect’s coverage focused noticeably on presenting the advances in Modernism in this country. For decades, Canada had been in the architectural shadow of other countries, persistently derided for lagging behind contemporary stylistic developments. Architect John C. Parkin himself lamented that until as late as 1952 or 1953, Canada produced few noteworthy examples of contemporary architecture, with architects spending most of their time persuading and moulding the previously conservative public taste. But starting in earnest in the mid-1950s, that lag was no more. Architects had forged the way for cutting-edge Modernist designs.
A variety of building types were represented in the magazine’s first year. Not surprisingly given the time period, automotive-age architecture dominated: urban services like parking garages and airports, and recreation facilities and buildings supporting leisure activities, such as hotels and motels. The first “comprehensive presentation” (a monthly in-depth presentation of a single building or project) featured the roadside Seaway Hotel in Toronto, designed by Ants Elken, an internationally trained architect who had immigrated to Canada in 1949. The article described how structural and architectural principles that had never before been used in Canada produced an externally expressed concrete frame in an egg-crate pattern. The resultant bold patterning of the balconies was specifically designed to a scale that would register to motorists zipping along Lake Shore Boulevard. The hotel’s boomerang-shaped concrete canopy raised on pilotis was typical of the futuristic sensibilities of Mid-Century Modernist architecture throughout North America.
It is telling that a modestly scaled roadside hotel—one that we might now relegate to a lower rung on the ladder of architectural merit—would warrant pride of place in the inaugural issue of The Canadian Architect. Indeed, the Seaway Hotel was demolished in 2013 with little fanfare, but in its day, it was a winner of a Silver Massey Medal for Architecture. Similarly, other seemingly unassuming buildings were among the first reviewed. Architect Max Roth’s Steinberg’s Grocery Store in Sherbrooke, Quebec was included in the first issue with the headline “Architecture With a Punch.” The punch came from the strong visual impact of a swooping angular roof with a porcelain enamel fascia, and the building was shown to best effect with a dramatically lit evening shot. The trend towards design using lighting and colour was widely popular in 1950s architecture in both Europe and the Americas. The rediscovery of the space-shaping potential of light was considered one of the biggest architectural advances of its era, and Canada was committed to this design philosophy.
The Shell Oil Tower (later known as the Bulova Tower) on the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds in Toronto was another example of night architecture presented in the first issue. Opened in the summer of 1955, the observation tower was a striking emblem for the Shell Oil Company, and quickly became a landmark feature on Toronto’s skyline. In its original concept, architect George A. Robb designed a considerably more daring structure with stairs wrapping around the exterior of a glass and steel shaft—unfortunately, the design was muted in order to meet city building codes. Yet both the initial concept and the tower as built conveyed a futuristic vision, made even more dramatic through the reproduction of night images in The Canadian Architect.
While no single architectural firm dominated the pages of the 1955-1956 run, the Modernist designs of Parkin and Associates did appear in several issues, whereas most other architects were featured only once in the first year of publication. The use of fold-out pages to illustrate the long and low white-framed façade of Parkin’s Ortho Pharmaceutical plant and office building in Toronto conveyed a revolutionary outlook to architectural design in the industrial sector.
One cannot simply assume that the buildings and urban projects represented in the pages of The Canadian Architect’s first year were “best in show.” Rather, we can look at them as a time capsule of mid-century design and construction technologies in Canada—a time when the profession seemed more focused on catching up with international architectural trends as opposed to developing a nationally identified style. Canada’s march into the second half of the century marked the entrance into a new era of architecture, and The Canadian Architect was there to capture the spirit in words and pictures.
Architectural historian Sharon Vattay researches, writes about and teaches Canadian architecture and heritage conservation. She is an associate at GBCA Architects.