Book Review: Canada—Modern Architectures in History

Canada’s history is an urban history—as well as a modern one—whose roots began towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway was completed. With the business of exploiting natural resources established, Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe and Michelangelo Sabatino describe in their book’s opening chapter how “the Canadian mindset towards its vast natural assets expanded from the source of profit to embrace constructs of aesthetic and identity.”

It is this underlying “geographic imperative” of Canada’s architectural history that explains why the planning of mining communities like Asbestos, Quebec provides greater insight than a visit from Alvar Aalto, or how the Massey Medals helped define our sense of modernity. These are the kinds of preoccupations that move through this richly illustrated and smartly written book’s narrative arc.Canada: Modern Architectures in History

As the authors’ account of Canadian architecture evolves within the context of political and cultural themes, so too does their discussion concerning a national architectural identity. For Windsor-Lisbombe and Sabatino, Canadian architecture comprises a series of recognizable regional identities coalescing into expressive built forms. Key themes in shaping the distinctiveness of Canada’s built environment range from postwar suburban and industrial growth to urban intensification, environmental sustainability and the strengthening of social cohesion through ambitious urbanism.

Canada: Modern Architectures in History. McCarter and Nairne rendering of Main Vancouver Post Office, 1953-58.
McCarter and Nairne rendering of Main Vancouver Post Office, 1953-58.

Readers will not be surprised to learn about the complex interrelationships between architecture, infrastructure, landscape and urbanism across seven well-researched chapters, each representing a clearly defined historical period. But what one may not expect is the book’s purposeful, yet playful, approach to scholarship. The authors make excellent use of marketing materials, government reports, public exhibitions and building product advertisements from the Second World War to the present day. This material forms a strong contextual basis for analyzing the more traditional reviews and extant scholarly research on Canadian projects over the decades.

Student project, 1945, in Journal of Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, 1945.
Student project, 1945, in Journal of Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, 1945.

As the book makes clear, Canadian architecture has largely eschewed exceptionalism for appropriateness. Nowhere is this described more succinctly than in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 1972 message in Progressive Architecture magazine. The former Prime Minister states: “As our cities grow, we shall demand of our architects a sensitive interpretation of society’s needs as well as the eloquent architectural statement. The day of the individual building is over; our concerns are in building communities that offer enrichment and increased choice to their citizens.”

Canada: Modern Architectures in History is an excellent resource, setting the tone for a living history and an ever-evolving Canadian architectural legacy.


Canada: Modern Architectures in History, Reaktion BooksBy Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe and Michaelangelo Sabatino

Ian Chodikoff, FRAIC is a former editor of Canadian Architect.