Changing Chairs

Photos Canadian Centre for Architecture

In December 2013, the Montreal-based Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) announced a change in its leadership. Phyllis Lambert, who founded the CCA in 1979 and has been Chair of its Board of Trustees since that time, has stepped down from this role. In her stead, she has appointed Bruce Kuwabara, founding principal of Toronto’s Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB) Architects, to the position of Chair. 

The appointment of a prominent architect as Chair suggests new opportunities for the CCA to connect with practitioners. When it first opened the doors of its Montreal building in 1989, scholarly research was at the heart of the CCA. Its study centre was a hub of activity, hosting researchers in residence throughout the year. Early exhibitions were often historical in focus, drawing heavily from the CCA’s own extensive archival, photographic and library collections. These included Le Panthéon: Symbol of Revolution (1989, curated by Barry Bergdoll), Ernest Cormier and the Université de Montréal (1990, curated by Isabelle Gournay and Phyllis Lambert), and Cities of Artificial Excavation: the work of Peter Eisenman, 1978-1988 (1994, curated by Jean François Bédard).

Since the appointment of Mirko Zardini to the role of Director and Chief Curator of the CCA in 2006, the institution has shifted its focus to place emphasis on present-day issues of architecture and urbanism. As a former editor of Italian journals Casabella and Lotus International, Zardini has made bold attempts to connect the CCA with broader discussions about the role of architecture and architects in contemporary society. For instance, the exhibition Imperfect Health (2011-2012, curated by Zardini with Giovanna Borasi) examined how architects, urban designers and landscape architects are proposing solutions to such issues as pollution, epidemics and obesity. 

As one of Canada’s leading architects, Kuwabara’s appointment presents fresh prospects for further expanding the reach and interests of this pre-eminent cultural institution. We asked Kuwabara about his new role and its implications for the CCA.

What are the key responsibilities of your new position as Chair of the CCA’s Board of Trustees?

I have been on the board for six years. As the Chair of the Board, I will be more deeply involved, providing input into board and committee membership, meeting schedules and agendas. The board currently meets twice a year so it is imperative that we have productive meetings, as our role is to support the vision and life of the CCA. The board fully supports the Director, Mirko Zardini, who is responsible for coordinating all of the activities of the CCA, working with a very talented team of Associate Directors and staff. Phyllis Lambert will maintain a passionate involvement at the CCA. She is only stepping down as the Chair of the Board.

I see my role as a public advocate for the CCA in terms of promoting its programs, people and achievements. This requires that I maintain a fairly intimate knowledge of how the place works and runs by staying in constant communication with its leadership team.

The CCA has several parts: it houses a collection of archival and library material, runs a study centre for scholars, acts as an international-calibre architecture museum, and operates a bookstore along with public programs. What do you see as its most important and relevant aspects moving into the 21st century?

Phyllis Lambert put in place much of what makes the CCA a remarkable cultural institution. The CCA does so many things at a very high level and at a standard that is recognized internationally. That said, every cultural institution needs to evolve and clarify its priorities and vision.

Mirko Zardini has made an extraordinary contribution as the Director for the last seven years. During this period, the CCA has developed a stronger online presence, more collaborative models for research and scholarship in its study centre, and relevant exhibitions which are focused on contemporary issues that connect design and living. Think of Sense of the City (2005-2006), or Actions: What You Can Do With the City (2008-2009, co-curated by Zardini and Borasi).

A lot of work and collective effort have been invested in breaking down the silos within the CCA between research, collections, exhibitions and publications. The CCA has exceptional content. Moving forward, the CCA will continue to integrate collection-based research with exhibitions and publications. Seminars and public lectures are strategically coordinated with the presentation and dissemination of content. The new way forward for the CCA is about integrated thinking on all fronts.

How can the institution become more open and accessible? Are there plans to draw in a wider audience?

The CCA is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2014. We want to renew the CCA presence in Montreal and abroad. We have connected to a growing online audience, and at the same time, we want to attract people to spend time at the CCA in the presence of drawings, models, books, objects, photographs and videos. It is one of the very special places in the world for anyone who truly loves architecture and design. Come and spend a day at the CCA in the library, bookstore, galleries and grounds, and you will experience the pleasure of thinking about design and the world we inhabit.

We also want to think of the public lectures as a draw, recognizing the premium experience that these live events offer. For example, the recent conversation between Phyllis Lambert and Liz Diller was a remarkable encounter that brought together two outstanding women talking about architecture, their practices, and their work on major projects in New York–the Seagram Building and Lincoln Center. The quality of real-time face-to-face experience cannot be replicated on YouTube, because the aura and immediacy of the conversation and the receptivity and response of the audience cannot be felt. 

I have always wished that history and theory would be an essential part of the continuing education programs of our provincial and national associations and institutes. In this vein, the CCA would be a content provider. Too many practitioners are too focused on what they consider to be the pressing issues of practice: technology, legal questions, procurement processes, increasing claims, and so on. These are important, but there is a growing imbalance between theory, design and practice. The CCA has the potential to integrate knowledge and thinking across boundaries within education and practice.

Does the CCA have expansion plans or proposals for creating satellite institutions in Toronto or elsewhere?

The CCA is firmly rooted in Montreal in a building designed to the highest standards by Peter Rose and Phyllis Lambert, within an urban landscape of lawns and with a garden designed by the late Melvin Charney. It is a handsome building that has a formidable presence wrapped around the Shaughnessy House. We can begin to reimagine the CCA in that setting with a changing agenda of accessibility and sustainability that welcomes people onto the site. The CCA also has fascinating programs that welcome different types of audiences every week; we would like to continue this. 

Many of the CCA’s exhibitions travel to other important venues. The Archaeology of the Digital exhibition is going to Yale University next February; Architecture in Uniform (2011, curated by Jean-Louis Cohen) will be reinstated and presented next April at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine in Paris, and after that at the MAXXI in Rome. Actions
: What You Can Do With the City
(2008-2009) was requested by the São Paulo Biennial 2013 and a special archival version was prepared, and 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas (2007) is still being requested six years since the original exhibition was displayed at the CCA. 

I think that any of the exhibitions dealing with contemporary living would draw an audience in other cities such as Toronto, New York or London. The CCA has always operated on an international scale while based in Montreal. In my mind, this is a strength of the CCA, and a model that demonstrates possibilities that are uniquely Canadian.

We are constantly increasing collaborations with other universities, professional associations, industry leaders, and cultural institutions. The CCA is opening up to new possibilities, but not without understanding the critical issues as they pertain to the CCA’s position in any specific initiative. 

Many of the CCA’s recent major exhibitions have had an international focus, with the notable exceptions of ABC:MTL and The 60s: Montréal Thinks Big. How do you see the CCA balancing between the international, national and local interests of its exhibitions and collections?

The desire to advance the discourse on architecture in Canada and to connect it to the international debate has always driven the CCA’s agenda. 

The CCA has the capacity and imagination to create exhibitions that focus on a range of ideas. After all, it is really all about architecture and urbanism. Mirko’s exhibitions broaden the subjects to contemporary issues and phenomena with shows like Sorry, Out of Gas. I believe that the CCA will continue to be both locally and internationally relevant. 

Also, several of the new Associate Directors at the CCA were attracted to Montreal from prestigious institutions in Europe. In a global context, I think that this relationship between particular and universal themes and content, and between Canadians and people from around the world make the CCA a much stronger, more complex, and more vibrant cultural institution.

What is the financial health of the CCA? What measures will you consider taking as Chair to ensure the institution’s ongoing viability?

Every academic and cultural institution in North America took a big hit following the economic meltdown in 2008. The financial health of the CCA, like many institutions, depends on the health of its endowment. I can say that the CCA is in recovery mode and is in relatively good financial shape, thanks to focused, dedicated leadership by key members of the board and by the performance of the CCA’s investment consultants. 

The financial crisis forced a rethinking of priorities for the CCA given the limits of a decreased budget. Under the leadership of Mirko Zardini, the CCA has done more with less for many years. At the same time, it has reorganized the institution from within, clarifying the internal structure of the institution and roles of the leadership team. A lot of productive work has been directed to developing policies in the area of human resources. In short, the relationship between available funding and the CCA’s primary programs was balanced while making the institution stronger and more resilient. 

The board addressed a lot of issues during the last five years about the vision of the CCA. Although many questions were asked, the institution remains focused on its mission to be a leading global centre of research and scholarship, exhibitions and publications, and a voice on architectural and urban concerns.

As a practitioner, I see tremendous value in the CCA as a place where scholars and people who love architecture can expect to engage architecture. Architecture and urbanism have increasingly become topics of public interest and debate, and the CCA is a leading agency for ideas and presentation. As you can see, the CCA is in a good place. And there is a lot more work to be done, and a lot to think and dream about.