Confederation Centre for the Arts

The Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, PEI.
The Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, PEI. Photo by Art James, reprinted from The Canadian Architect, November 1964

TEXT Marco Polo and Colin Ripley

In June 1960, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, addressing the 53rd Annual Assembly of the RAIC, called for some assistance from the architectural profession:

In a few short years this nation will be celebrating its Centennial…I ask that you, the members of this profession, should play a most important part, and… present to the Centennial Committee as soon as possible your views and suggestions for this celebration; something to touch the hearts of Canadians, something to represent the unity of our country…

By the time of Diefenbaker’s address, a grassroots movement was already in progress looking for ways to celebrate the upcoming 1967 Centennial of Confederation. Frank MacKinnon, principal of Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown, PEI, had been promoting the construction of a memorial of national significance to mark the centenary of the first Confederation Conference, held in Charlottetown’s Province House in 1864. MacKinnon assembled a national board to assist him in this effort, and in May 1961 a national design competition for the project was announced, now envisioned as a significant cultural facility on a key downtown site directly adjacent to Province House. The 47 submissions included an extraordinary monumental scheme by a young Raymond Moriyama, FRAIC, and a fantastic futuristic proposal by John B. Parkin Associates, which received a Mention. The winning scheme, by Dimitri Dimakopoulos of Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise, was unveiled in Ottawa in January 1962.

As the first of Canada’s Centennial projects, the Fathers of Confederation Memorial Buildings set an important precedent for subsequent Centennial buildings, both in terms of their cultural program and their adoption of a Brutalist idiom. The programmatic elements—library, theatre and art gallery—are expressed as discrete volumes rising from a podium elevated above street level and surrounding, on three sides, the dominant void of Memorial Hall on the concourse below, with its fourth side facing Province House. While the material treatment and height of the new complex defer to the historic building and the intimate scale of Charlottetown (the new buildings are clad in Wallace sandstone from the same Nova Scotia quarry that supplied the stone for the original building), the complex as a whole suggests a more aloof relationship to its setting. The massing does not address the surrounding streets, but instead defines a fortress protectively enveloping the activities it encloses.

Even though the Fathers of Confederation Memorial Buildings do not adopt the rough, unfinished concrete expression usually associated with Brutalist architecture, their massive volumetric forms and aloofness to context has led to their characterization as representative of this movement. The text accompanying their 2003 designation as a National Historic Site notes that they are “a superior example of Brutalist architecture in Canada.”

Brutalism was subsequently embraced by many of the architects designing Canada’s 1967 Centennial Projects. Its anti-historical, anti-hierarchical informality came to be understood as an appropriate expression for a Canada that was shedding its colonial past to forge a new identity as a culturally progressive, democratically transparent and independent modern nation.

Marco Polo, FRAIC, and Colin Ripley, MRAIC, are professors in Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science and co-curators of Architecture and National Identity: The Centennial Projects 50 Years On.