Continental Kit

Over the past fifteen years, the education of architects and the practice of architecture in Canada have been continentalized. Please make that “Lincoln Continentalized”–as both professional registration and academic accreditation for Canadian architects have gotten bigger, slicker, more powerful, and ever more All-American. Nobody drives McLaughlin Buicks made in Oshawa anymore, and for good and for ill, we have all taken a ride in that big, prestigious automobile, free to practice and study wherever the Trans-Canada and Interstate Highway Systems take us. Yes, architects’ registration and education is still “assembled in Canada,” but what has been gained and what has been lost in this under-debated shift to American models? Roll down those chrome-framed electric windows, hit one of those push-button automatic gear selectors, and see what I have found in Canadian architecture’s new “Continental Kit.”

The car-making metaphor is a good one, as the Canada-United States Auto Pact of 1964 was the prototype for the 1989 Free Trade Agreement, where, as an almost accidental afterthought, architecture was thrown in as the test profession for continental standards and removal of barriers to practice (for the record, nearly 15 years later, there is almost no progress towards a similar continentalization of the practice of law or medicine). Canadian registered architects now fill out forms and pay a fee or two, then hang out their shingles without bothering with Green Cards or visas in any of the Lower 48, plus Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico.

One of the key actors in architectural education’s shift is the University of Waterloo’s Rick Haldenby. He mentions that a continental shift was thought at the time to be the first stage of a switch to global standards, and one that has not occurred as anticipated: “We have followed the American model. There was a feeling generally that this was going to represent not just a continental but an international model, but the rest of the world has gotten along without it.” Currently and typically, there are more barriers to the practice of architecture between Canadian provinces than there is between our country and the United States.

Cases in point are the continuing professional education systems that have sprouted across the country in the past few years. Many Canadian provinces do not recognize continuing professional education credits earned elsewhere in this country. All of them seem skewed towards courses dealing with the technical, business and legal aspects of architectural practice, with little continuing education dedicated to urban design or the humanistic side of architecture. The dean of the Canadian profession, Arthur Erickson, is currently engaged in a dispute with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia over its continuing education policies and practices.

With a half-generation of experience, it is now time to speculate on how the practice and culture of architecture in Canada have been reshaped by the institutional shift to professional licensing and school accreditation standards. Yes, there was a time before NCARB, NAAB, CCAC and the alphabet soup of other organizations and examinations established to create the same standards for the training and practice of architecture from the Florida Keys to Iqaluit to Victoria to San Diego.

Creeping Credentialism

Conforming to the American system after the FTA and NAFTA agreements, there are now three components (the three ‘E’s)to the licensing of architects in Canada: education (recognized degrees in architecture from accredited programs), experience (a 3-year sequence covering the range of professional activities, documented in supervised log books), and examination (the arduous NCARBs, an expensive computer- administered sequence of high level professional examinations).

In practical terms, what does Canadian architecture’s creeping credentialism mean to those who want to be empowered to design our most important buildings? For one, it now takes more time and money to become a licensed architect that it does to become a medical doctor, and there is little evidence the public good is being protected by heightened standards in each of these three ‘E’s. In terms of “education,” a three to four-year undergraduate degree is followed by a three, but more realistically four-year stint in one of Canada’s ten professional architecture programs. Almost nobody completes this phase before age 25, and most are over 30, sometimes burdened with student loan debts over $50,000.

Next comes the “experience” phase, for which the traditional architectural nomenclature of “apprentice” has been replaced by the corporate concept of “intern.” The Architectural Institute of British Columbia has new–and deeply disturbing–data about what “internship” now means, in practical terms.1 Indicative of how the new credentialism truncates the active careers of architects, the average age of a BC intern is 37 and rising yearly, because relatively fewer and fewer go on to full registration. By contrast, acclaimed Vancouver architect Peter Cardew had graduated, then designed, built, and published in Architectural Design magazine an innovative “School for Spastics” in his native England, all before he turned 25.

There are now only 3.2 registered architects for every intern in BC, and if trends continue, within several decades there will be more interns than the long-stable total of 1340 legally empowered to call themselves “architects” in BC. The average intern does not even take out a log book until five years after graduation. What is worse, many more graduates never take out a log book at all. Fully aware of this growing crisis, AIBC is marketing itself to students and new graduates in an attempt to get them interested in professional affairs earlier. Other provinces should follow their lead in trying to deliver programming such as lectures, exhibitions and design competitions relevant to graduates who have not yet replaced their idealism with careerism.

While UBC and most other Canadian architecture schools have had 40-50% female enrollment for the past twenty years, today only 10% of BC architects are women, a percentage that has not increased in recent years. This dismal total may be slipping further, as many women see no reason to renew their licenses after pausing to start young families. While their communities have some of the world’s highest birthrates with a concomitant demand for culturally sensitive housing, offices and schools, Canadian schools of architecture graduated only one full-status Native during the entire decade of the 1990s.

One of the biggest impediments to more equitable growth in the architectural profession is the daunting string of NCARB examinations. The NCARB system was developed in the United States three decades ago to allow reciprocity between states that are statutorily empowered to regulate professions just like Canadian provinces. From this experience, “Boddy’s First Law of Creeping Credentialism” can be noted: when organizations link, there is always a tendency to adopt the higher of whichever standards prevail, whether this results in public good or not. The net result of the ever more credentialized three ‘E’s is that Canadian architects are even more badly paid, male, middle-aged, and good at passing computer-delivered examinations. Moreover, corporate firms have never had the power within professional bodies that they do today.

Vancouver architect Patricia Bourque has developed a personal perspective on the continentalization–and concomitant credentialization–of Canadian architecture. Inspired by former RAIC president and Vancouver architect Eva Matsuzaki, Bourque is one of the most active women in Canadian professional affairs, serving on the Canadian Architectural Certification Board for six years, and visiting half of this country’s schools of architecture on accreditation teams. A 1977 UBC graduate, Bourque’s efforts were recognized by the AIBC’s 2003 “Certificate of Recognition Award” for service to the profession.

Bourque thinks the current licensing system is
dysfunctional, stating her own view clearly in a recent interview: “I got registered to do business, and to get liability insurance–and for no other reason.” Her AIBC Council, CACB and NAAB experience has resulted in her now calling for “one national regulator of architectural licensing and continuing professional education for all provinces. The current system means we have reciprocity in theory, but without true portability.”

Bourque is married to Willy Bruegger, a Swiss-born architect educated at Zurich’s ETH, considered one of the world’s most acclaimed schools of architecture for more than a century. Because the institution was not listed on the accredited list by CACB, it took Bruegger’s most determined effort to even get started in AIBC’s intern system. Bourque has two sibling architects and “a father who was into history, and a mother who was an early feminist–every time we moved into a new kitchen, she would yell ‘No woman ever designed THIS room!'” Bourque’s brother Phil is a 1975 graduate of TUNS, and now a sole practitioner in Calgary.

Her sister Julia is a 1985 graduate of UBC and was an excellent student. Like many of her generation, she has never taken out a log book, but has nonetheless produced some fine house designs. According to Patricia, “My sister had three kids early, and very few women like her ever get back on the professional wagon.” Her husband and classmate Mark Potter is a naturally gifted designer who has worked for Erickson, Ron Thom and Douglas Cardinal. Despite this impressive CV, he was forced to leave conventional practice for stints as a staffer in the real estate departments of Canadian Tire and The Bank of Nova Scotia “because I could not raise kids in Toronto on what architects get paid.” He is currently a senior project manager on the Pearson International Airport expansion.

Forgotten Schools of Thought

The continentalization of Canadian architectural education soon followed the shifts in professional licensing standards, and was fully implemented by the early 1990s. This is a subject of particular interest for me, as I am the only person alive who has held full-time teaching appointments at four Canadian schools of architecture, five if I had accepted a tenure-track position at TUNS in 1982 instead of focusing on practice. I have lectured and reviewed student projects at all of the remaining Canadian schools, with the exception of my alma mater: the University of Calgary.

For Canadian architecture schools in the 1980s, it was a time of anarchy and differing standards, but also a time of creativity and innovation. Up to the early 1970s, a kind of gentleman’s club had existed with cozy inspections by the mild chaps from the Commonwealth Association of Architects. Their visits were informal–without uniform criteria or mechanisms of enforcement. For most of the decade before I started my 12 years of full-time teaching in 1983, most Canadian schools had received no independent review.

Things got very strange in our schools back then, enforced by a lack of new appointments, a rapidly aging professoriate, and that most deadly and eternal disease in the cloisters of Canadian architectural academe: the full-time teacher of architecture. These were and are architects who taught–often with dedication or at least with earnestness–but who had no building (designs constructed or exhibited) or intellectual practices (books and articles published) whatsoever, just way too much teaching.

Canadian schools came to resemble the professors from which they were composed: tenured, well-paid, overwhelmingly nice guys–and they were also, overwhelmingly, guys–who contributed little to the state of their profession or knowledge about the built environment, being free to squabble and empire-build with almost no outside intervention. With less unionism and tougher tenure standards, American architecture professors had to work much harder for their jobs. Tour the stacks of your library and look for books published by Canadian architecture professors between 1970 and 1995 and weep, then weep some more when looking at the lists of Massey and Governor General’s medal winners. This scene had to end.

Nonetheless, there was a kind of nutty vitality within these isolated academic castles, and by the early 1980s there was probably a wider range of approaches to architectural education amongst Canada’s ten schools of architecture than the United States’ 114. This sometimes resulted in innovative approaches–such as Peter Prangnell’s early U of T years, and Essy Baniassad’s at TUNS–and sometimes this resulted in squabbling and foolishness.

Schools had their ethos and links: UBC was a satellite of the fuzzy-wuzzy, Christopher Alexander side of the University of California at Berkeley, while Calgary–and to some degree the Universit de Montral–picked up on the same university’s “environmental design” social scientism: Calgary used to require high-level statistics as a mandatory course, while building structures classes were optional. At the other end of the spectrum was Carleton, with its strong links to the John Hejduk-era pedagogy at New York City’s Cooper Union, and a taste for the metaphysical initiated by Alberto Prez-Gmez, and maintained by his protg(e)s.

Having the same outlook, teaching the same courses, and even using the same studio design problems a couple of times, I went from the context of UBC–where I was thought to be an esoteric formalist–to the context of Carleton–where I was thought to be a lunch-bucket pragmatist, so different were their conceptions of architectural education. While they have slightly different flavours, today there is now an industrial-grade uniformity amongst Canadian schools of architecture. The last word on this topic is best reserved for Haldenby: “The good old days weren’t so good!”

This Business of Architectural Culture

There is little doubt for me that the continentalization of practice has made good business sense for Canadian architects. We have a more global outlook than Americans and our architects possess higher levels of both formal learning and street smarts than our hyper-specialized, careerist-to-a-fault cousins down south. Our large and medium-sized firms in particular have taken advantage of these new freedoms, and compete successfully across this continent and around the world.

But Canadian architectural culture–in mild and melancholy crisis ever since its peak just after EXPO 67–has suffered, no matter what business success our commercial firms have known. My position is that problems in Canadian architectural culture are now so severe as to even inhibit progress on the business front; it makes dollars-and-cents sense to boost our brightest and most innovative designers and thinkers. If we continue to affect our best and brightest, we will hurt our profession as a whole.

To name but one of the many issues before us, the marginality of Canada to world architectural media has left us a talented but unloved country cousin. Given the talent and innovation amongst our architects, we remain a ghostly Great White North to our peers, and perhaps more importantly, to our potential clients both here and abroad. After a quarter-century of writing about contemporary Canadian architecture, I have never had a wider range of first-rank talent to render into parades of words and images, but also have never had so few places to publish them. Tellingly, London’s Architectural Review is currently preparing one of its periodic special issues on Canada, but guest-edited and largely written by a Brit who has lived in the United States for the past 20 years.

The biggest tragedy is that Canadian architects are unloved by some at home. This is nowhere more evident than in Toronto, which increasingly doles out its most prestigious university and cultural building commissions to imported ‘starchitects’–all too often for less than stellar designs. Admittedly, these high profile commissions are but a narrow band in the broad spectrum of total construction spending, but exceedingly important when it comes to prestige and self-image for our architectur
al culture.

The fact that the Royal Ontario Museum saw fit to only name one Canadian–Bing Thom–on its first long list of 20 international architects, speaks volumes. What kept the Patkaus, Dan Hanganu, Arthur Erickson, Saucier+Perrotte, KPMB, Kohn Shnier and others off that flawed long list? At very least, most of us would concur with Haldenby, who says–in characteristic Central Canadian understatement: “Thorsell set up the competition with insufficient rigour.”

Santiago Calatrava, Thom Mayne, Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Will Alsop and others have received plum Toronto commissions. Departing dean at University of Toronto’s al&d, Larry Richards was crucially involved in opening up the selection processes for the first two of these (fine projects, co-authored with talented Toronto associates), and was peripherally involved with a number of the others. Again, what Haldenby says about the Richards era at the school might apply to our largest city’s broader culture of architecture: “Larry has taken Toronto on an internationalist, intellectual direction.”

Haldenby contrasts his view of Toronto with what he calls Waterloo’s “building competence,” with its co-operative education model lining up stints in firms as part of its pedagogy, a building integration studio in the fourth year, the whole educational sequence concluding with a research-based thesis.

At the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design, this is The Return of the King time, with George Baird returning from Harvard on July 1 to direct the school where he taught for a quarter-century. Many of us hope Baird will be the perfect antidote to Toronto’s creeping credentialist plague. The situation in Montreal is scarcely better. McGill Architecture has made itself something of a “Family Compact,” with most of its core teaching staff now holding prior degrees from the same university.

All this said, there is some cause for hope. Under Visual Arts chief Franois Lachappelle and current Architecture Officer Brigitte Desrochers, the Canada Council is supporting research, writing and exhibition of architecture in this country as never before. Their insistence on dissemination of results–much fine work produced previously was never presented to the public–has led to a blossoming of new scholarship and design investigation.

Studying the Canada Council’s last few lists of award recipients in architecture is informative. Picked by juries of peers balanced as to region, sex, age and so on, nearly half the grants in the past few cycles have gone to Vancouverites. Calgary, Winnipeg and Quebec are all as prominent on these lists as is the absence of Ontario and Anglo- Montreal, given their concentrations of population and architectural talent. With the eyes of our two largest metropoles currently locked on the stars, the cause of architectural culture in Canada now follows a different arc, from the west coast through the prairies to francophone Quebec and the Maritimes. Personally, I believe the “branch plant mentality” that now deforms architectural culture in Central Canada will soon pass.

The greatest cause for optimism is the quality of the generation of Canadian architects under the age of 40. Every city has a line of hot young designers, intellectual precocious products of our schools, who chose to work here, sometimes after stints abroad, experiences of exile that only make them more committed to an original architecture for Canada. Of the 30 innovative designers of buildings I wrote about in the pages of The Vancouver Sun in 2003, less than half are licensed architects, and one-quarter are not bothering with the internship/log book/NCARB system at all.

A Strategic Conclusion

To close the two themes of this essay, almost none of this generation under 40 is registered, and surprisingly few of them even have log books or bother to prepare for their NCARB examinations. This is the last and most absurd of our crises; that the creeping credentialism of seven to nine years of university, followed by three years of internship, followed by an almost pointless series of difficult exams is effectively removing our greatest talents from calling themselves “architects.” Almost no one passes through these hurdles before age 30, and many are over 40, with student loans due on meagre salaries; no wonder so many are tempted to real estate, development, government, new media and entertainment industries. Any profession that excludes its best and brightest is doomed to failure, and Canadian architecture lurches into a crevasse that widens even further.

Something must be done, and quick. I urge all of our provincial, and now territorial licensing boards to follow the lead of a number of American states, and install two categories for our profession. The name “architect” can and should be used for anyone who has graduated from an accredited architecture program. The name “registered architect” should apply to those who wish to be designers of record for anything larger than a duplex, along with the full force of professional regulation, a scaled-back Canadian version of NCARBs, full liability and its coverage in universal insurance, continuing education and the like. Architecture in Canada needs a big tent–let’s make room for all of us, because, dammit, it’s cold out there!

Trevor Boddy has taught at four Canadian universities and in Belgium, the United States, Panama, United Arab Emirates and Brazil. Currently, he is preparing a monograph and exhibition on the work of Clifford Wiens. He is the architecture critic and civic columnist for The Vancouver Sun. He can be contacted at

1 See Architecture BC Summer 2003, for an article on the topic by AIBC Deputy Registrar Wendy Grandan.