Editorial: Sesquicentennial Spin-offs

Happy 150th birthday, Canada! As July 1 approaches, celebrations from coast-to-coast are materializing—from themed art exhibitions to free national park access.

The federal government is spending half a billion dollars on the sesquicentennial, and the lion’s share is going towards construction. The $300-million Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program (CIP 150) was first announced in 2015. It’s one of three key funding pools for Canada 150, alongside programs to support large-scale celebrations and community-oriented activities, respectively.

But little of this funding will be seen by architects. CIP 150 is geared towards the rehabilitation and renovation of existing structures, rather than new builds. A broad range of projects qualify: from cultural centres and museums to bike paths, golf courses, local airports and wastewater infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the deployment of the program has seemed rushed. Municipalities were given only a month to apply after the program’s announcement, and preference was expressed for projects that could be completed by the end of 2017. These criteria limited submissions to construction-ready, mostly smaller-scale initiatives.

It’s a far cry from the solid architectural under-takings commemorating Canada’s centennial in 1967. Architecture was a key part of Canada’s 100th anniversary celebrations, with modernist arts centres and museums erected across the country, from the Fathers of Confederation Memorial Buildings in Charlottetown, PEI, to the Vancouver Centennial Planetarium and Museum. These avant-garde buildings announced, as scholars Marco Polo, FRAIC and Colin Ripley, MRAIC put it, that “Canada and Canadian culture would be about the future, about new forms and new ideas.”

The Commission’s architectural efforts were conceived to establish lasting impact at both community and national levels, through two major building programs. The first provided funds to municipalities to support cultural and recreational projects, such as libraries. The second gave each province an amount dedicated to a single cultural project of a lasting nature. The latter resulted in landmark works such as the Grand Théâtre de Québec, by Victor Prus, and the Centennial Centre for Science and Technology in Toronto, by Raymond Moriyama, FRAIC.

Selected projects opening this year do have a national mandate. The grandest of these is Diamond Schmitt Architects’ renovation and expansion of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa—a building whose original construction was partly funded by a special grant from the federal Centennial Commission. It will be reopening on July 1. The $225-million cost is being footed by the federal government, outside of CIP 150. The Bank of Canada Museum will also reopen this year, in a plaza adjoining the renovated Bank of Canada, by Perkins+Will. Montreal is simultaneously celebrating its 375th anniversary, and recently opened the newest pavilion of its Museum of Fine Arts, by Atelier TAG and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes, as part of its festivities.

However, the majority of projects funded under CIP 150, in the end, seem to be expanded trails, resurfaced running tracks, rehabilitated playgrounds, re-roofed arenas and the like. These improvements will no doubt be of value to many communities. But are they up to the task of marking a landmark anniversary?

Fifty years ago, the creation of a legacy through building wasn’t a question of money alone. The Centennial Commission’s total spending for buildings and cultural programming was about $85 million—roughly $600 million in today’s dollars, comparable to the spending for Canada 150.

In 1967, the crucial decision to focus part of this spending on a dozen noteworthy buildings resulted in a built heritage that would endure. In 2017, funds are being lavished on one spectacular building—the National Arts Centre—along with a patchwork of minor improvements. Canada could do better in creating a truly national architectural legacy to remember with pride 50 years down the line.