Founded on Factories
TEXT E Jay Beck
Waterloo Region, the 10th-largest population centre in Canada, has more Governor General’s Award-winning buildings (seven) than any city aside from Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. More than Winnipeg, more than Ottawa. The area includes significant exemplary works by the country’s top firms: from Patkau Architects and KPMB to Saucier + Perrotte and MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects. The premise of Building Waterloo Region–an ambitious multi-site series of exhibitions that opened this summer–is that this concentration of excellence is directly linked to the region’s architectural vernacular, which was born from the rapid spread of industry in the 19th century.
The eight parts of Building Waterloo Region revolve around three principal exhibitions: Ex Industria at the Idea Exchange, the gallery within the University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Cambridge; ReMade at the former post office on Gaukel Street in Kitchener; and No Small Plans at the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery in Waterloo. Additionally, there are five ancillary exhibitions, as well as public forums, walking tours and a lecture series. The institutions involved range from the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, where a number of faculty and students have been heavily invested in research and curating, to the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Grand River Transit and Waterloo Region Museum, among many others. This broad array of sites, partners and participants is significant because the exhibition aims to trigger a region-wide reawakening. The message is that there is a unique concentration of architectural excellence in this region that, until now, has not been fully appreciated.
Project co-curators Esther Shipman and Eric Haldenby trace the seeds of the endeavour to an exhibit called Images of Progress held 18 years ago, showcasing the area’s architecture from 1946 to 1996. The premise of that show was that the large-scale postwar redevelopment of Kitchener-Waterloo, along with a second wave of redevelopment in the 1980s, had causes beyond the baby boom and the expansion of transportation infrastructure.
“Waterloo Region starts with the mills,” Haldenby says, discussing how the thesis of Images of Progress is reprised in Ex Industria. The convergence of two large rivers was an ideal site for grist mills, which gave way to saw mills, then textile mills, which earned the area the moniker “the Manchester of Canada.” The arrival of the railway in the later decades of the 19th century made it more expedient to import raw materials and export products, while corporate consolidation throughout the region led to the construction of enormous factories.
Population and wealth grew, but the region remained dominated by industrial architecture. There was a social reason for this: the Mennonite owners of local businesses lived austerely and the towns they presided over produced little residential or cultural architecture of note. The factories, however, were a different story. The industrial buildings of the 19th and early 20th centuries were free-plan jewels of exposed timber and steel structure in concrete frames, punctured by enormous multipane windows. The fact that many survive to this day, still prevailing over the urban landscapes of Waterloo Region, testifies to the resources put into their construction.
Ex Industria makes the case, in simple and direct terms, that industrial architecture is the vernacular of Waterloo Region by using scaled-up maps and heroically sized photographs. These serve to remind local visitors of the predominance that their industrial past holds in the present. Forget civic centres and public squares–factories were the cornerstones of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge throughout this era.
Following the Second World War, International Style Modernism spread beyond North America’s leading metropolises and Waterloo Region was quick to embrace it. The ReMade exhibit, anchored by two illuminated and frenetically active 3D models pointing to the profusion of regional construction in this era, looks at how the industrial vernacular of the region meshed with Modernism in a series of key buildings. Almost all the selected examples are schools, almost all by the local firm Barnett and Rieder. One of these–Eastwood Collegiate, featuring glass and steel considered bold for the region–was published internationally.
The most enticing component of Building Waterloo Region is No Small Plans. Situated in Patkau Architects’ enduringly appealing Clay and Glass Gallery in Waterloo, this exhibition attempts to bring the thesis to the 1980s. The centrepiece of the room is a large-scale genealogical chart of contemporary Waterloo Region architecture. It designates Barton Myers’ Seagram Museum–a 17,000-square-foot, 40-foot-high room that formerly housed the Seagram Distillery–as the granddaddy that spawned the 1989 Kitchener City Hall competition, which itself launched a generation of construction from currently prominent firms. KPMB won the City Hall competition, citing the influence of Waterloo Region’s industrial vernacular as determinative of their Postmodern design; Alar Kongats went on to design the Hespeler Library, Saucier + Perrotte the Perimeter Institute, Stephen Teeple the University of Waterloo’s Matthews Hall–all of them groundbreaking projects (although the influence of industrial vernacular can seem abstract).
Small pavilions dot the space, focusing on individual buildings, displaying the expected drawings and models along with sharply produced video interviews that thoughtfully elucidate the ideas behind the designs and are a credit to the architects as well as the interviewers. The standout is the display focused on Kitchener City Hall, with its collection of original drawings and watercolours from the competition entries. The artistically rendered images are of their era, but any viewer who compares their hand-drawn warmth to the Frigidaire uniformity of today’s computer-generated images will think to herself: that was a better time.
Building Waterloo Region approaches, but does not does quite breach the present moment, when the grist mills, saw mills and textile mills have given way to high-tech mills. The region is currently transforming itself from the Manchester of Canada to Silicon Valley North. In the wake of Mennonite leadership, the titans of Blackberry enjoyed a long reign over the region’s economy, and are now ceding their place to a new generation of tech entrepreneurs. Companies from all over the world are setting up shop in close proximity to the University of Waterloo and its supply of star graduates–most notably Google, which occupies the former Lang Tannery and will shortly be expanding to the Breithaupt Block, formerly a rubber-manufacturing facility.
So far, these businesses have chosen to refurbish existing industrial buildings as their headquarters. Should their presence grow as expected, they will make their mark on the architectural culture of the region and join their predecessors in a long line of Waterloo Region’s builders. CA
Building Waterloo Region runs through to September. For more information and a schedule of events, please visit www.buildingwaterlooregion.ca.
E Jay Beck is an architectural journalist based in Toronto.