Goodbye to all that

In November of 2011, when Colin Ripley and I embarked on our research for an exhibition on Canada’s Centennial projects, the sesquicentennial seemed far in the future. Now, as we find ourselves approaching the end of 2017, our work on the exhibition has left us so immersed in the Centennial that the current anniversary has barely registered.

We conceived Architecture and National Identity: The Centennial Projects 50 Years On to explore and reflect on the central role of architecture in the Centennial celebrations. In addition to the Expo 67 extravaganza, two major buildings of national significance were completed: the Fathers of Confederation Memorial Buildings in Charlottetown  and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Beyond these high-profile projects, the nation’s 100th birthday helped generate close to 900 building projects, completed with the support of the Centennial Grants Program and the Confederation Memorial Program. Some of these were—and remain—highly visible institutions, such as the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg, the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, the Grand Théâtre de Québec in Quebec City and the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s. But many more are unsung, underappreciated parts of the fabric of everyday life for Canadians in towns across the country. They are the hockey rinks, libraries, schools, parks, community centres and local museums that for 50 years have been central to public life.

Centennial Museum and H.R. MacMillan Planetarium, Vancouver, 1967-68, by Gerald Hamilton and Associates Architects; with sculpture The Crab, by George Norris
Centennial Museum and H.R. MacMillan Planetarium, Vancouver, 1967-68, by Gerald Hamilton and Associates Architects; with sculpture The Crab, by George Norris

Over the years, many Centennial projects have been abandoned or radically transformed, often unhappily. Others have lost their identity as Centennial projects, renamed to honour a corporate donor or some other new priority. A recent example is the divisive and mercifully unsuccessful bid to rename Centennial Stadium in Etobicoke, Ontario in honour of late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. That a proposal to rename a Centennial project was made in the sesquicentennial year shows how much their commemorative function has fallen from public consciousness.

For architects, it’s hard not to look back to the Centennial year as a golden age. Our profession helped establish a new Canadian identity, one that embraced optimism for the future. While 1967 positioned architecture as key to establishing a Centennial legacy, 2017 has been essentially the opposite. Other than the high-profile renovation and renewal of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, architecture and design have been conspicuously absent from the Canada 150 celebrations.

We should be careful, however, not to idealize what Pierre Berton called “the last good year.” In 2017, we have been more inclined to ask: good for whom? The country is in a subuded mood these days, taking a more critical view of the role of Confederation in the lives of Canada’s Indigenous people. In 1967, amid the celebrations, the “Sixties Scoop”—mass removal of of Indigneous children from their homes, often for adoption by non-Indigenous families—was in full force, and residential schools were still in operation. Political tensions in Québec were increasing and would soon culminate in the violence of the 1970 October crisis and the imposition of the War Measures Act.

At the 1960 AGM of the Royal Architectural Insitute of Canada, when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker exhorted architects to join the commemoration project, he invoked the “two great national stocks which joined together to make Confederation possible,” clearly referring to the French and British, excluding the Indigenous population and oblivious to the emerging multicultural identity that would characterize Canada in its second century. The architectural community that built the country’s Centennial legacy was itself representative of that new identity and included several new Canadians: Dimitri Dimakopoulos from Greece; Fred Lebensold and Victor Prus from Poland; Moshe Safdie from Israel; and first-generation Canadians Raymond Moriyama and Kiyoshi Izumi, among others.

But that’s another story—perhaps one for our Bicentennial year, when the next generation will cast a critical eye on everything we got right and wrong.

Marco Polo, FRAIC is co-curator and co-author with Colin Ripley of “Architecture and National Identity: The Centennial Projects 50 Years On.”