Modernism is Us report

In early May of this year, the first ever all-Canadian conference on modern heritage was held at Trent University in Peterborough, and focused on conservation issues pertaining to the buildings, ensembles and sites of Canada’s recent past. Organized by a working group made up of Canadian Docomomo chapters, Parks Canada, and the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, and supported by an advisory committee of academics and practitioners from across the country, the conference aimed at stimulating and reinforcing the national network of people working in the field of the “conservation of the recent past.”

About 100 attendees, ranging from architects to historians, conservators to planners, checked into Champlain College to relive authentic dormitory life and take part in the three-day conference with one of Canada’s modern architectural masterpieces as the backdrop. Trent University (Ron Thom, 1963-69) is of course a prescient site for this discussion precisely because it is now 40 years old and, naturally enough, in need of refurbishment. A discussion of the historic character of this place, contrasted with the recently completed contemporary buildings across the river, underscored the special need for continuing to develop cultural sensitivity surrounding our recent past.

History of the Movement

Conservation of works of this era is not a new idea, but this is the first time Canada has been able to call on its own critical mass of theorists, practitioners and cultural workers to host a conference on the subject. Three earlier events could be suggested as milestones towards this gathering.

A revelation for many, Toronto Modern, the exhibition and publication in 1987 organized by the Bureau of Architecture and Urbanism and born of the destruction of George Robb’s 1955 Shell Tower on the CNE grounds, legitimized the examination and celebration of local architectural culture of the postwar era.

Three years later in 1990, Docomomo International, the now famous European movement to “document and conserve the buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the modern movement” was established. The movement quickly galvanized activists worldwide to recognize and save iconic works of modern architecture. Their work on EU and international registers as well as detailed technical publications and conferences–all fostered by the insistence on local working groups–led to pioneer efforts in Canada, particularly in BC, Ontario and Quebec, to nominate Canadian sites to the international register during a 1995 campaign.

Finally, in 1995 and 2000, the National Parks Service in the US hosted major events on the conservation of the recent past in Chicago and in Philadelphia. The Preserving the Recent Past conferences were significant, high-profile events that mirrored the Docomomo efforts in technical and evaluation expertise, and allowed existing North American preservation organizations to adopt the recent past as a vital part of their own previously traditional mandates.

Through this lineage, the major issues dealing with the conservation of the recent past have been known for some time: the enormous shift from traditional to industrial technology represented on these sites; the neglect or often high degree of negative bias towards the buildings (with the public as well as practitioners); and the situation where long-term cultural decisions now need to be made without the critical distance which time and conventional historiography provide.

The Canadian conference touched on and updated all of these topics within our national context. We are now entering the challenging period when, strictly speaking, all of the Modern sites in Canada are now over 40 years old, and that simply by virtue of the volume of buildings represented by the era, the issues are now mainstream. The conference sessions were broken into three main themes: Documentation, Conservation and Education. In true Canadian form, the papers were presented in English or French at the preference of the presenter; no translation was provided.

Documentation and Evaluation

Work on documentation and evaluation continues on all fronts as students and professionals undertake more and more inquiries into postwar topics. Examples include the City of Edmonton’s soon to be completed Modern Historic Resource Inventory, a multi-year project to document and catalogue the postwar era sections of the city–particularly important to prairie cities that expanded rapidly in that period.

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Town of Ajax revives its particular unique history. Founded as an “instant” wartime production plant and managed through the immediate postwar period by the federal Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, it only became a fully recognized municipality in 1955. An examination of the early portions of the town reveals the CMHC templates that were developed and executed here, but which were later spread across the country.

One of our great contributions to prewar modern architectural culture is of course the concrete grain terminal. In 2001, Docomomo Quebec organized an architectural charrette to engage the public in re-evaluating the possibilities and value of Silo No. 5, an abandoned concrete behemoth in the port lands of Montreal. The results were enthusiastic and have led to the principle that this industrial remnant should be conserved as these lands become redeveloped. Evaluation sometimes needs radical solutions to deal with modern problems.

The documentation of postwar subjects can be significantly different than more traditional research. In contrast to standard archival searches, modern sites are frequently still being used for their original purpose and possibly by their original occupants. The designers may still be alive to be interviewed (carefully). The level of documentation for a project may be extraordinary–permits, municipal records, unedited architectural files, and other things that rarely survive from earlier periods. One of the challenges is to devise strategies that can effectively parse an overload of evidence–particularly in developing approaches to inventories and databases. At the same time, this data presents opportunities for unique analysis that simply do not exist for earlier periods.

Stewardship and Conservation

The conference presentations relating to issues of stewardship and conservation reflected the growing engagement of the postwar sites with issues of growth and adaptation of the surrounding contexts. Questions ranged from appropriate renovation strategies for typical high-rise apartments, to negotiating the redisposition of significant public art from one site to another, to rediscovering public spaces that had been “invisible in plain sight.” As an example of the need for stewardship, recent announcements regarding the possible “renovation” of Nathan Phillips Square at Toronto City Hall has led to calls from the architectural community for careful analysis to try and protect the potentially misunderstood intentions of the space.

Busby, Perkins + Will’s proposed renovations to the Buchanan Building complex at UBC (Thompson, Berwick & Pratt, 1958-60) is an example of enlightened life-cycle maintenance of an institutional project. On the surface, this work of examining building performance and systems updates appears almost routine. However, the recognition of cultural value coupled with LEED reviews has led to a sensitive and thorough analysis and appropriate intervention. Of note here is the fact that contemporary practitioners are the experts in handling these buildings from a technical standpoint. Further, architects trained in sustainable design principles are open to a multi-disciplinary conservation approach and are able to address issues of existing context and heritage as a matter of course. This presents whole new opportunities for collaborative work in existing contexts.


Time and again it was stressed at the confe
rence that positive experiences were achieved when the public and owners were given time to consider the value of the resources in question. That is, the initial reaction may be as one would expect–“you want to save what?”–but that upon reflection, people were generally willing to acknowledge that these sites are valuable and conservation efforts should be made.

Efforts at education and repositioning the heritage of the recent past continue to be the basis for gaining ground in the public mind. Docomomo.bc has had particular success with their online ( and CD publications. Also of note is ModernU, an exhibit and interactive website ( developed by Adrian Gllner that provides a refreshed interpretation of the modern aesthetic and programme of the campus of Carleton University in Ottawa.

In a similar vein, Atlantic Modern, an exhibit, website ( and recently published catalogue illustrates the enormous uncharted territory that this work still represents. The collecting, analysis and reflecting of local architectural culture is still a nascent project in many parts of the country. Curated by Steven Mannell and modelled on Toronto Modern and a 1996 companion project Images of Progress: Modern Architecture in Waterloo Region 1945–1995, Atlantic Modern proves the method of exhibition as cultural memory mechanism par excellence.

One of the highlights of the conference was the colloquium on Ron Thom on the first evening of the program. Provocative readings of the artist/architect were provided by Lisa Rochon, Marie-Jose Therrien and Siamak Hariri. On Massey College, Hariri humbly mused on his own ambitions for practice: “How does one create a building that is capable of nourishing hearts and minds for 45 years the way Thom has?”

Of course no architectural conference is complete without site tours, and in this case, a special bus tour of “Early Eb Zeidler” had been arranged. Immigrating to Peterborough in 1951, Zeidler built up a body of modernist work there before moving on to Toronto. Of note, he won the Massey Award in 1955 for the Hamilton House–his first residential commission in Canada!

The conference ended with the attendees energized and enthused that the first steps towards a nationwide community had been established. The organizers have committed to a publication of the proceedings and discussions were already underway about where the next conference venue should be. The quality of the ideas and work presented during the conference was encouraging. Equally exciting, the conference confirmed that this work is still new, evolving and vast–and that there is much yet to accomplish.

Parting Ideas

The modernist “break from history” provided the basic strategy which drove our postwar development. It is ironic (or is it the end of irony?) that the concern for the heritage of the modern movement–concern for conserving the buildings that represent the forces that created this schism–is becoming the means for consciously re-establishing the continuum of history, and with it, revealing again our cultural production as an ongoing conversation. If contemporary practice, be it under the banner of heritage or sustainability, actually takes on the stewardship of predecessors’ works, then we will have taken a big step indeed towards bolstering a unique cultural identity.

Ian Panabaker MRAIC is the Heritage and Urban Design Planner for the City of Guelph. For more information on the conference please visit