On the Road With Rochon

Interviewer Ian Chodikoff

Last fall, architecture critic Lisa Rochon released her much-anticipated book Up North: where Canada’s architecture meets the land. In a recent interview, Rochon discussed some of her ideas behind the essays and interviews that identify and examine our relationship with the landscape and the buildings we construct and inhabit. A well-researched project, Up North often takes on a personal tone as Rochon zigzags across the country to speak with the many people that contribute to our architectural culture. The following interview brings to the forefront some of the more significant aspects of Rochon’s examination of the history and development of Canadian architecture.

As an architecture critic, you find yourself writing for a variety of readers. How did this experience as a critic and advocate form a rationale to write a book that is for both a general and professional audience?

LR Having been an architecture critic for The Globe and Mail for about five years, I have realized that there is a remarkably intelligent audience out there that is very sophisticated about what it wants from architecture and what it will be demanding in the future. This includes both professional architects and the so-called lay public. And yet, I felt that up until now, most architecture publications in this country have been largely vanity press monographs that sometimes suffer from inherent self-aggrandizement and a lack of comparative analysis. Or, they are written in obtuse difficult language. I think that the profession labours under the perception that they need to present language so impenetrable as to discourage even the most dedicated reader, often bewildering or mystifying the public, including architects. I wanted to write something with clarity and liveliness about the story of architecture in Canada and how it would mean something useful. It was directed at anybody with a capacious intellect.

How do you imagine this book to be interpreted by the architecture community and the general public?

LR Pleasure, pride and a new understanding about the depth of this particular body of work which hasn’t been carefully researched and documented in a clear and analytical way. There has never been a strong body of work from the 1940s. There have been descriptions. There have been surveys. There have been particular slices of it in the vanity presses but I wanted to articulate a book as something inherently powerful and that draws a lot of its strengths from an exquisite sense of place.

The book contains so much about the origins and histories of Canada’s architects that it could serve to correct some of the general public’s misconceptions about architects. Was this your intention?

LR I think that architecture is the last of the arts to be celebrated wherever it is in the world. In a country like Canada, it is probably the last frontier, but huge inroads have been made into building a culture of architecture in this country. Architecture still has to penetrate the collective consciousness the way that Canadian literature and art probably already have. I think that the culture of architecture is certainly growing very strongly in certain sectors in some of the major cities like Calgary where there is a young and very well-educated population. It is visible in Montreal’s Plateau district, but it’s not growing in Aurora–north of Toronto–where people live in 7,500-square-foot houses designed and built by developers and that are filled with plastic plants. There is still much work to be done, but this culture is growing.

In the final chapter, you describe how the “North is that large expanse in an atlas that runs away from the United States.” Your book also includes a quote from John C. Parkin who noted in a September 1972 special issue of Progressive Architecture on Canada that “We are the northern race in North America, not the southern.” What are the main strategies that architects can use in order to resist the temptation to increasingly Americanize our country, to differentiate ourselves from the US?

LR This has to do with the pressing and urgent issue of globalization and the standardization of sameness. In trying to identify something specific about a body of work in Canada, I am interested in a “Canadianness” of Canadian architecture, just as there is a “Finnishness” of Finnish, or a “Spanishness” of Spanish architecture. Within any country, there are cultures with common touchstones and acknowledged authorities. What’s remarkable about the body of work in Canada is that it is not intended to stupefy, but engages us as the users, the human beings that occupy these particular places. Canadian architects are capable of just doing architecture and establishing a cultural clarity by drawing on these touchstones, by drawing on local materials but also by having an acute sense of sight and of the way that architecture can extend our understanding of landscape.

Throughout the book, writers such as Gabrielle Roy, Anne Hbert, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood are mentioned as writers who you believe demonstrate a language of reticence and self-criticism while collectively contributing to our “double-vision” as a bilingual nation. Do you think that these writers are still applicable in Canada today as far as their ability to describe the contemporary realities of Canadian culture? Are there other writers who are useful for architects to read in order to understand some of our current challenges, such as our proximity to the US, multiculturalism and social exclusion in our cities?

LR I used these authors because of their extraordinary sense of place. I used Alice Munro as a way to analyze the work of the Patkaus. Canada is a place of constant swirling motion and a constant arrival of immigrants. In Toronto, there are 100,000 immigrants arriving every year. There are writers like the poet Dionne Brand and her collection called Thirsty, that talked about this city as “beauty, unbreakable and amorous as eyelids.” She has a very real, raw sense of the city, the flux, the movement and the difficulty of life in the city. Then you have writers who have come from afar like Rabindranath Maharaj who is from Trinidad. I believe he writes most of his work from a Coffee Time in Ajax, but he’s writing about Trinidad and his writing is so alive. When I write, I always listen to music, so bands who have a feel for place or have an optimism for urbanity like K-OS out of Toronto, or Arcade Fire out of Montreal. All these creative people are contributing to a real, gutsy sense of place and to who we are.

The globalization of architecture has brought with it a roster of internationally well-known architects practicing in Canada. Your book includes an interesting discussion on the personality of Frank Gehry, and his tenuous roots in Toronto. How do you see the ways in which we develop (or resist) cult international personalities in Canada being reflected in the future?

LR I would argue that Frank Gehry’s roots in Toronto are very strong and meaningful for him, with seminal experiences in this city. When he was a poor kid, he attended lectures at U of T to hear Modernists like Alvar Aalto. I think that Gehry wanted to contribute something very strong back to Toronto with the AGO development. I think that because the culture of architecture in this country is growing and increasingly demanding, we are not stuck in oppressive codes of behaviour. There is an open tolerance for creativity and daring in architecture and that’s what has delighted architects like Will Alsop, Norman Foster and Daniel Libeskind. I think that Canadians are big enough and mature enough to embrace these superstars and to host this archipelago of superstar architecture but at the same time, we need to continue to foster the strong talent of the locals and continue
to build complex cities. What worries me far more is giving into banality and mediocrity and throwing up developments in the city that are mind-boggling pieces of formula.

I appreciate the effectiveness of the ways in which you narrate the careers of so many of this country’s architects, such as the West Coast Modernists including Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom and Ned Pratt. These architects, who were commissioned by “Canada’s enlightened, woodsy elites” contributed to a significant body of work which includes the Smith House and the Binning House. The importance of a culture surrounding a strong patron-client relationship has continued with architects like John and Patricia Patkau, Ian MacDonald, Brian MacKay-Lyons or Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe. How do you envision the future culture of patron-client relationships in Canada?

LR Many of the patrons were actually not elites. They were culturally engaged individuals. You had architects and artists hiring architects. You had young people without a lot of money who were taking a leap of faith and hiring these largely inexperienced architects because there was a movement afoot. There was a new way of approaching architecture and mediating modern architecture through a heightened sense of place. What produced some of these remarkable works was this strong belief in the power of architecture to transform everyday life. This basic premise still holds true today. In the most successful buildings, we see that there is always a strong symbiotic relationship between client and architect. I think that architects are weak politically, and that they need to work harder at engaging the public to want architecture more badly and to be convinced of the transformative powers of architecture–so that they could reach a young couple in the outskirts of Toronto or Calgary to want to engage an architect rather than a builder.

It is encouraging for young architects to read of Moshe Safdie’s first big breakthough when he was 25 years old, with similar career breakthroughs occurring for Norm Hotson, Raymond Moriyama and Arthur Erickson at the respective ages of 30, 33 and 39. What personalities in contemporary Canadian architecture do you see rising over the next few years? What are your thoughts on the abilities of the latest generation of architects to make their mark in Canada?

LR These guys pulled it off because they were allowed to assume those roles of visionaries for the making of Canada. They took on those roles and assumed them with great aplomb. I think that the strength and the daring of the 1940s and ’50s were just the beginning. This connection to the landscape carried across the country and consistently presented through the generations. Today, we tend to get stronger works of architecture at a more frequent rate than we used to. Generations of architects have picked up on the many triggers and cues of their mentors like Ron Thom or Arthur Erickson. Now what’s interesting are the individuals who are working within firms like Shim-Sutcliffe, Brian MacKay-Lyons, Saucier + Perrotte, Atelier Big City or the Patkaus. This is the next generation and they have very wise mentors. These are the people who will soon be breaking out on their own and they are the ones to watch for.

Arthur Erickson describes concrete as the “marble of our time.” You decided to devote an entire chapter on the use of concrete in many projects across Canada–from UBC’s Museum of Anthropology and the University of Lethbridge, to Montreal’s Place Bonaventure. How is it possible that the humble material of concrete can become such a common denominator for much of Canadian architecture?

LR Concrete matched the scope and the dreams of the postwar era. It was the material with tremendous heft and represented huge amounts of power. Because this was a time between the 1950s and ’70s where tremendous infrastructure was being built. In the making of our modern institutions, concrete matched these ambitions very nicely. It allowed Arthur Erickson and Raymond Moriyama to express architectural works that rose up out of the ground or spread across the land and that could make a statement. Concrete allowed a complete, total expression of a singular gesture in a remarkable way.

The issue of site, nature and climate is so pervasive throughout the book. You even devote a special section to the work of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander with the mention of a handful of contemporary landscape architects. Where do you see the role of landscape architecture moving in the coming years? How will it support or differentiate itself from future methods of producing buildings and cities in this country?

LR One of the big things of Up North is that architecture extends landscape and landscape extends architecture in Canada. If there is anything that makes architecture unique, that is probably it. So the role of landscape architecture becomes not just a mere afterthought but an integral part of significant buildings in Canada. I wanted to devote a special essay to our most significant landscape architect who is Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. She has worked for over 30 years in a very tight relationship with Arthur Erickson and I think that his works would be far less convincing without her contributions. Too often, landscape architects are ignored, and I wanted to celebrate and point to other leading architects in this country. I think that landscape architects will increasingly take on a more political and powerful role. The more that we are confronted by placelessness and sameness, the more that there will be a need for a practice in architecture and landscape architecture to give us back and articulate our genus loci.

What do you expect from the architecture community to learn from Up North?

LR In writing the book, I ended up speaking to a lot of professors, sociologists, political scientists and not just architects. I was speaking to many people who have studied the making of Modern and contemporary Canada. It involved a lot of travelling and wandering around the various landscapes to really experience the buildings in a much larger environment. I wanted to draw the reader into the environment. So [the book] was really part road trip only because I wanted to bring the reader there. I wanted to create a larger story and how it engages us more fully.