The Accidental Archive

TEXT Marco Polo

Since its inception in 1955, Canadian Architect has published thousands of photographs documenting noteworthy buildings and their architects. When I joined the magazine in 1997, most photos came to us as 4″ x 5″ colour transparencies; by the time I left six years later, Canadian Architect was receiving nearly all visual material in digital form. In its early years, however, many photographs came to the magazine in the form of 8″ x 10″ enlargements, mostly black-and-white prints which, since they were reproductions of negatives that remained in the photographers’ possession, were usually not returned. Consequently, the magazine accumulated a sizable accidental archive, stored in filing cabinets and cardboard boxes, without appropriate environmental controls, at risk of damage and mistaken or thoughtless disposal.

Earlier this year, this vulnerable, haphazard collection found a more appropriate home when Canadian Architect donated the photos to Ryerson University Library’s Special Collections. The Canadian Architect Photography Collection will ultimately be digitized to provide access to scholars and other researchers interested in Canadian Modern architecture. Initially, material is being organized by region, city and project; eventually, it will be cross-referenced by architect to facilitate research into a particular practitioner’s work. While many of the prints include extensive annotations on the back, a considerable number bear no identifying marks, requiring research to determine the projects depicted. Faculty and student research assistants from Ryerson’s Department of Architectural Science are assisting with this task. Also, some of the photos were damaged by adhesives used to secure images onto layout sheets. In light of this, Ryerson University is a particularly fitting home for the photos, which can benefit from the expertise offered by graduates and students of the School of Image Arts’ M.A. program in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management.

While the collection includes many iconic photos of celebrated projects, there are also many lesser-known projects considered significant enough for publication in their day, but that did not become part of the canon of Canadian Modernism and that in many cases have been transformed beyond recognition or demolished outright. One such project is illustrated here–Postal Station D in Vancouver (1967) by Ian Davidson and D.E. White, which captures the spirit of its age: the concrete bas-relief on the building recalls similar expressive strategies used at Expo ’67.

The collection also includes many photos of individuals who contributed to the culture of Modern architecture in Canada. The image pictured above shows Alfred H. Jarvis, director of the National Gallery of Canada, Peter Dickinson, partner in charge of design at Page & Steele Architects, and R.C. Fairfield of Rounthwaite and Fairfield Architects, as they jury a 1957 competition for the design of a community art gallery, sponsored by the magazine. Looking over their shoulders is James A. Murray, founding editor of Canadian Architect, who passed away last year aged 88 and whose enduring legacy is enhanced by this collection. CA

Marco Polo is an Associate Professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science and a former editor of Canadian Architect.