Viewpoint (September 01, 2002)

In a letter published in this month’s News section, Toronto architect Paul Shepherd questions the University of Waterloo’s selection of San Francisco-based Stanley Saitowitz as the architect for its new School of Architecture in Cambridge, Ontario (see page 11 for Mr. Shepherd’s letter and UW director Rick Haldenby’s response). Noting that this appointment continues the recent trend of awarding important cultural and academic buildings to firms from outside the country, Mr. Shepherd argues that this is particularly inappropriate in the case of the Cambridge project (pictured above): “If a school of architecture cannot demonstrate confidence in the talents it nurtured and produced, who should? Who will?”

One answer to this question is that while Canadian architects–especially in Toronto–are seeing important local projects being awarded to high-profile international firms, many of their colleagues are securing important commissions abroad.

It’s not surprising if many architects are more keenly aware of opportunities denied close to home than opportunities available farther afield. Architecture has traditionally operated on the basis of local and regional markets, with a handful of high-profile international offices securing work around the world. Recently, however, the market for architectural services has become increasingly global in scope. Just as Canadian clients are engaging firms from outside the country, so are foreign clients looking to Canadian architects for a wide variety of projects.

Some better-known examples include Diamond and Schmitt Architects’ Foreign Ministry for the State of Israel in Jerusalem, the Jewish Community Centre on the Upper West Side in New York, the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. and the Detroit Symphony Hall. Work is under way on Busby + Associates Architects’ Oltremare Marine Theme Park in Riccione, Italy. Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects’ projects include the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the University of Minnesota Master Plan, and Sprague Hall at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. And Arthur Erickson’s most important project in years, the Museum of Glass, opened recently in Tacoma, Washington. These are just a few of many Canadian architects with significant projects abroad.

A number of less prominent firms are also making a name for themselves overseas. Vancouver-based Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture designed the recent expansion of the School of Architecture at the Universidad Tecnic Federico Santa Maria in Valparaso, Chile. And earlier this year, Forsythe + MacAllen Design Associates, also of Vancouver, won an international design competition for the Northern Style Housing Complex in Aomori, Japan.

While such international commissions may not redress concerns about an erosion of confidence in our home-grown talent, it does place the current tendency among Canadian clients to look beyond local practitioners in a larger context. If Canadian architects can compete for international projects, then it follows that we should expect that international architects will compete for Canadian projects. It’s increasingly apparent that this is the direction in which practice has evolved, and will in all likelihood continue to evolve. A well-worn biblical adage says that “a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country.” Whatever is driving the current interest in international firms, the increasingly global nature of practice may mean that Canadian architects, like the biblical prophets, may for a time find more honour abroad than in their own country. Marco Polo