Viewpoint (March 01, 2005)

The opening of the newly renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art last fall resonated with architect Yoshio Taniguchi’s famous quote: “Raise a lot of money for me, I’ll give you good architecture. Raise even more money, I’ll make the architecture disappear.” In Canada, systemic constitutional difficulties are making our own architecture disappear. But there is hope. As special considerations have recently been extended to Newfoundland with other provinces seeking opportunities for greater control of their own revenues, we might begin to see a future where municipalities will increasingly become active players in seeking greater financial autonomy from their provincial overlords and where provincial and federal governments will demonstrate a greater commitment to architectural competitions.

Cities cannot raise adequate funds through taxation because the Constitution makes no adequate mention of municipal powers. Meanwhile, provincial governments are either at the mercy of federal powers or do not recognize the value of sub-provincial economic power: the city. For these reasons, it is not surprising that many competitions and project proposals for architecture and urbanism are being or have been scuttled as the result of a lack of financial commitment: dead projects like the Bank Street Building competition in Ottawa or frozen projects like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Due to shifting provincial priorities, it seems as though the Riverfront Project outside Quebec City has drowned along with the new home of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the proposal to tear down the highway overpasses disconnecting Lowertown from St-Roch in Quebec City. Cities need projects like these but are at the mercy of federal and provincial government assistance.

Our Constitution made a lot of sense in the 19th century but the Fathers of Confederation never considered the future importance of the city. From 1867 onwards, we were concerned with farmland and establishing a network of communities across the country, and the railways drove much of the development. By 1940, the Rowell-Sirois Commission recognized that Canada’s Constitution was inherently flawed. They determined that it was impossible for individual provinces to raise sufficient revenue through taxation to provide them with essential public services. Because of the Commission’s recommendations, our equalization program–the federal government’s most important program for reducing fiscal disparities among provinces–was born.

It was only after the Second World War that the provinces allowed Ottawa to collect most of the taxes, but the provinces held on to their typical responsibilities such as educational facilities and health care. As postwar growth took hold of suburbs, Canada’s cities developed and allowed for contemporary Canadian architecture to flourish and reflect regional diversity through Modernist ideals. Ottawa made good with new major infrastructure paid for by taxation revenue collected from the provinces and then redistributed through specific projects such as the Trans-Canada Highway, the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the construction of the Winnipeg Floodway following the Great Flood of 1950.

Today, our network of established urban areas are considered important global and/or regional centres that must be competitive. Our cities’ struggles shifted into high gear after 1988, when the Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Vancouver must now compete directly with other US cities in its region. Calgary and Montreal must compete with cities in the US with a similar economic base. This pressure raises the bar to provide for better buildings, waterfronts, airports and residential neighbourhoods to attract talent and business. This is where the value of significant architectural competitions and commissions becomes important.

An optimist might take the view that the recent agreement over the ability of Newfoundland and Labrador to keep its share of oil revenues represents a significant blow to Canada’s equalization program. Political scientists are now talking about “asymmetrical federalism” in which each province negotiates its own special deal with Ottawa. Under Paul Martin, our current government has begun to extend special considerations for all provinces–not just Quebec. This may open the possibility for cities to challenge the Constitution Act, 1982 where the principles of equalization payments–and the financial relationship between provincial and federal powers–are discussed under Section 36(2). If the architecture profession wants to guarantee bigger and better architecture competitions and major public projects in the future, we should push for municipal governments to challenge the constitutional role of cities in Canada. And then, we just might thank Newfoundland (and Labrador) for saving our architecture from disappearing.