Is Canadian architecture mediocre?

When the United Nations’ Human Development Index pronounced Canada the world’s best place to live, Canadians, goes the joke, demanded a recount. Two recent publications continue this domestic propensity to prove the Great White North is not quite worthy of such praise. The Conference Board of Canada’s How Canada Performs might just as well be called the “Report on Mediocrity” while conservative columnist Andrew Cohen’s book, The Unfinished Canadian, argues according to its publisher’s blurb, “our mythology, our jealousy, our complacency, our apathy, our amnesia, and our moderation are all part of the unbearable lightness of being Canadian.”

A bit harsh, wouldn’t you say? After all, it’s hard to rationally assess the world’s nations and not arrive at the conclusion we must be doing something right.

Cohen tackles architecture, or at least that in Ottawa, which he describes as largley “an eyesore.” While his equally acerbic claims against Ottawa’s restaurants and local arts scene are patent nonsense, there is merit in his architectural assessment (supported in his book, I must confess, by a quote I once gave the CBC). Hyperbole, however, is seldom the servant of insightful discourse, and the city does boast some fine recent architecture including the National Archives, S.I.T.E. Building, Algonguin Advanced Technolgy Centre and the National War Museum, all featured in past issues of Building, and is eagerly awaiting the completion of Fumihiko Maki’s Centre for the Aga Khan Development Network.

Cohen, however, wants to present Ottawa as a fitting capital for what Internet blogger Mathem Hayday, summarizing the book, calls “a nation unwilling to strive for (or even accept) greatness.” Does this really reflect the state of architecture and urban design in Canada today?

A definitive answer is problematic. Canada is a huge land mass with significantly different economic structures and levels of wealth. If one accepts the idea, as I do, that all great architecture is regional architecture, one must also factor in many subtly but importantly different cultures in radically varied landscapes and climates.

Overall, however, we appear to be muddling through. Visits to cities like Frankfurt, Cologne, Barcelona, Boston and Gothenburg suggest we do as well, even better than some while stops in Greater Amsterdam and London indicate others do better. But architectural success in Canadian cities ranges significantly. Strong urban planning and a recognizable architecture style, which led Architectural Record to dub Vancouver “the city of glass,” has resulted in that city consistently rating as one of the world’s elite. If the prolific developer work of such architects as James Cheng has contributed to this success without producing stunning landmarks, the city has supported the frequently creative work of the Henriquez Partners, the sustainable-design talents of Peter Busby, the urban design-industrial chic of Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects and nurtured the influential, but grossly underused, Patkau practice. Still, the city seems short of good iconic punch lines.

Not so Toronto, which has seen fit to import international all-stars to reverse two decades of steep urban decline with powerhouse projects. To be fair, the venerable Jack Diamond and the ubiquitous KPMB are also contributing to the city’s many new cultural facilities while the University of Toronto continues to act as the city state’s architectural Medici family. While firms like architectsAlliance and CORE Architects have pioneered good urban-savvy lofts/condos in both adapted and new buildings, the emerging generation of looming glass towers imported from Vancouver is proving that architecture frequently doesn’t travel well.

Montreal supports a solid cluster of design architects, responsible for exciting public-private ventures such as Quartier International (Daoust Lestage) and City Multimedia that surround North America’s finest historical yet dynamic old towns. Montreal also boasts fine university projects, and an exceptional talent in Saucier et Perrotte, although the city has unconscionably under-utilized this internationally renowned firm.

Winnipeg could have boasted a Saucier et Perrote icon for its showcase Human Rights Museum but lost to American Antoine Predock’s rather “Bilbao flash” design. Still the city is showing signs of design revival even if it lacks signature architects since IKOY packed up camp in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, Calgary, despite its wealth and long time resident talent like Jeremy Sturgess, has been thin on the ground in terms of both architecture and sensible urban design. Norman Foster’s planned EnCana building will hopefully raise the bar for future development. Finally, if the fine harbour city of Halifax has generally eschewed memorable architecture, Bryon Mackay-Lyons notwithstanding, at the other end of the country Victoria is overcoming the devastating “clear-cut” approach to development of the 1980s and 1990s with excellent urban design backed with strong architecture.

Sadly, there is a dearth of books on Canada’s current architecture scene despite the Canada Council’s best efforts. If there were, Mr. Cohen might just have to reconsider. Still, as IKOY’s Ron Keenburg never tires of telling me, relative goodness is no standard, only excellence counts.

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