Arthur Erickson’s Simon Fraser University in Vancouver
Maria Janicki/Alamy Arthur Erickson’s Simon Fraser University in Vancouver

Canadian Modern Architecture: 1967 to the Present (Princeton Architectural Press, 2019) is a bulky little tome that is neither a directory nor a considered history but rather a survey of hundreds of buildings, large and small, public and private, important and obscure. The book is organized chronologically, thematically, and regionally, and includes essays by 17 different authors: academics, critics, and journalists. This large squad of scribblers is necessary because Canada is simply too large geographically, and too diverse culturally, to have a single coherent architectural story.

With so many authors, the coverage is necessarily uneven, and although the book claims to be comprehensive, its selections can be quirky: Ray Affleck’s superb Alcan headquarters in Montreal, an early exercise in historic preservation that combined several Victorian mansions, a 1928 hotel, and new construction, merits only a postage-stamp-size photo; Moshe Safdie, FAIA’s masterly National Gallery of Canada gets no more than a passing nod, and his Library Square in Vancouver is not mentioned at all, nor is Arthur Erickson’s excellent Bank of Canada in Ottawa. At the same time, unbuilt projects intended for the Canadian North are covered in dutiful detail, and some private residences receive more attention than major civic landmarks. It makes for a somewhat perplexing bouillabaisse—like leafing through back issues of a magazine.

Ray Affleck’s Alcan headquarters in Montreal
Jean Gagnon Ray Affleck’s Alcan headquarters in Montreal
Philip Johnson's Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto
Michael Wilson/CBC Licensing Philip Johnson's Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto

The title Canadian Modern Architecture raises the nagging question: Is there really such a thing as a distinctive Canadian architecture? Off the bat, the answer is no. As the book chronicles, over the last 50 years Canadian architecture has followed a well-trodden path: It starts with orthodox Modernism, which gives way in the 1970s and 1980s to Postmodernism and, following a brief flirtation with Deconstructivism, flits between the opposite poles of Expressionism and High-Tech until settling down with international Modernism, although this time with a lot more glass. Many of the prominent Canadian buildings that signposted this trajectory were the work of outsiders: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (major commercial projects in downtown Montreal and Toronto), Philip Johnson (a CBC headquarters), Daniel Libeskind, FAIA (an addition to the Royal Ontario Museum), Antoine Predock, FAIA (Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum of Human Rights), as well as Thom Mayne, FAIA, Santiago Calatrava, FAIA, Will Alsop, Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, Frank Gehry, FAIA, and of course Safdie (both Gehry and Safdie have Canadian citizenship but have long practiced in the U.S.). Not surprisingly, all this imported talent accelerated the dissemination of international design trends, making Canada, like most countries, part of a global architectural culture.

An Absence of Classicism
One trend is conspicuously absent: Unlike its neighbor to the south and many European countries, Canada did not foster a traditionalist movement. There was no Henry Hope Reed or Léon Krier to lead the charge, no Modernist scourge like Prince Charles, and one looks in vain for Canadian equivalents to classicist practitioners such as Allan Greenberg, Quinlan Terry, or Maurice Culot. No major Canadian university has recently opted to build a Gothic Revival college (like Princeton and Yale), a Richardsonian law school (like Harvard), or a Byzantine-Romanesque public policy school (like Rice). No Canadian cities have erected a classical library (like Chicago) or a classical concert hall (like Nashville and Fort Worth). If you are a small Canadian college and you want a building that complements your Neoclassical campus, you head south and hire Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, as Acadia University in Nova Scotia did. (His Georgian Revival Irving Environmental Science Centre is pointedly not included in Canadian Modern Architecture.)

Canadian architects have generally toed the Modernist line, preferring to leave radical experimentation to others, but there was one occasion in the last half-century when Canada found itself in the architectural vanguard.

The apparent Canadian disinterest in contemporary Classicism might suggest a greater public enthusiasm for Modernism, although judging from the current commercial housing market in the suburbs surrounding Canada’s major cities, the public’s taste in domestic architecture remains traditional, and the historic preservation movement has as much support in Canada as elsewhere. An aggressively Modernist addition proposed for Ottawa’s venerable Château Laurier, a beloved 1912 French Renaissance Revival hotel, was recently quashed due to a public outcry. A more likely explanation is that the ruling classes that commission buildings have considered Modern architecture—rightly or wrongly—to be the correct style for a forward-looking modern society such as Canada.

A proposed addition to the Château Laurier, quashed after public outcry
Courtesy Larco Hospitality A proposed addition to the Château Laurier, quashed after public outcry

Canadian architects have generally toed the Modernist line, preferring to leave radical experimentation to others, but there was one occasion in the last half-century when Canada found itself in the architectural vanguard. In the mid-1960s, three Canadian buildings captured the world’s attention: Safdie’s Habitat 67 in Montreal, Arthur Erickson’s Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and John Andrews’s Scarborough College in Toronto. All three were striking examples of what came to be called megastructures. Theoretical megastructure proposals were all the rage, appearing in the work of the Metabolist group in Japan, Archigram in England, and Candilis-Josic-Woods in France, but with the exception of the latter’s Free University of Berlin (designed with Manfred Schiedhelm), none of those proposals saw the light of day. The large Canadian projects, on the other hand, were executed with self-assured aplomb. If there was a distinctive Canadian architecture, this seemed to be it.

Ron Thom's Massey College at the University of Toronto
Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Ilnyckyj Ron Thom's Massey College at the University of Toronto

John Andrews’s Scarborough College in Toronto

The Canadian embrace of the megastructure is difficult to explain. Scarborough College, with its long internal “street,” can be seen as a reaction to long, cold winters, but Habitat looks more Mediterranean than northern, and the open-air public spaces of Simon Fraser take advantage of the temperate Pacific climate. Nor were Andrews, Erickson, and Safdie part of a new Canadian school; they all built with concrete, but Scarborough was resolutely Brutalist, the mountaintop Acropolis of Simon Fraser was a concrete version of post-and-beam timber architecture (and included a delicate high-tech space-frame canopy), and the geometrical arrangement and the smooth surfaces of Habitat’s prefabricated boxes, which look like stucco, gave the impression of a vertical village. Eventually, the Canadian enthusiasm for megastructures waned—Habitat was too expensive, Scarborough proved too inflexible, and Simon Fraser lost some of its compelling human scale as it grew.

Safdie and Erickson remain Canada’s best known architects, and Andrews, before returning to his native Australia, provided the Toronto skyline with its chief landmark, the CN Tower. The 1960s was a scintillating decade for Canadian architecture for an additional reason: It produced a lesser-known jewel, the University of Toronto’s Massey College. The architect was Ron Thom, and his building was an odd mixture: the plan was based on an Oxbridge quadrangle, while the architecture was a combination of Frank Lloyd Wright—think Midway Gardens—and early Dutch Modernism (see “A Tale of Two Colleges” in ARCHITECT). At a time when béton brut was all the rage, Thom finished the college in brick, gave it ornamental finials and decorative ironwork, and designed all the Arts and Crafts furnishings. It sounds like Postmodernism avant la lettre, but his highly original design was neither ironic nor humorous. Far outside the mainstream, Massey College had little impact—at home or abroad—although it remains a compelling example of a nuanced and crafted Modernist architecture of the sort that Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, would explore several decades later.

Moriyama & Teshima’s Canadian War Museum in Ottawa
Moriyama & Teshima Architects Moriyama & Teshima’s Canadian War Museum in Ottawa

Public institutions have been major architectural patrons in Canada. The megastructure projects were commissioned by publicly funded universities and a federally funded world’s fair—only the government had pockets deep enough to make the extra investment that megastructures required. When knowledgeable and supportive politicians and civil servants were involved—as it was in the case of Massey College in the form of a demanding donor, Vincent Massey, and an old-fashioned academic, the novelist Robertson Davies—exceptional buildings could follow. But absent informed leadership, a conservative bureaucracy might simply jump on the latest stylistic bandwagon, which is what seems to have happened in Canada after the 1960s, when public architecture, such as Moriyama & Teshima’s Canadian War Museum and Patkau Architects’ Grande Bibliothèque du Québec, were more likely to reflect global fashions than break new ground.

A Pragmatic Conservatism
A major influence on Canadian architecture has been climate. Most of Canada has long, cold, snowy winters; buildings, whatever their style, have to support snow loads, resist freeze-thaw cycles, and have adequate insulation and glazing. A badly detailed building in a cold climate will not simply weather poorly and spring a few leaks, it can literally fall apart. (It’s no coincidence that Alvar Aalto’s early Finnish buildings were so much more sensibly detailed than the contemporaneous buildings of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.) Northern conservatism is pragmatic. Megastructures aside, Canadian architects have tended to steer clear of polemics and extreme theories, and have avoided showy architectural effects. Partly this a question of national character, but mainly it’s just too cold.

Bing Thom's Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Deane Madsen Bing Thom's Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Canadian architecture has traveled abroad—the late Bing Thom’s Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., KPMB’s glassy Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, Diamond Schmitt’s Mariinsky II Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. Yet the ranks of so-called starchitects—those architects with global practices whose names have become internationally recognized brands—are noticeable for the paucity of Canadians. Given the dubious quality of much of today’s high-profile architecture, this may not be a bad thing. One of the most successful Canadian consumer products of recent times is the Canada Goose parka; it’s not revolutionary, it’s well made—it’s not cheap—it’s kind of stylish though not aggressively so, and it keeps you warm. Good Canadian architecture is like that. If you want a flashy clickbait building, hire one of the usual suspects; if you want something well-put-together that does the job over the long haul, get a Canadian.