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Canada: Modern Architectures in History
David Theodore

Rhodri Windsor Liscombe and Michelangelo Sabatino
University of Chicago Press, 2016

Canada is the eleventh book in the series Modern Architectures in History from London-based publishers Reaktion books. These volumes take a country-by-country look at the ways modern architects engaged nation-building over the long twentieth century. The series endorses modernism as a style, treating buildings as formal artifacts that emerge in silhouette against the background of various social, cultural, and political contexts. This agenda is set both by the publisher and, to some degree, by the first book in the series, Gwendolyn Wright’s USA of 2009. Like Wright’s book, Canada is meant to appeal to a general audience as a comprehensive introduction to a national architectural corpus or as a reference textbook in an undergraduate course.

Canada’s authors, Rhodri Windsor Liscombe and Michelangelo Sabatino, set out to show that architects (“and related design professionals”) actively contributed to the production of a Canadian national identity (335). They argue that what makes Canadian architecture distinct is its heterogeneity, which, in turn, is a reflection of Canada’s “concentrated demography and diverse geography” (7.) They claim that Canadian architects (and presumably Canadian citizens) prefer appropriateness over exceptionalism, and “Substance over Spectacle,” the title of an exhibition surveying contemporary architecture organized at Vancouver’s Belkin Gallery in 2005.

In examining how modern architecture has contributed to Canada’s national identity, Windsor Liscombe and Sabatino take a chronological approach. The seven chapters move from 1886, the completion date of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), to the present, and their arguments apply primarily to architecture’s image. But while the authors include black-and-white reproductions of photographs, stamps, and magazine covers, there are few architectural plans or sections and, concomitantly, little spatial analysis. The earliest illustration of a civic building in the book appears to be a photograph of the CPR station and hotel in McAdam, New Brunswick, built by Montreal-based architect Edward Maxwell in 1901; and the most recent is an illustration of the Bahá’í Temple of South America in, of all places, Santiago, Chile, built by Toronto-based Hariri Pontarini Architects in 2016.

The authors contend that there is a Canadian mindset discernible in this history, namely, that even though most of Canada’s architecture has been in cities, Canadian architects have been consistently inspired by nature. The argument gains force by virtue of an accumulation of examples. For instance, the authors show that a common characteristic of urban buildings is that they are sited in ways that take advantage of natural features, especially rivers, lakes, and oceans. They discuss and illustrate the siting of Canada’s Parliament buildings overlooking the Ottawa River; the relationship of Arthur Erickson’s Museum of Anthropology to the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver; and they have an up-to-date mention of Todd Saunders’ Fogo Island Inn, which has a dramatic location next to the Atlantic Ocean in Newfoundland. However, given this emphasis on topography and terrain, the authors write surprisingly little about landscape architecture, with the exception of a note on the great Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s participation in several projects.

Overall, Canada works best as a celebratory enumeration of buildings. The authors write with a deep optimism that the country is a place where modernism’s dichotomies—opposites such as technology and nature, nationalism and regionalism, founding peoples and immigration, industry and environmentalism—are amalgamated. And while not exhaustive, the survey is, in their words, “encyclopedic” (337). It discusses both the mundane and the memorable and truly does take stock of architecture in Canada from coast to coast.
Nevertheless, there are problems both with this assessment of Canada’s architectural history and the way the authors go about telling their tale. Canada is the first attempt to cover all of modern architecture in a single work since Harold Kalman’s two-volume A History of Canadian Architecture appeared in 1994 (updated in 2000). When Kalman’s book came out over twenty years ago, reviewers argued that the kind of formalist history Kalman put forth overlooked thesocial and cultural history that new scholars had been producing for decades. The same criticism stands for Canada today. Wright’s book on the USA worked by incorporating up-to-date scholarship that connects architecture with women’s history; black history;, labor history; economic, social, and cultural history; and media studies. Windsor Liscombe and Sabatino, however, have not constructed a similar bibliography from which they write.

Painting of Houses of Parliament , James Duncan, watercolour, 1866 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lac-bac/31475915996/in/album-72157677492475586/

The authors argue that by limiting the quantity of analysis they provide, they have been able to increase the number of projects they discuss, witnessing the heterogeneity of Canada’s architecture. This quantity is perhaps the best reason to read the book. The index is detailed enough to make hopscotch reading rewarding, but the book would be more useful as a reference if the index included every architect’s name instead of only a selection. And yet, because so many projects are included, the main text quickly becomes a series of sterile lists, at times sacrificing content for names of architects, places, and buildings. For instance, in one paragraph, the authors list all of the architects who have exhibited at the Venice Biennale since 1991 (325), but add nothing about why Canada participates in the Biennale, how the participants are chosen, or even what themes the chosen work has engaged.

The most problematic element of the book is the authors’ commitment to a ruling-class narrative. The authors use architecture to reflect a top-down, establishment view of Canada’s history, rather than to challenge and remake that history from the bottom up. Windsor Liscombe and Sabatino endorse the idea that Canada is politically and socially a “multicultural” mosaic (18), the policy adopted by the federal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1970. Yet there has been strong political and intellectual opposition to that vision of Canada, especially in the French-speaking province of Quebec and among indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the authors acknowledge early on that colonial settlement “discounted indigenous communities and their built fabric” (8), yet mention of First Nations doesn’t occur until page 33 and comes in a paragraph that spends more time on Governor General Lord Stanley, the Queen’s highest representative in Canada from 1888 to 1893, and the park and hockey trophy (“Stanley Cup”) that bear his name. Indeed, there is no sustained discussion of indigenous architecture in the book. Likewise, gender gets squished into a single paragraph on women in the profession, a paragraph that inexplicably meanders into a comment on the role of French in Canada’s twelve architecture schools. Why are men called architects, while women are “acclaimed female architects” (295)?
Achievements and faults aside, it should be noted that Canada arrived with perfect timing. In 2017 Canada celebrated its 150th anniversary. It also marked the 50th anniversary of the exhibition “Man and His World,” known as Expo 67, a signature event in the history of modern architecture in Canada. It gave the world three of the country’s most celebrated buildings: a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome, a Frei Otto tensile structure, and Moshe Safdie’s housing cluster Habitat 67. Amidst the commemorative events of 2017, a comprehensive survey of our architectural history was most welcome.

How to Cite this Article: Theodore, David. Review of Canada: Modern Architectures in History, Rhodri Windsor Liscombe and Michelangelo Sabatino. JAE Online. February 9, 2018. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/reviews-books/canada-modern-architectures-history#/.