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.