Unedited First Draft of C.M.A. Review

Original and Complete First Draft, Review of Canadian Modern Architecture”  “Here is the edited version of my essay, as it appears in the November, 2019 issue of Canadian Architect magazine of Toronto: https://issuu.com/iqbusinessmedia/docs/ca_nov_19_de/54

“Published, Not Perished”:

Feature Review of Canadian Modern Architecture,

edited by Elsa Lam and Graham Livesey

DRAFT ONE of Essay, An Edited Version Appears in the November, 2019 issue of

Canadian Architect Magazine, Toronto

by Trevor Boddy

[BACKGROUND NOTE: As Elsa Lam edits Canadian Architect, she was understandably cautious about publishing even an independent review of a book she co-edited.  Her first request to me was to write 1500 words on the history of Canadian architectural publishing, hence the biographical beginning and end of this essay.  When this was done, it was apparent to both of us that the essay would be read as a wimpy, non-review, never getting around to its implicit subject.  I then spliced my 2000 word review into this existing essay.  The full version in this first draft refers to nearly writer in CMA, but the version run in the November, 2019 issue had to be cut for space.  Here it is, in all its passionate, sometimes self-indulgent glory.   -Trev, Nov 11, 2019]

  1. Preface: The Near-Empty Shelf

The appropriate shelf in the university tower library in Calgary was almost empty, so I convinced myself I had scrambled the Library of Congress “NA” catalogue number.  I’d been given a research paper assignment from Professor Michael McMordie in his pioneering 1977 “Canadian Architecture” class, and wanted to browse the books, seeking inspiration.  There were less than a dozen books at the appropriate spots for Canada, fewer than that library’s holdings on Dutch or Mexican architecture.  I inquired to the reference librarian if their other Canadian volumes had been checked out. She replied, with a tinge of melancholy: “This is all we have.”

I was embarking into a discipline without a local literature to speak of, which blew my graduate student mind.  My lifelong passion for architecture had been sparked by single book—a very little one—a kids’ encyclopedia in dozens of themed volumes, bought for $0.69 each from Safeway if the family grocery order was over ten bucks.  The How and Why Wonder Book of Architecture started with caves and the pyramids, and ended with the Seagram Building.  Growing up in boxy, gridded, too-new Edmonton, the latter had little appeal back then (this was to change with more reading, especially Phyllis Lambert’s 2013 book), but the next-to-last building sparked an obsessive curiosity in the ten-year-old me that has yet to extinguish.  The building—with drawings in simplified, cartoonish modes for children, and accompanied with a little plan—was Le Corbusier’s Ronchamps.  A hundred curious kid questions flew out: “Why is the roof that funny shape?”; “How can the walls be so thick here, and so thin there?”; “Why is there writing on the stained glass?”  How and Why indeed…

I read Towards a New Architecture in high school and was a little baffled, then some Frank Lloyd Wright, baffling in another way—so much ego!  As an undergraduate—always heading towards architecture school, but via the humanities and fine arts—I read Louis Sullivan’s Autobiography of an Idea, William H. Whyte, Jane Jacobs, Reyner Banham, Charles Moore, The Sketchbook of Villard d’Honnecourt, Alberti, Fuller, Paolo Soleri, and most importantly, William Morris then John Ruskin.  By this point in my life I had realized that books, like buildings, are complex creations that require an army for execution. My second realization was that architecture books—like the best buildings they describe and illustrate—are not worth indulging if they do not have a clear authorial voice. Before starting architecture school I had only read three books about Canadian architecture, but they were, and remain, some of the finest books ever produced about the design ideas shaped by, and for our country.  Here’s a look at these three classics, preface to my review of Canadian Modern Architecture.

A book written by a journalist who first travelled Canada by car looking at buildings, taking her own stunning black-and-white images to illustrate them on large format pages, Carol Moore Ede’s Canadian Architecture 1960/70[1] was a revelation, especially for the power of the prairie buildings she selected that were close at hand to me—designs by Etienne Gaboury, Clifford Wiens, Jack Long and the first architect I ever met at age 14, Douglas Cardinal.  A dialogue between he and I about design and life started at that tender age. Our conversations continued to produce a book 22 years later, as books always write other books: The Architecture of Douglas Cardinal, which won us both the “Alberta Book of the Year” prize. The Architecture of Arthur Erickson[2] from Tundra Books had an even larger page layout in (necessarily in a landscape layout format), plus a sumptuousness of illustration. Simon Scott’s glowing colour photography and the architect’s elegant and thoughtful prose had me hooked. 

The only Canadian architectural history I could find as an undergraduate was University of Victoria art historian Alan Gowans’ Building Canada: An Architectural History of Canadian Life[3].  Like Ede’s, this book was also produced by criss-crossing the nation each summer—in his case a beat-up station wagon—from Pacific to Atlantic and back again by different routes, looking at buildings all the while, what one has to do when there is no architectural literature. I loved this book for the same reason staff historians at Parks Canada and provincial heritage agencies hated it—rather than the tory fact-checking they had been obliged to produce at work, Gowans ventured interpretations, theories, conspiracies—in short, stories about who we are and how we live in our buildings.  Gowans’ narratives, nutty as some were (have me tell you over a Pimm’s some time his theory about how Rattenbury sited Victoria’s Empress Hotel), inspired many of us to find other stories hidden within our boards, bricks and plate glass.

What does one do in an intellectual vacuum, a nation of buildings without names and stories?  For my mentor Michael McMordie, it meant co-founding the Canadian Architectural Archive at the University of Calgary, our nation’s most important collection of the drawings and ideas of our leading architects, from Parkin to Cardinal to Thompson Berwick Pratt (and source of dozens of superb drawings and photographs for Canadian Modern Architecture).  About the same time he was building this archive, McMordie suggested my name for a feature article in the late, lamented Toronto magazine Canadian Forum, remembering I had done that paper for him on prairie architecture.  After staring, dispirited, at that empty library shelf, my student essay become-cover-story had been produced by travelling midwinter via CPR across the plains to look at buildings, talking to ultra-friendly architects[4], just as Ede and Gowans had done before me. This is how my career as an architecture critic began as a second-year architecture student, with a story for London’s Architectural Review soon after, and dozens of feature reviews since 1979 written for this magazine, under six different editors.

  • A Hoard of House Books and Quasi-Brochures

I graduated into the 1980s recession, but then fell into academe at the offer of a pasted-together appointment at UBC from Douglas Shadbolt, after previously rejecting an tenure-track job at the Technical University of Nova Scotia (I knew there would be few new buildings for this critic to write of there, but Vancouver was transmuting into a global city).  The shelf of books on Canadian architecture grew rapidly in the last decades of the previous century and the first of this one.  Parks Canada issued a fine series of studies on the key architectural styles of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Cottage industries of publishing catalogues and modest architectural books—mainly on houses, and those who shape them—began at either end of the country, with TUNS (now Dal) Press in Halifax, and Greg Bellerby at Emily Carr University in Vancouver producing volume after volume.  The big university presses sponsored the occasional architecture book, and UBC’s SALA produced a series of ten books on Westcoast Modern houses in a baffling skinny small-but-tall format that limited image sizes, but with expensive hard-board binding preventing them being pocketable.  Much of this writing and publishing was made possible by new streams of funding for architectural research and writing from the Canada Council, proving to be as catalytic for architecture books as the Massey (now Governor-General’s) Medals for Architecture had been for creative new buildings themselves, after their establishment in 1956. 

Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver soon produced exhibitions with related catalogues about their modernist legacies. Even with this, crucial figures such as Peter Hemingway, Etienne Gaboury, Jim Donahue and Carmen Corneil today remain without full books documenting their ground-breaking designs of the 1950s to 80s. Adequate first books were produced about Vancouver’s Ron Thom[5] and B.C. Binning, with better ones in the works, as there is for Jerome Markson.  Erickson’s second book, produced between his two bankruptcies, was much weaker than the first. The subsequent 2006 Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, produced by a Montreal team under Nicholas Olsberg, was vexed with muddied photographs and pointless texts. Then there was the 2013 long biography of Erickson that extracts juicy gossip from a complex life, but was written by a Professor of English whose manuscript demonstrates little interest in his actual buildings. As you will see in my concluding paragraphs, Canada’s most important architect and enduring star of CMA has had a troubled after-life.

My favourite Canadian book of recent decades is TILTING: House Launching, Slide Hauling, Potato Trenching and Other Tales from a Newfoundland Fishing Village[6], Robert Mellin’s visual and a verbal feast of inspiration so powerful it got me to Fogo Island for ten days, leading to my C/A critique of the Todd Saunders studios there.  The publishing situation is unfortunately more variable among Canadian monographs dedicated to the work of a single current architectural practice.  Some of these books have intellectual ambitions, a singularity of voice and prospect, a meticulous craft of drawing and photography.  These include the books produced by Richard and Gregory Henriquez, Todd Saunders, Pierre Thibault (whose work is not illustrated at all in CMA!), and others. There were some major disappointments, however, including books pushed out by some of our largest and richest firms.  Jack Diamond and many of his staff are smart as whips and good writers, but you would never know it from Diamond[7] and Schmitt’s 2008 Insight and Onsite book, and ditto for KPMB’s forgettable 1997 one, with the Birkhauser-published 2014 volume having more substance. Bing Thom Works is a monograph with weak texts and illustrations, and Acton-Ostry’s Twenty-Five Years is a handsome and unusually-detailed brochure wrapped in hard binding.  The biggest caesura in Canadian architectural publishing is critical and comparative works, and full-blown histories, so at last the stage is set for my review.

  • The Architecture of a Book

First, let it be said that Canadian Modern Architecture is an astonishing achievement by editors Elsa Lam, Graham Livesey and their fifteen essayists.  The book is essential for anyone who cares about architecture, or who cares about Canada, and we’ll be talking about it for decades. The gracious and to-the-point Introduction to Canadian Modern Architecture begins with a nod from the editors to the survey of our built history produced by Alan Gowans’ leading protégé, Harold Kalman. But they point out that his “magisterial” A History of Canadian Architecture[8] “devotes only one of fifteen chapters to modern architecture.” The editors argue that “distinctly Canadian architecture only emerged mid-century and fully blossomed after Expo 67.”  In broad strokes I agree, but both books almost entirely slight the thinkers and designers who paved the way for modern architecture in Canada—expressed both as buildings and texts—in the first half of the twentieth century: Ernest Cormier in Montreal, John Lyle[9] and Eric Arthur in Toronto, John Russell, Jim Donahue and the Lounts in Winnipeg, plus others. 

The first thing one needs to know about Canadian Modern Architecture is that it is decidedly, even polemically not a history—it may even be an anti-history.  The fifteen separately-authored and lushly-illustrated essays of about 2500 words each forming the book’s chapters are ordered by theme, region, even city-state, but most assuredly not historical sequence. The book refuses to present a rendered image of Canadian architecture, offering, at best, a mosaic. There is an astonishing range of information and visuals collected within its 544 slick and ‘sea to shining sea’ pages, but trying to read it straight through is as confounding as understanding the ‘Notwithstanding Clause’, our theory of multiculturalism, or why Brazilian-owned Tim Horton’s gets to be our national icon above all others (their first coffee shop within Vancouver’s city limits didn’t even open until a dozen years ago). 

This editorial organization by theme, geography, or provenance of ideas—one quarter of the book is devoted to “International Influences,” itself a very Canadian thought.  Do books on Japanese traditional architecture announce “It all comes from China,” or those about 18th century British buildings claim “Palladio is behind everything”? “International Influences” exist in all architecture, everywhere, as universal as brick or stone. These editorial decisions mean that the same building or architect will pop up in a half dozen different essays, as does Erickson-Massey’s Simon Fraser University.  Reading the whole book is a maple syrup version of the time-slipping “Groundhog Day” movie, so please gird yourself for the thirteenth reference to KPMB, or to Moshe Safdie, whose name is cited on 32 different pages.  Adopting a bemused Bill Murray smile, I frankly do not know how Lam and Livesey could have organized their book any other way, so diverse and unknown to itself is our country.

It is in the nature of such books that very few will read it right through, as this reviewer was obliged to do.  Everyone knows that architecture books are skimmed for their visuals, dropped into for reference drawings, sometimes even read, episodically. For many of our architects, they will browse a copy in a bookstore and instantly first check the index for names of their rivals and classmates, then actually buy a copy if they find reference to any firm they have worked for. They will. I estimate there are proper name references to one thousand Canadian architects in this book, as naming is a crucial initial task for any higher order writing, be it history or criticism.  If each of these architects or their heirs buys a copy, plus the extreme likelihood that every one of Canada’s 2500 architecture students will find this book on their mandatory reading lists by spring term, it will almost certainly make this the first ‘instant best-seller’ in the history of our architectural publishing.

While the book is not a history, it even more resists a single theme or axis of interpretation, and argued architectural criticism makes an appearance in barely half of the essays. CMA does exhibit some academic apparatus however, such as giving the birth dates for all key designers, and the year of death who have passed on to that great drafting salon in the sky.  From the accretion of these dates we learn that 1939 produced a bumper crop of Late Modernists, architects born in 1959 have the highest likelihood of becoming academics, and 1969 produced most of the innovative young designers whose work we see too little of in the book (save for Todd Saunders and Alfred Waugh, both deservedly popping up in multiple essays).

The production of the published object by Princeton Architectural Press is excellent, though its slick paper make it weigh four pounds and its bulky hard cover render it a tough book to cuddle up with. Not to worry, as Trudeau the Elder reminds us that we are a nation that “knows how to make love in a canoe,” and will find a way to appreciate this book for the ages. While there are excellent endnotes, a more-than-perfunctory Foreword by Kenneth Frampton (who supervised Lam’s dissertation on CPR Architecture), and the best possible range and colour rendering of visuals, this book, somewhat strangely, has no bibliography.  For now at least, the length of the no-longer-empty-shelf of books on Canadian architecture shall remain indeterminate.

  • Building With Words

All but three of its 17 essayists are current or emeritus full-time academics, and typical of Canada’s architecture schools, only three of these maintain an active practice in the design of buildings. At times Canadian Modern Architecture reads like the proceedings of an academic conference convened to define the subject from all approaches, but define the subject it does, and with considerable editorial élan, no small accomplishment. Some of the chapters feel like  quickly-transcripted 20-minute slide talks, each of them eagerly trying to get their charges in the now-emerging canon of Canadian architecture. In accumulation, one of the key weaknesses of CMA is that there are too many buildings included, and too many of these have but one or two sentence perfunctory descriptions—a book for the Instagram era, with its simple idea snapshots intact. CMA does not try to win the global war for appreciation of Canadian architecture with strategic reason, but rather tries to overwhelm the lines with under-trained armies of examples. With the range of experience of the writers collected in this book—which must be labelled as a ‘multi-modal anthology’—there is a real range in the quality of the writing. 

Not surprisingly, active critics and professors of history/theory with books under their belts have the best essays, with insights and syntheses marching along with the parade of facts and names.  George Baird’s essay on “Megastructures and High Tech” is a fine example of how knowledge of architectural history and ability as a writer can shine a light on one of the most internationally prominent Canadian moments in global design, now all but disappeared. But in not mentioning Arthur Erickson’s heroic visualizations of a future Vancouver in his “Plan 56[10]” (thankfully picked up by Ian Chodikoff in his essay on urbanism) Baird does not include this essential Canadian alongside the Japanese and European inventors of the megastructure, though he gives him his due in gracious accounts of Lethbridge and Robson Square as late examples. Some of our scholars till previously productive thematic soil, be it Ryerson’s Marco Polo and Colin Ripley on the architecture of the Centennial projects, or Toronto Daniels School’s Lola Sheppard and Mason White on design for the arctic.  Dalhousie’s Steven Mannell takes on green architecture starting with P.E.I.’s “Ark,” an icon for us students at Calgary’s EVDS, and Michigan’s Brian Carter takes on the Maritimes, especially that other Brian.

One of the standout pieces of writing is Odile Hénault’s “First Nations Architecture: A Long Journey Forward[11],” which collects innovative, largely under-published new work from Pacific to Atlantic to Arctic oceans by and for our Indigenous citizens, then makes sense of it.  This is sterling criticism in a field that deserves reflection—I dearly hope that she expands her essay into a book, if these times permit it. Lisa Landrum’s essay on campus architecture is nearly as good, my only quibble to my ex-student is that yes, while Erickson incorporated references in his details and plan elements to the Acropolis, Al-Azhar in Cairo, Fatehpur Sikri, SFU’s overall campus massing, its urban design was actually inspired by the Zapotec mountaintop ceremonial complex of Monte Alban, outside Oaxaca. As Erickson once told me, on a tour of SFU twenty years ago: “Look, I even included a stepped pyramid within the Quadrangle, but nobody got it!”

Sherry McKay produces the best of her string of overviews of the evolution of architecture on the Pacific, from Ron Thom to the Patkaus, with pointed critical perceptions and apt and artful photographs and drawings—many much-appreciated plans and sections, many more than most of her co-essayists. This visual craft is marred only by a final sentence a little too redolent of Harvard studio-speak: “What perhaps distinguishes the West Coast in this time period is the augmenting of its regional cast with a more critically posed and open set of discourses on architecture’s negotiation with the land.”

Others among the essayists have clearly not finished their Malcolm Gladwellian 10,000 hours of experience as writers. Former Ryerson architecture director George Kapelos covers a broad swath of public buildings from the past half century, everything from city halls to embassies to Olympics installations.  His is a rushed and breathless text, like a professor running to cover hunks of a history syllabus before the mid-term exam.  Kapelos skims over 36 buildings in as many pages, most for only a sentence or two of description, the odd jot of interpretation, and certainly nothing critical or synthetic.  I wish he had ditched a number of the minor structures (KPMB’s Berlin Chancery, everything Expo 86 or Olympics 2010 ) to concentrate on what could have been set-pieces.  The low hanging fruit ignored in this rush is comparing Douglas Cardinal’s Gatineau museum—that exemplar of post-Erickson Western Canadian rugged expressionism become landscape—and Moshe Safdie’s National Gallery—that exemplar of too-eager Central Canadian Postmodernist credentialism (citations include parliamentary library, Kahn, Foster, et al).  An entire essay might have been produced looking at those two signal National Capital creations in context, the ever-more evident struggle between what I have called the expressionist and structurally heroic “Constructed Landscape” produced in Western Canada from the spark of Expo 67 and the gasoline of Erickson, and the more deferential Neo-Modernism of the Toronto of KPMB, Siamak-Pontarini and many others.  [Larry richaards on pomo]

One of the great unspokens of this vast and sprawling book is why Quebec was not home to a wave of highly original architecture after the Worlds Fair’s catalyst—as were our prairies, of all places, as made clear in Graham Livesey’s essay. There can be no doubt that Canada’s best architecture of the 1970s is found in the works of Cardinal, Hemingway, Atkins, Wiens, Gaboury, even the two best buildings from Toronto’s Diamond-Myers (Edmonton’s HUB Mall and Citadel Theatre).  David Theodore picks up with the Quebec innovations of Dan Hanganu, Atelier Big City, Saucier-Perrotte and many others, mostly recent, but the two decades after Expo remain a void, telling in their absence.  If we ever start a truly national dialogue on architecture’s relationship to Canadian political, economic and cultural evolution, themes like this will be explored by writers to come.

The real point of this book is that it will help others write the books—reflective, critical, synthetic, risk-taking—that Canadian architecture deserves.  Canadian Modern Architecture is a heroic accomplishment, and its editors and contributors have earned a standing ovation.  Hurrah, everyone, this book is Canada, for good and bad, innovation and tory timidity, metropolitan ambition and rural redoubt–chapter and verse they have nailed the names and key works of the last half century of architecture here.  It will now be up to future books, and future writers, to make critical and historical sense of it all.

  • Postscript: Ericksonium[12] Never-Endum

Lam and Livesey really had no choice but to put an Arthur Erickson work on the cover of their book.  For its association with First Nations, its brilliance of form, the cadence and conviviality of its plans and sections, and the tour-de-force of its interiors and display systems, the UBC Museum of Anthropology stepped out from other Erickson contenders as the University of Lethbridge, his second house for painter Gordon Smith, or even Robson Square.  MOA is a standout masterpiece in a nation that admits to few such words or works. Sadly, this building, and many of Erickson’s other key works are surprisingly now threatened.  Home to those huge totem poles and views out to the reflecting pool, forest and mountains above the sea, the Great Hall of MOA has long been a candidate for a seismic upgrade.  Recent structural investigations reveal that the diagonal cast-in-place beams between the large boxed pre-cast channel beams have deteriorated to the point of needing to be entirely replaced.  Consequently, the entire Great Hall will need to be re-built, so the precious carved posts and potlach bowls are currently being moved out, and a waiting game has started for the tens of millions needed from senior governments for a complete reconstruction.  How long did France pause for funding the rebuilding of Notre Dame?

What may be even worse is the treatment of Erickson’s legacy by some of his most prominent peers in Canada’s architectural and academic communities, realms where one would think his buildings had earned deep respect. Simon Fraser University has applied for a demolition permit to wipe away one of Erickson-Massey’s original buildings there, the first to be obliterated, rather than just diminished by the un-sympathetic design of follow-on buildings by others.  The Madge Hogarth student residence was funded and named after a pioneering feminist on SFU’s own faculty, who wished for a secure home for female students from the start.  Bruno Freschi was project architect, and described to me how the béton brut detailing links to the rest of Erickson’s SFU idiom, but with a special design for the residence windows to ensure privacy for young women, even quoting the grilled privacy windows Erickson had seen in the Islamic world (here done in cedar lattice—Oh! Canada…)  The Madge Hogarth residence will be replaced by a bland mid-rise residence by Dialog Architects—unless we on the Arthur Erickson Foundation and our supporters prevail.

Perhaps most shocking of all is what KPMB project architects Mitch Hall and Bruce Kuwabara (also currently President of CCA) have done to Erickson’s University Hall at the University of Lethbridge.  Their quarter billion-dollar classroom and laboratory building named “Science Commons” (full review by Graham Livesey in CA January) is the first to be set at the north end of Erickson’s “coulee to coulee” concrete bridge set above the prairie, fully celebrated and illustrated in Baird’s essay.  Seemingly an escapee from the Waterloo or Scarborough campuses, the new building turns Erickson’s magnificent megastructure into a mere pipsqueak with KPMB’s designed-in height, glass wrap, 20-foot continuous mechanical penthouse, and strangest of all, a largely decorative colonnade in tubular steel modern-doric colums on both sides, five storeys high.  I hope every Canadian architect and student and an awful lot of the general public reads Canadian Modern Architecture, study its inspiring visuals, then talks about it, and by doing this, pave the way for even better buildings.  A mere book will not prevent the disgraces as described above, but will surely increase the shame deserved by authors of design mistakes at this scale.

Now Vancouver-based, Trevor Boddy’s first book was a regional history of modernism, Canada’s first: Modern Architecture in Alberta. He has subsequently created books or exhibitions/catalogues on the following: Douglas Cardinal, Clifford Wiens, Bing Thom, Arthur Erickson, Fast + Epp, Bjarke Ingels, KPF (San Diego), Stantec (Airports), HCMA (Pools), Jeremy Sturgess, James Cheng and Alfred Waugh[13].

[1] Canadian Architecture 1960/70 Carol Moore Ede, Burns and MacEachern 1971

[2] The Architecture of Arthur Erickson Tundra Edition (not the following, inferior books) 1975

[3] Building Canada: An Architectural History of Canadian Life by Alan Gowans, any edition

[4] The Architecture of Arthur Erickson Tundra Edition (not the following, inferior books) 1975

[5] Ron Thom Massey Hall page 96

[6] Cover of Tilting by Robert Mellin

[7] York Square, Diamond Myers, page 187

[8] A History of Canadian Architecture by Harold Kalman, 1994

[9] An illustration of a John Lyle bank or the Ernest Cormier house on Mount Royal to cover the editorial point that the book picks up modernist developments in mid-conversation after EXPO 67, not the beginning

[10] I think it important to show this or a detail, as many readers will not know it

[11] Stone Band School, Peter Cardew

[12] My neologism for “Erickson + Pandemonium”—I think our readers will get it without a definition.

[13] Elsa, this is longer than the usual bio-blurb on your pages, but I appear rarely now, and this is useful for your readers to understand the range of book/exhibition types I have done, and my architect-collaborators.