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Unfurling the outskirts: Canada's new spirit emerges from prosperity, social democracy and environmental consciousness.

During the last decade, architecture in Canada has prospered. A growing population and an increasingly strong economy, that has outperformed the rest of the world since the late 1990s, have prompted significant changes and the need for new buildings designed to accommodate a range of uses. Although frequently portrayed by images of spectacular natural landscapes empty but for an isolated cabin or single canoe, Canada has become increasingly urban, with 78 per cent of its population now living in cities. These cities are also widely recognized as good places to live in--Vancouver has been consistently highly ranked in global surveys of the most desirable cities and, along with Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal, was recently included in the top 10 cities in the world with regard to standards of health. (1)

Much of Canada's new architecture is located in these cities and reflects the policies of a strong social democracy. Yet an increasing number of recent developments has been shaped by the private sector. An influx of investment from South-East Asia, coupled with the interest by North American and European developers, is radically changing the landscapes of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, while more modest but equally transformative projects are under way in other smaller cities across the country. Land reclamation coupled with re-use of former industrial sites has made it possible to create large urban tracts for new development. In Vancouver this has resulted in the construction of high-rise waterfront communities with densities that almost rival those of Hong Kong, while restoration of the historic city, Lachine Canal and former industrial buildings in Montreal and redevelopment of Toronto's former railway lands are significantly reshaping those cities. But such developments are creating new pressures on existing infrastructures, and in a country recognized for the quality of its urban life and social fabric there is an increasing realization that in the rush to build these brave new worlds the public realm has suffered. Anxieties voiced by the electorate, commentators and political leaders across the country are bringing changes and have most recently resulted in the creation of two new ministerial positions in Prime Minister Paul Martin's federal government; they have specific responsibilities for Canadian cities and affordable housing.

Historically, extremes of climate, culture, and landscape across Canada's vast territories have combined to create distinct regional differences in its architecture. However, as Canadian architects have been increasingly working beyond provincial and national boundaries and other significant commissions in Canada have been awarded to architects from abroad, these differences, although still evident, are becoming blurred. The enthusiasm for a new international style is arguably most evident in Toronto where the extension to the Ontario College of Art and Design, designed by Will Alsop, has brought a fragment of Archigram's Walking City onto McCaul Street (p42). Soon to be accompanied by an extension to the Art Gallery of Ontario next door by Frank Gehry (p43), it is also only a short stroll away from the University of Toronto's Graduate Residence designed by Morphosis to form an emphatic entrance to the campus. The city's enthusiasm for civic landmarks designed by internationally renowned architects, highlighted by the iconic form of Viljo Revell's City Hall from the 1950s, is further underlined by the construction of Daniel Libeskind's extension to the Royal Ontario Museum (p43) and the new Opera House designed by A. J. Diamond that is currently under way. And while this enthusiasm is less evident elsewhere in Canada, the international competitions for the Bibliotheque Nationale du Quebec in Montreal and a Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, together with the appointments of Dixon Jones to design the National Portrait Gallery in Ottawa and Michael Maltzan as the architect for a new extension to the Art Gallery in Vancouver, indicate a widening interest in bringing new ideas and greater international attention through the commissioning of significant pieces of modern architecture.

Craft and social commitment

In increasingly competitive arenas, it is sometimes difficult for young architects to gain a foothold. Some, like Shim Sutcliffe (p80), who have gained recognition during the past decade, have chosen to operate beyond the confines of conventional practice. Their work is characterized by a significant commitment to craft--something they credit to the rich array of fabricators, workshops and collaborators in southern Ontario. As a result, and in addition to designing and helping to make a series of award-winning buildings, they are also designing furniture and lighting. The same desire to bring design and fabrication closer together is also shaping work by other emerging practices. In the last few years AtelierBUILD have combined development and design skills to initiate a series of innovative new housing schemes in Montreal, while on the west coast Battersby Howat are managing both the design and construction of buildings and Forsythe + MacAllen have been designing award-winning glassware (see AR December 2002) alongside new buildings in Japan and folded paper rooms for housing in New York City.

While Canada is frequently identified with the United States--with whom it shares a 4000 mile border and its most significant trading relationship--social and political distances between the two countries have increased. Canada's decision not to send troops to Iraq and its more open social attitudes on abortion, gay marriage, the use of marijuana and opposition to capital punishment, when combined with commitments to a single tier socialized medical system and affordable and good public education define a country that is increasingly distinct from its southern neighbour. These characteristics have not gone unnoticed--a recent front page article in the New York Times suggested that Canada was steering closer to Europe than the US (2) while a lead article in The Economist in 2003 identified 'Canada's new spirit'. (3)

During the past ten years, the commitment to social responsibility has noticeably affected architecture in Canada. There has been a number of innovative projects designed to provide community care while the construction of educational facilities for all ages and the value of sustainability have taken on increasing importance for architects, planners, developers and politicians alike.


Canada tops the list for education spending in the G7 countries and the architectural consequences are obvious. Policies to encourage immigration have created needs for a wide range of new educational facilities across the country, and a provincial directive to eliminate Grade 13 secondary education that was initiated in Ontario several years ago has also increased enrolment in higher education. Existing colleges and universities are expanding and new campuses are being created. On the University of Toronto downtown campus, for example, inspired moves to commission architecture of international significance have resulted in an impressive collection of new buildings. The first major building in this recent wave of development, designed by Morphosis, provides new housing for 440 graduate students, and subsequent projects have been designed by Foster, Behnisch and leading Canadian architects. In the suburbs, new buildings are expanding campuses at Scarborough, Erindale and at York University, while the completely new University of Ontario is already admitting students. Farther afield, other university campuses are being developed with new buildings, while community colleges, like Centennial College in Ontario and Nicola College in British Columbia, are expanding their facilities and creating new educational opportunities.

Canadian identities

In Quebec, the development of new educational facilities and cultural buildings also underlines the distinctive identity of French Canada. For example, Gerard Godain College, designed by Saucier + Perrotte and completed in 2000, rehabilitated a former monastery and added new buildings to create a French-speaking institution, while the new Bibliotheque Nationale du Quebec in the city--designed by Patkau Architects--will house a large Quebec collection when it opens in 2005. However, it is the improvements to Montreal's public domain that constitute some of the most impressive projects. The new Quartier International (p50), the re-use of historic buildings and creation of new urban spaces like Place d'Youville, and the reclamation of the waterfront are impressive examples of how that city is being reconstructed.

Vancouver, with ocean, beaches and mountains nearby, has also seen significant new development. And while Erickson's Robson Square continues to work as one of the most elegant and convincing pieces of Modern urban building in the world, Yaletown--a former warehouse district--has been brought back into use with the restoration of buildings to house a mix of residential and retail activities. At the same time, many former office buildings in Vancouver have also been converted to housing and shops--moves that have re-established significant urban communities yet that have recently been put on hold by a city faced with the prospect of creating a resort with a downtown where fewer people actually come to work.

In the United States, where energy seems plentiful, both architects and clients have difficulty acknowledging the need for sustainable design. Different societal priorities in Canada are increasingly shaping new architecture. The preoccupation with environmental sustainability, which results in Canada being ranked fourth in the world compared with America which is placed 45th and the United Kingdom 91st. (4) It is a cause that has been enthusiastically taken up by architects, their clients and government. Buildings like the Richmond City Hall, the Red River College in Winnipeg and the new campus for the University of Ontario, designed by Diamond Schmitt to use geothermal energy from 400 wells and avoid reliance on fossil fuels, demonstrate impressive design initiatives while recent decisions like that of the Vancouver City Council to require that all new public buildings in the city over 5000sq ft (464[m.sup.2]) meet LEED Gold standards (5) are indicative of new levels of political commitment.

Joseph Brodsky has suggested that 'contrary to popular belief, the outskirts are not where the world ends--they are precisely where it begins to unfurl'. (6) If Canada is considered at the outskirts of a world that is dominated by America and the European Community, the new architecture being created there clearly indicates that it is a place of significance and one where another very different world is unfurling.


Many thanks are due to Michael Hellyer, former director of Academic Affairs at the Canadian High Commission, London for his enthusiastic and sustained support for the idea of a publication focusing on new architecture in Canada, to Dr Lorraine Oak, Director of Canadian/US Studies at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York for her advice, and to numerous colleagues across Canada who provided invaluable information, assistance and access to buildings. B.C.

1. Mercer Quality of Life Surveys, 2003/04.

2. The New York Times, 2 December 2003.

3. The Economist, 27 September-3 October 2003, p13.

4. 2002 Environmental sustainability index (ESI) sourced from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

5. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-based American standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. Members of the US Green Building Council representing all segments of the building industry developed LEED to establish a common standard, promote integrated design practices, encourage environmental leadership in the building industry, raise consumer awareness of green building benefits and transform the building market. The Canadians are currently reviewing LEED to ensure that the criteria applied in Canada are particularly relevant to the characteristics of the country.

6. Joseph Brodsky, 'On Derek Walcott', New York Review of Books, 10 November 1983.
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Title Annotation:Comment
Author:Lecuyer, Annette
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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