Canada: Modern Architectures in History is the first national survey of modern architecture to appear since Harold Kalman’s two volume set in 1994. It is also the eleventh book in a series that has received critical acclaim since its debut in 2006. Like other books in the series, Canada situates architectural modernism in its broader cultural context, with particular attention to how social, political, and economic forces shaped a national building culture. For the most part, the book delivers as promised. Canada is a thoroughly researched and detailed survey that weaves together new scholarship with primary sources, revealing the plurality of modern architectural practice and highlighting its important role in forging modern Canadian society.
Richly illustrated and under four hundred pages in length, the book offers a tightly framed overview of Canadian architectural history spanning more than a century, touching on developments in urban planning, landscape architecture, and the allied arts. The writing is concise and to the point, but with little room left for reflection and summary the book’s brevity can also be frustrating. Students and non-expert readers may find the text difficult at times owing to the sheer density of information.
The authors define architectural modernism through its relationship to two, interrelated contexts: firstly, the political, financial, industrial, and sociocultural evolution of Canadian society, and secondly, a consumer-driven economy characterized by technological change and urban-suburban growth. These two contexts act as a frame for viewing architecture that renders it de facto modern while reflecting in it a series of transformations to Canadian society at large. Other developments serve to underscore the peculiarities of Canadian practice, including a surge in cultural nationalism during the 1960s which led Canadian architects to adapt modernist principles with greater sensitivity to address issues of site and liveability, a phenomenon the authors refer to as “contextual modernism.”
Each of the five chapters is framed by events familiar to historians of all stripes, from the opening Canada’s transcontinental railway in 1886, to the two world wars, Expo ’67, and the defeat of Trudeau’s liberals and their “just society” in 1984. The selection of case studies is based on eight thematic categories: dwelling, connecting, learning, representing, working, constructing, consuming, and recreating. Through the waxing and waning of these categories we are meant to register Canadians’ shifting priorities as political and economic events wrought changes to the country. The book is mostly democratic in its geographical representation, although a greater portion is dedicated to Canada’s three largest cities, and among these Vancouver looms large. The authors are forthright in acknowledging that modernism had certain regional biases built into it since architectural education, wealth, and expertise coalesced in urban areas. However, this unevenness is also representative of the current state of modern architecture scholarship in Canada, a field that is still very much in its infancy.
Other themes help unify a long view of architectural modernism, such as architecture’s role in nurturing the rise of consumer society or showcasing federalist policy. This latter theme is especially evident after 1945 when infrastructure and housing were pillars of welfare state ideology, and as modern architecture spread throughout the public sphere following a surge in cultural, educational, and religious commissions. The dramatic effect of post-war reconstruction is also palpable in sub-urban expansion where modern housing at once ratified ideas about the role of women and the nuclear family in post-war Canadian society. This socio-political lens culminates in the final two chapters, bracketed by Pierre Trudeau’s social liberal policies and a neo-liberal shift to laisser-faire capitalism that—paradoxically—made pressing issues out of social and affordable housing. The authors coin this phase “regenerative modernism,” a term that implicitly welcomes architecture’s renewed social mandate. Spanning the period 1985 to the present, the last chapter provides a much needed survey of contemporary architecture and highlights the changing nature of the profession itself following an all-encompassing digital turn and spike in multi-national practices.
The book’s greatest weakness is its excessive use of formal analysis as a mode of architectural inquiry. In addition to placing undue emphasis on the exterior of buildings, this focus fails to capture developments in the programmatic, social, and experiential spheres. It also discounts recent scholarship which asserts architecture’s role in shaping ideas about ethnicity, class, and sexuality, as well as the importance of architectural interiors as a site for the formation of modern subjectivities. Just 28 of the 241 illustrations in Canada describe the interior of buildings (31 if you include legible plans), and more than half these appear in the third and fourth chapters where the authors perceive a new unity between the interior and exterior of buildings occasioned by a common, industrial language in the allied arts, or “modernist total design” (133). Other statements also leave us questioning the value of formalism in probing for cultural significance, like the tendentious claim that modernism’s “tabula rasa of architectural form” was accommodating to “the ever more diverse identity of the Canadian population and the geographical diversity of its landscape” (19); tendentious because it ascribes identity politics to shapes and patterns, and dissociates modernism from earlier, architectural traditions.
Like other writers in the series, the authors embrace the concept of hybridity in order to recognize how modernism incorporates history and is contaminated by the free exchange of ideas across national borders. However, whereas other writers use hybridity to integrate peripheral practices into the modernist ethos, readers of Canada will find a mostly familiar list of projects and people. The prominence of non-Canadians like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen (often merely as referents) reveals the authors’ commitment to a traditional corpus of modern history focusing on “great” buildings by “great” people. Indeed, a full third of the book is dedicated to the so-called high modernism of the period 1945 to 1967, and other variants of modernism are typically treated as either nascent or degenerate forms.
Contributions by women are conspicuously absent. This is despite the fact that the authors acknowledge that modernism was “an array of essentializing, exclusionary positions” (127). And while they do include caveats, like the fact that in 1953 just three women graduated with architectural degrees in Canada, this imbalance could easily have been redressed by highlighting practitioners like Esther Hill, Eva Vecsei, or Blanche Lemco (later van Ginkel), among others. Landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander—a frequent collaborator with Arthur Erickson—is introduced awkwardly as the “wife of Peter Oberlander” (133). To their credit, the authors do include a protracted discussion about the increasing visibility of women in contemporary practice, and the selection of case studies from 1985 onwards better reflects this sea change. Also welcome is the inclusion of indigenous issues, including work by contemporary aboriginal practitioners that seeks to re-establish traditional values in design. Incorporating some lesser known architects would have allowed the authors to address other pressing twenty-first century concerns as well, including universal design and the status of other, visible minorities in architectural culture.
Canada eloquently shows how modernism was a unifying force capable of transcending vast distances and accommodating diverse cultural and professional constituencies. Rather than dilute the coherence of modern architecture in Canada, the authors argue, a pragmatic impulse to absorb modernist trends into their own multi-faceted praxis is a characteristic of Canadian practice that has lifted its architecture onto the world stage. Canada is required reading for scholars of the built environment and will be asset in the classroom.