Articles

Politicking for Postwar Modernism: The Architectural Research Group of Ottawa and Montreal

  • Dustin Valen
Couverture de Volume 45, numéro 2, spring 2017, p. 5-64, Urban History Review

Corps de l’article

Formed in 1938 to conduct research into postwar reconstruction, the Architectural Research Group of Ottawa and Montreal was instrumental in spreading and acclimatizing modernist thought across the country. As a group, they produced articles, radio addresses, and exhibitions in an effort to stimulate building and planning reform. For these young architects, the federal government’s commitment to re-planning and rebuilding postwar Canadian cities presented them with an opportunity to intervene in the future of Canadian practice. They decried the “backwardness” of conservative, Canadian practitioners while promoting the ideas of a European avant-garde and orchestrating numerous transatlantic exchanges. Considering the diversity and scope of their activities, it is altogether surprising that the group and many of its members remain virtually unknown to scholars throughout Canada today, despite the fact that among the group’s members were some of the foremost proponents of Modern architecture and planning in Canada, many of whom went on to occupy prominent positions in leading private and public institutions. This article discusses the group’s role in politicking for architectural and urban modernism, as well as the contributions of some of its key members. In particular, it focuses on the role of Canadian architect Hazen Edward Sise, who, in addition to being one of the group’s most active members, now serves as their unofficial record keeper by virtue of the preservation of his personal papers at the Library and Archives Canada. His archive provides an invaluable window onto the activities of a group of practitioners for whom very few personal records exist.

In Canada the diffusion of modernist sentiment was catalyzed by one magnetic event. In 1945 the federal government invited the famous French architect and urban designer Jacques Gréber to prepare a plan for the national capital and its surrounding region. Outraged by the government’s decision and their own lack of participation, young Canadian architects attempted to devalue the government’s planning efforts in Ottawa by offering an alternative, “participatory” framework for community planning, which they then aggressively marketed through public channels. Operating within and through key government-sponsored agencies, they chastised the government for its allegedly outmoded and conservative approach to re-planning the country’s capital. However, their real goal in mounting this campaign was to promote a specific vision of modernity while using Ottawa’s example as a rallying cry for young professionals across the country.

The reception and diffusion of modernist principles in Canadian architecture and planning during the immediate postwar period has received little scholarly attention. Historians of Modern architecture point to educational reforms in schools of architecture across the country and the consumption of international media during the postwar years as leading Canadian practitioners to turn their attention towards European and American culture. Also frequently noted is the accelerated pace of transatlantic exchange that took place as a result of European emigration during and after the Second World War.[1] Likewise, historians of planning often identify the influence of functionalist planning doctrine in many postwar planning schemes, stressing also the importance of interventionist public policy, like the National Housing Acts of 1938 and 1944, which gave Canada’s federal government a leading role in promoting and financing urban renewal.[2] While historians generally agree that postwar Canadian architecture and urbanism was inflected with a high degree of modernist cosmopolitanism, the reception and diffusion of these ideas within Canada is seldom discussed, nor is the way in which Canada’s public institutions helped spread this knowledge.[3] Even less well understood are the contributions made by Canadian professionals to an evolving modernist discourse at the international level.

Although by the 1950s and 1960s most Canadian cities were a veritable crucible of urban and architectural modernism— including its functional, material, and aesthetic dimensions— it was during the immediate postwar period that these modernist inclinations were cultivated. From roughly the late 1930s to the late 1940s Canadian practitioners and their publics were introduced and warmed to the ideas of international modernism, establishing a broad basis of support for these future, transformative projects. This article will be of interest to historians of Modern architecture and urbanism, as well as those concerned with the broader field of postwar Canadian culture. It shows that Canadian professionals were not simply passive receptors of international modernism but played an active part in transmitting and shaping these ideas during the immediate postwar period. And that Canada’s federal government played a unique role in accelerating this process by allowing modernist architects and planners to operate within and through a number of government-sponsored agencies.

Part of the difficulty in identifying the precise influences that Modern Movement polemics had on postwar Canadian planning and building practices is the fact that modernism itself consisted of many diverse practices, views, and geographies. By the 1940s a rationalist approach to planning and building espoused by members of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) was receiving worldwide attention. This approach was articulated in a manifesto-like charter produced as a result of the group’s fourth congress in 1933 that was subsequently published by Le Corbusier in 1943 and formed the basis of José Luis Sert’s influential book Can Our Cities Survive? (1942) in which Sert outlined an integrated approach to urban planning by dividing the city into four functional parts: dwelling, work, transportation, and recreation.[4] Functionalism, however, was also an elastic concept that could be applied to a range of scales, from objects, to buildings, cities, and regions. Nor did it preclude modernist planners from synthesizing other popular British and American planning movements, which they often combined with a proclivity for renewal. Like many of their contemporaries, Modern architects were possessed with an unshakable faith in progress, and they believed the rational application of scientific and technical expertise to planning and building practices was the logical outcome of this historical process. For them, modernity was equally a social and political project whereby the logical organization of the built environment would have a positive effect on the economic, technological, and spiritual well-being of humankind. What situated CIAM at the vanguard of this conversation was their adept use of propaganda to promote their brand of modernism. In print, exhibitions, and films, avant-garde architects wove their technocratic faith into a compelling grand narrative that situated modernism at the apex of history.[5]

By the late 1930s, many Canadians were convinced of this modernist creed and made a substantial effort to transfer these lessons to Canada. Two exhibitions organized by members of the Architectural Research Group in 1941 and 1946 are illustrative in this regard. They show how Modern architecture and planning principles were communicated to a mass audience in the pre-television age, but also how Canadian practitioners used visual media to articulate their own professional aspirations. In this, their work resembles that of other architects and planners in colonial states such as Australia and South Africa, where a series of postwar exhibitions served as vehicles for the importation of European-styled modernism.[6] However, the Architectural Research Group’s promotions are also illuminating for their use of contradistinctive terms, including democracy/absolutism and participation/elitism, as a persuasive strategy to bolster their modernist polemic. In part, this strategy reflects a subtext of “participation” within CIAM discourse itself that aimed to humanize the avant-garde.[7] But it also highlights how Modern Movement adherents negotiated specific challenges in Canada as state intervention in urban reform and conservatism within the established profession risked marginalizing their practice.

The Architectural Research Group’s vision of Canadian modernity was based on that of CIAM. Using Stephen Ward’s framework for the international diffusion of planning, the group can be seen as promoting the “undiluted borrowing” of foreign ideas and practices.[8] Ward observes how a shift occurred during the 1930s and 1940s as British influences came to supplant American-inspired New Deal reformism in Canadian planning discourse. He credits this shift to the large number of British migrant planning professionals who arrived in Canada during the postwar years and who occupied senior positions in many Canadian public institutions.[9] Indeed, among the Architectural Research Group’s members were several British émigrés as well as Canadians with British experience. However, evaluating their work in this framework points to the marked influence of CIAM within the constellation of Canadian practice and suggests further that public engagement with non-specialist audiences was an important vector for the diffusion and praxis of Canadian modernism.

The Architectural Research Group

In 1938 a small group of Montreal-based architects formed the Architectural Research Group (ARG) to investigate re-planning and rebuilding in Montreal.[10] For almost a decade, the city’s infrastructure and housing had languished and decayed as a result of the Great Depression.[11] Chief among ARG’s goals was to reinvigorate the architectural profession by addressing the urgent need for town planning and housing reform, as well as new techniques in building construction like prefabrication and standardization. In 1940 the group was joined by John Bland, a Canadian-born architect who had recently returned to Montreal to direct McGill’s School of Architecture.[12] That year the group sent an open letter to the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) urging architects to consider not just the problem of building “but of everything which grows from building— streets, towns and regions, real estate values and slums, health, amenity and productive efficiency.”[13] It was urgent, they argued, for national and provincial associations to consider the pressing needs of Canada’s largest cities, including worsening traffic conditions, obsolete building legislation, and uncontrolled growth, before the anticipated postwar building and population boom. “If the associations, or the older or more successful or blasé architects, can’t or won’t see the importance of these opportunities, these duties, to the profession,” they charged, “surely the younger men have enough faith left to join together and rebuild the status and the reputation of the profession.”[14]

By 1941 ARG remained a small but active group mostly comprising recent graduates and a number of Bland’s own students (fig. 1). That year the group produced an exhibition on city planning entitled “City for Living,” which emphasized the value of planning “from an architectural viewpoint.”[15] Co-created by ARG members John Bland, Campbell Merrett, and Harry Mayerovitch, as well as the American architect Chloethiel Woodard, the exhibition consisted of a series of didactic panels encircling the gallery that incorporated photographs, drawings, and text[16] (figs. 2, 3, and 4). It was divided into three sections describing the history of Montreal and its growth since 1642, the present state of affairs, and the city’s imagined future as seen through a series of Modern planning objectives. It argued for better planning measures to control uncontrolled expansion, remove slums, improve urban health, and provide better parks, schools, and other amenities. Meant to stimulate discussions between citizens and professionals about the need for a comprehensive urban and regional plan for Montreal, the exhibition opened the same day Montreal City Council voted to create a dedicated planning department.[17] The opening was attended by hundreds of people, including the city’s mayor, members of the newly appointed planning commission, and several journalists.[18] In the weeks that followed over 6000 people visited the exhibition, breaking attendance records at the gallery.[19]

Figure 1

ARG members John Bland, Campbell Merrett, and Harry Mayerovitch with Chloethiel Woodard, 1941

Courtesy the Merrett family

-> Voir la liste des figures

The exhibition organizers worked closely with several ARG members and assistants to construct and install the exhibition. Among their collaborators was a young, Montreal-born architect by the name of Hazen Sise (fig. 5). Sise was a self-styled apostle of modernism who had spent several years in Europe, where he apprenticed in the atelier of Le Corbusier and joined CIAM.[20] The success of ARG’s exhibition would have a transformative effect on Sise.[21] Not long after the exhibition opened, Sise left Montreal to work as a film producer with the National Film Board of Canada in Ottawa.[22] From there, he remained a tireless promoter of Modern architecture and planning, adopting ARG’s methods and extending their message to Ottawa. Of particular importance to Sise was the degree to which the exhibition had mobilized visual propaganda to convey modernist planning ideology as a democratizing force. Not long after he arrived at the Film Board, Sise authored a manuscript promoting the recent ARG exhibition. “Transforming our environment,” he wrote, “must be tackled as a collective endeavour, democratically, not imposed from above.”[23] As he summarized the exhibition’s key argument, “In this way ‘City for Living’ grew. Not in an ivory tower as the conception of a few, possibly isolated minds. It grew and in growing was continually modified by contact with the real, everyday world of people. Starting as the brain-child of a few, it ended as the product of many minds. By the time it was opened to the public it had already been discussed and written about; it had become a part, even [though] a small part, of civic consciousness. This is the only fruitful way—and in fact the only way which should be acceptable to a democratic people.”[24]

Figure 2

Source: John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University

Figure 3

Source: John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University

Figure 4

Source: John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University

ARG, “City for Living,” 1941

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Figure 5

Hazen Sise, 1955

Photo by Gaby (Gabriel Desmarais) © Ronald Desmarais

-> Voir la liste des figures

By demonstrating the collaborative nature of rational and functional city planning, Sise believed the exhibition portrayed modernist principles not as “ivory tower” ideology but as a practical response to the “everyday world of people.” In doing so, the exhibition’s visual argument also anticipated to a remarkable degree the Film Board’s new role in promoting and shaping Canada’s postwar transformation. Under the stewardship of John Grierson, the National Film Board would quickly become one the most effective propaganda organs in Canadian history as its mandate shifted from supporting the war effort to promoting urban and architectural reform in a postwar world. Grierson believed that the propagandizing power of media was ideally suited to advancing government policy and could be used to stimulate Canada’s postwar reconstruction.[25] As such, he accorded a special role to visual artists, architects, and other design professionals who he often placed on staff at the Film Board. In 1940, for example, he recruited the Montreal-born architect and painter Harry Mayerovitch to direct the Wartime Information Board’s Graphic Arts Division. Sise was also allowed considerable freedom in promoting planning and reconstruction under Grierson’s supervision. Beginning in the late 1940s, the Film Board started producing didactic films, publications, and other displays meant to explain the social and economic benefits of reconstruction to Canadians in non-specialist terms.

It was with this dual role in mind that Sise co-founded the Architectural Research Group of Ottawa (ARGO) in 1943, together with a group of young, Ottawa-based architects and servicemen.[26] Henceforth, Sise was the animating force behind ARGO. To a large extent, his views were ARGO’s views, and vice-versa. Like their predecessor in Montreal, the group sought to promote planning and building as a collaborative venture between specialists and citizens, and to exploit visual propaganda to this effect. Two years later, a published list of past and present members included twenty-seven individuals.[27]

Plan for the National Capital

Beginning in 1945, the democratic sensibilities underlying ARGO’s modernist project would serve another purpose altogether. That year Sise composed a special edition of Canadian Affairs (a journal printed and published by the Film Board and illustrated by fellow ARGO member Mayerovitch) entitled “A Place to Live,” where he stressed the link between democracy and modernism in planning and building (fig. 6). At the time of writing, he was both a member of ARGO and an employee of the government-sponsored Film Board. The pamphlet’s objectives were thus twofold. On the one hand, it was meant to promote recent government policy, including the new National Housing Act of 1944, which gave Canada’s federal government a leading role in housing reform. On the other hand, it reiterated the objectives of a small group of young Canadian architects whose modern vision had been interrupted by the Depression and war years. For these architects, democracy and modernity were inextricable.[28] In the past, Sise wrote, “most noteworthy planning was effected under absolutist forms of government with an emphasis on glorification of the ruler.” By focusing on grandiose avenues, vistas, and plazas, this “ceremonial approach” to urban design had failed to address the everyday needs of urban citizens. In contrast, Sise presented functional city planning as a profoundly democratic activity.[29]

Figure 6

Hazen Sise, “A Place to Live,” Canadian Affairs 2, no. 7 (1941)

Source: Library and Archives Canada

-> Voir la liste des figures

His views were inspired by José Luis Sert’s Can Our Cities Survive? Sise’s idiom, “A Place to Live,” combined all the tenets of Modern planning—recreation, hygiene, high-speed traffic, separation of building uses—with mass-produced housing and modern-style public buildings. Crucial to the success of his vision was a participatory approach to planning and building. “If Canadian architecture were in a healthy condition,” he wrote, “there would be no need either for public discussion or government action. Design could safely be left to the experts.”[30] To become modern, however, a public forum was needed where government, experts, and citizens could all work together to improve Canada’s cities. With Neighbourhood Planning Councils forming the basic building block of this participatory approach, Sise believed that functional buildings and cities would be the inevitable result of empowering practically minded citizens instead of bygone artistic elites.[31]

Figure 7

View of Parliament from across the Ottawa River, 1945

Source: Library and Archives Canada

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Written in 1945, Sise’s—and ARGO’s—appeal to democratic sensibilities was also an urgent and calculated piece of criticism. Earlier that year, a significant development in postwar reconstruction had occurred when the government announced it would develop a comprehensive plan for Canada’s Capital Region, led by the famous French architect Jacques Gréber. Like most postwar Canadian cities, Ottawa was an excellent candidate for re-planning. The city was ridden with slums, polluting industrial buildings, and criss-crossed by railway tracks with dangerous level crossings (fig. 7). Efforts to remedy these defects were begun much earlier. In 1936 Canada’s prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, travelled to France, where he toured the future site of the Paris Exposition. His guide for that tour was none other than the fair’s chief architect, Jacques Gréber. The prime minister and French architect quickly became friends. In 1937 Gréber was invited to prepare a design for Ottawa, but the development of these plans was soon interrupted by the outbreak of war.[32] In 1945, with the war’s end in sight, the prime minister invited Gréber to complete a plan for the National Capital. This time, however, the 900-square-mile region was also to serve as a living war memorial and help stimulate urban renewal across the country by providing a model for future planning policy.[33] To help speed the development of the plan and ensure its implementation, a special planning commission was created and placed under Gréber’s direct charge.[34]

Opposition to the federal government’s plans was swift, and in Ottawa ARGO led the charge. If the re-planning of the capital was meant to be an example for other Canadian cities and preserve the memory of Canada’s war effort, they asked, why was a foreign architect commissioned to oversee the work? A foreign architect, moreover, who had been invited without the prior approval of the Canadian people, and whose methods—ARGO accused—were old-fashioned.[35] Gréber was widely known for his numerous City Beautiful plans executed throughout Europe and America, which he illustrated in the Beaux-Arts manner using pastel and colour washes. ARGO believed this artistic approach to planning was practically anathema to functionalism.[36] They bristled further at the suggestion that no Canadians were qualified to oversee the work.[37]

Just days after Gréber’s appointment, an article by ARGO member Frederic Lasserre appeared in a local Ottawa newspaper arguing that people wanted the city “brought up to date, its new buildings modern—not old fashioned.” “Beauty should follow function,” Lasserre continued, pointing out how a whole generation of young Canadian architects and planners “conditioned to our present day problems” had been waiting for just such an opportunity.[38] To prevent further political interference and to check Gréber’s influence, ARGO believed that Canadian professionals should propose the administrative machinery under which the new Ottawa plan would be prepared.[39] They called for the establishment of an advisory committee made up of independent Canadian professionals to oversee the plan’s development and vote on its acceptance prior to submitting the plans for government approval.[40]

A week later Sise took to the airwaves to give a talk on community planning.[41] Reiterating how Ottawa’s example would help stimulate a nationwide interest in planning and serve as a model for other Canadian cities, he cautioned listeners that “the primary object is not, and cannot be, mere beautification … That would be akin to the ancient and deplorable habit of designing buildings with Queen Anne fronts—and Mary Ann backs.” Unlike this antiquated view of planning, he continued, Modern planning was concerned with the “economic and social well-being of the whole community” and enlisted the participation of the average citizen to achieve this goal. He then issued a blatant provocation: “As so often before in history, the technical means at our disposal have far outstripped our political comprehension of how the task is to be carried out.”[42]

In an effort to allay these fears Gréber called for greater co- operation. He referred to his own role as that of a “consultant … independent of any local or political preoccupation” and promised that the work of the planning commission would be done by Canadians.[43] However, ARGO’s concerns were soon amplified when Gréber selected his former pupil from the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts, Édouard Fiset, and the fifty-three-year-old architect John Kitchen of Ottawa as his associates. Neither of the two came close to embodying ARGO’s modernist ideal. Political interference in the plan also continued. The prime minister followed the planning commission’s activity closely, attended their early meetings, and kept meticulous notes on their progress.[44] To make matters worse, planning Canada’s National Capital Region would proceed behind closed doors, without public consultation or oversight.

In emphasizing the apparent distance between Gréber’s Beaux-Arts inspired approach to city planning and their own, modernist creed, ARGO’s critique acquired a persuasive edge that did little justice to the French planner. In actuality, the City Beautiful movement to which he subscribed was highly pragmatic in its approach. It embraced many progressive era ideals, such as efficient circulation, zoning, green space, and the removal of antisocial behaviour through improved living conditions, all of which were reflected in CIAM’s principles. Nor were modernists averse to using infrastructure as an ordering and symbolic element in the layout of cities, as evidenced by Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin of 1925, which projected onto central Paris a rigid pattern of uniform towers in a park-like setting with linear housing blocks beyond. Moreover, by mid-century there were numerous examples of City Beautiful plans prepared for major Canadian cities that had been developed in close collaboration with city officials, engineers, business owners, and other social reformers.[45]

Rather than an exercise in erudite criticism, then, ARGO’s critical response should be viewed as a rhetorical strategy—one that aimed to dispossess an older generation of architects and planners whose conservative views—they felt—were an impediment to their own entry into the profession and to obtaining lucrative public commissions. Among these was the Chief Architect’s Branch in Ottawa, a bureaucratic organization consisting of many senior architects and engineers who oversaw the design of federal buildings.[46] That these anxieties should manifest in Ottawa during the 1940s is hardly surprising, given the prime minister’s own conservative tastes and his desire to have Gréber transpose a classically inspired, European urbanism to Ottawa. King was equally conservative in his appreciation of architecture. He admired the Château style advocated in Edward Bennett’s 1915 plan of Ottawa and was decidedly opposed to the use of Modern architecture in the capital region. In 1938 King had intervened in the design of the new Supreme Court of Canada by the noted Canadian architect Ernst Cormier, insisting that Cormier add a Château-inspired roof to his Stripped Classical facade.[47] In contrast, Gréber had designed several buildings and landscapes, which ranged from classical to modernist in their expression, favoured functionalism in the design of technical buildings, and was critical of the government’s use of “outmoded,” gothic forms in federal buildings.[48] Under King’s close supervision, however, there could be little doubt of Gréber’s direction in preparing the Ottawa plan.

Ironically, ARGO’s ability to sustain their critique of the federal government’s plans was aided by another government-sponsored body, the National Film Board. For these young architects, and for Sise—who remained an employee of the organization—the Film Board’s mandate to promote postwar reconstruction provided them with an important outlet for their modernizing impulse. In 1945 Sise asked the Film Board for a “‘carte blanche’ to work on housing and community planning studies.”[49] He worked tirelessly to spread ARGO’s views among the ranks of the Film Board and to other public offices, encouraging his government colleagues to take an interest in Modern architecture and planning, and distributing books and articles to high-ranking public officials. He sent the under-secretary of state for external affairs an article on Soviet architecture and a copy of Can Our Cities Survive?, explaining to him that CIAM “represent the very best in modern architecture, I think you will be running across their influence in the future.”[50] He then circulated the same among his colleagues at the Film Board, including Grierson to whom he wrote that CIAM was “the link between the most vigorous, able and socially conscious planners throughout the world.”[51] He also solicited material from his friends and other young architects for use in the Film Board’s promotional material.[52]

As a result of his position at the Film Board, Sise also attempted to intervene in the planning of Ottawa directly. Citing their mutual interest in housing and planning, Sise prepared a letter in 1945 on behalf of the Film Board extending an official offer to help Gréber promote the Ottawa plan and later served on a special committee formed to advise the planning commission on the production of promotional material and to oversee a series of films promoting urban planning.[53] As a result of these solicitations, Sise was also able to communicate directly with Gréber on several occasions. He arranged for Gréber to meet with members of the government Statistics Bureau, supplied him with photographs and illustrated material for use in his lectures, and—on one occasion—even offered him planning advice.[54] After visiting Gréber’s office in 1946, Sise asked if a topographical model and maquette of the Ottawa and Hull region wouldn’t be helpful.[55] The Film Board was subsequently commissioned to oversee this work.

“Your City and You”

ARGO’s promotional efforts were redoubled as events unfolded in Ottawa. With Gréber firmly installed as leader of the committee that would oversee to re-planning of Ottawa, ARGO sought to leverage this occasion as a way to promote their own ideals. Late in 1945 they secured the financial support of several public institutions to research and construct an exhibition on community planning.[56] Among their sponsors was the Film Board, who believed that the exhibition would serve as precedent for future projects and who allowed ARGO the use of their workshop to design and build the exhibition.[57] In a letter to his employer, Sise later explained how the primary object of the exhibition was to “give the average person a broad grasp of the process of planning.” It was, he wrote, a “plea for the participation of the citizen in the planning process” and “places no emphasis on purely aesthetic considerations.”[58] Underlying the exhibition’s message, of course, was a barely disguised and unflattering comment on recent events in Ottawa. Unlike Gréber and the secretive planning commission, the exhibition described a collaborative approach to community planning, whose decisions were based on the functional and social needs of everyday citizens, not the grand civic gestures for which Gréber was renowned. ARGO even proposed using a sample neighbourhood in Ottawa to illustrate this approach. Surprisingly, it was only this last point that raised several eyebrows among their sponsors.

Upon learning of ARGO’s intentions, the Department of Finance immediately withdrew their support for the exhibition, citing a conflict between its content and the government’s own plans.[59] To mitigate these concerns the Film Board wrote to Gréber, asking for his permission to proceed and describing the project as an experimental foray for future promotions.[60] Gréber’s reply, which came just two days later, enthusiastically endorsed the exhibition.[61] His approval, however, was something of a moot point. Less than a week earlier Sise and nine other ARGO members had hosted an “evening with Mr. Jacques Greber” at the Film Board studios where Gréber was regaled and refreshed by the young architects after previewing the work in progress.[62]

Entitled “Your City and You: An Approach to Community Planning,” the completed exhibition consisted of twenty-one panels, measuring four feet by five feet each, with bold graphics and a montage of images and text[63] (fig. 8). Like its predecessor in Montreal, the exhibition presented a visual argument for architectural and urban renewal with overtones of international modernism. Unlike in Montreal, however, the legitimacy of this doctrine was now partially supported through its contrast with actual planning efforts in Ottawa. Ahead of the exhibition opening, hundreds of pamphlets describing its content were circulated to groups and individuals in Ottawa, including members of the Ottawa Planning Commission and the Prime Minister’s Office.[64] Citizen participation was a central theme, and ARGO’s pamphlet communicated this on no uncertain terms. What was needed, they wrote, was to “get the discussion out of the ‘back room’” so that citizens and professionals could share in discussions about the future of the city. Because the people most capable of determining the city’s planning needs were the people who lived there, no master plan imposed from above could ever capture the social and functional vitality of a living city.[65] In a further effort to imbricate the exhibition’s message with recent affairs, a press release even explained how Gréber had personally approved the ideas expressed in the show.[66]

Figure 8

ARGO, “Your City and You” exhibition panel, 1946

Source: Library and Archives Canada

-> Voir la liste des figures

The exhibition was divided into four sections. The first half discussed Ottawa’s historical growth and explained why it was necessary to reorganize the city through planning. It contrasted the tourists’ view of canals, parks, and “swank” houses with that of the social worker who perceived “real city life”—from blighted streets to children playing in the gutter, rush-hour traffic, and soot-strewn laundry. The city’s poor planning was blamed on past, superficial attempts at “beautification” conceived without citizen participation. To illustrate this point, a montage of earlier planning proposals was shown, which included Gréber’s 1938 scheme.[67]

The two sections that followed described the process of Modern planning by isolating a sample neighbourhood in Ottawa (located between Somerset Street West and Bronson Avenue). Rough sketches “made by neighbours in conversation” were integrated into each display alongside statistics and information about how schools, recreation, housing, and traffic needs were each addressed by professional planners. By contrasting poorly sited, dilapidated buildings with spacious, clean, and well-lit ones, Modern architecture became a vital component of Canada’s postwar revitalization (fig. 9). The final section identified all of Ottawa’s neighbourhoods and showed how they were connected by city-wide infrastructure. In order to reconcile these disparate scales, citizens were urged to form neighbourhood councils so that they could communicate their wishes to planning authorities (fig. 10). At the culmination of a participatory planning process was a workable master plan that addressed the everyday needs of modern city dwellers.[68]

Figure 9

Source: Library and Archives Canada

Figure 10

Source: Library and Archives Canada

ARGO, “Your City and You” exhibition panel, 1946

-> Voir la liste des figures

The exhibition opened on 19 January 1946 at the National Gallery of Canada.[69] Five days later, it served as a backdrop at a reception for dominion-provincial conference delegates. At the event, the prime minister drew further attention to the exhibition in a speech where, after reiterating his own personal interest in the re-planning of Ottawa, he acted surprised that “such a public-spirited effort” to promote these plans was underway.[70]

Figure 11

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

Figure 12

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

ARGO, “Your City and You” circulated by the National Gallery of Canada, 1945–6. Hudson’s Bay, Calgary, December 1946.

-> Voir la liste des figures

In the months that followed, the exhibition embarked on a cross-country tour visiting nine Canadian cities, from Quebec to Vancouver.[71] Organizers gave generally positive reviews of the exhibition, which appeared in a variety of settings for use by numerous different groups. In Quebec City the exhibition was displayed at the Provincial Museum in conjunction with the RAIC’s Annual Meeting. In Hamilton it was installed at the Royal Connaught Hotel for a convention of the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees and Motor Transport Workers. In Regina the exhibition was displayed in an automobile showroom where it received over 6000 visitors and “very favourable” comments.[72] In Calgary the exhibition’s impact was less spectacular. The panels were displayed in a storefront downtown where, during a stretch of cold weather, people were reluctant to stop and read them[73] (figs. 11 and 12). In 1948 the exhibition was circulated again, this time to eastern Canada.

Figure 13

Hazen Sise, design for a new National Film Board building, ca. 1947

Source: Library and Archives Canada

-> Voir la liste des figures

Institutionalizing Modernism

After 1945 ARGO became an increasingly important conduit for transnational ideas, connecting Canadian practitioners to an international group of avant-garde modernist thinkers—and vice-versa. It was with this objective in mind that Sise wrote his former CIAM colleagues in New York, where the group had established a Chapter for Relief and Postwar Planning.[74] In a letter to Sigfried Giedion he declared that “the time is ripe for the formation of a Canadian branch of the C.I.A.M.”[75] He believed that ARGO should form the core of this new chapter.[76] Throughout 1945 Sise continued to act as the group’s unofficial liaison between Ottawa and New York—keeping Giedion and others abreast of Canadian affairs and soliciting other Canadian practitioners to take an interest in CIAM’s cause.[77]

Through these communications ARGO contributed to the postwar restoration of an international discourse on Modern architecture and planning. Inspired by ARGO’s surreptitious use of the Film Board’s resources, Sise impressed on members of the New York chapter how the propagandizing power of media could be used to win public support for CIAM and transform the organization into a more effective educational force. He stressed this point to Giedion ahead of a meeting in 1945, suggesting further that they hold a special session on the “proper exploitation of visual aids to the dissemination of C.I.A.M. findings,” where Grierson would be invited to speak, and record the proceedings of the meeting to provide source material for future Film Board productions.[78]

In a separate attempt to pre-emptively modernize Ottawa’s architectural landscape, Sise convinced Grierson and other senior members of the Film Board to entrust him with designing a new building for the rapidly growing organization[79] (fig. 13). After lobbying for a building site that would enable a close working relationship and “constant personal contact” between the government and the Film Board, a site was selected on the Ottawa side nestled into the very heart of Gréber’s evolving plan.[80] As part of his design, Sise obtained a sketch of the surrounding area from Gréber and prepared detailed studies of the area according to the latest social and functionalist doctrinaire.[81] He analyzed traffic and circulation patterns, separated buildings by type, and divided the area into three neighbourhood units, each with its own business and shopping centre. By 1947 the proposed building was incorporated into the National Capital Plan and later appeared in the model of Gréber’s plan prepared by the Film Board and exhibited in the foyer of the Parliament Building in 1949 (figs. 14 and 15). The unrealized project included a 750-seat theatre, a large public lobby to display educational material, as well as studios, workshops, and offices. It was also starkly Modern in its conception and appearance. Arranged asymmetrically and in a “low and somewhat rambling ensemble of wings, courts and interconnected pavilions” dominated by a central administration block, the design was—in Sise’s opinion—“the logical architectural consequences of the [Film Board’s] requirements.”[82] In 1948 Sise sent Gideon images of his proposed design for the Film Board—along with a copy of the pamphlet “A Place to Live,” which he had written in 1945—remarking that “if it is built without harm from aesthetic censorship, it should constitute a mile-stone in Canadian architecture.”[83]

Figure 14

Source: Library and Archives Canada

Figure 15

Source: Library and Archives Canada

View and detail of the model built by the National Film Board for Jacques Gréber on display in the Parliament Building showing proposed new National Film Board building, 1949

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At the same time as ARGO was reasserting its commitment to the Modern Movement at an international level, the group’s influence spread rapidly in Canada through a network of members and friends who were placed in several public institutions. Like Sise and the Film Board, young architects vied for influence within and through official public channels created to promote postwar reconstruction and planning. One such institution was the Central (later Canada) Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) created in 1946 to address an acute shortage of housing across the country. Not only was housing urgently needed to accommodate returning veterans and an expanding population, increased building activity was regarded as a form of economic stimulus and a way to help transition Canada’s economy from wartime to domestic production. As early as 1945 the government began promoting mass production and prefabrication as methods to speed the construction of new homes and improve Canada’s stock of low-cost housing. For political leaders, state intervention in planning and building was part of an overall strategy to retain centralized government power by transitioning Canada’s interventionist economic and social policies implemented during wartime to peaceful productivity.[84] For ARGO the impending housing crisis and the government’s professed interest in issues of construction presented them with another opportunity to promote architectural and urban modernism as a solution to these problems.

Early in 1946 ARGO organized a talk by the Russian-born modernist architect and CIAM member Serge Chermayeff at a special meeting of the Ottawa chapter of the Ontario Association of Architects, where many public officials were also invited to attend, including the mayor of Ottawa, Stanley Lewis, and the chairman of the Federal District Commission, Frederic Bronson.[85] Ahead of the talk, Sise carefully briefed Chermayeff on the Canadian situation and on the delicate task of instilling modernist values in his audience.[86] Sise then arranged for Chermayeff to meet with the president of the CMHC, David Mansur, whom he then pressed to consider hiring Chermayeff as an architectural consultant.[87] Despite Mansur’s reluctance to act on this advice, within a few months ARGO did establish a small foothold within the government organization when their fellow member Alan H. Armstrong was transferred to the CMHC instead.[88] Armstrong immediately set about writing “Science and the Housing Problem,” which he asked Sise to privately review.[89]

Although CMHC was concerned initially with housing, the organization’s mandate was soon expanded to include planning as well. In 1946 CMHC hosted a Community Planning Conference in Ottawa to promote a coordinated solution to the housing crisis.[90] Representatives from different professional organizations were invited to give talks on the subject of planning, including Armstrong who showed a film strip and distributed information about the recent ARGO exhibition.[91]

One outcome of the conference was the decision that CMHC should sponsor a new organization to foster public education on the subject of planning across the country. Over the ensuing two days, conference delegates drafted bylaws for a nascent organization that became the Community Planning Association of Canada (CPAC).[92] At Armstrong’s suggestion, CPAC’s educative mandate would take the form of a broad propaganda campaign, including print publications, films, radio, and travelling exhibitions.[93] ARGO’s influence within the new organization was cemented when Armstrong became the first national secretary of CPAC in 1947, and executive director of the organization thereafter. With Armstrong at the helm, CPAC soon became one of the most vocal advocates for community planning in Canada, encouraging the establishment of permanent planning units at the municipal level and the expansion of university-based education for Canadian planners.[94]

Also in attendance at the conference was the English-born architect and planner Humphrey Carver.[95] Carver lectured to delegates on the importance of the neighbourhood as a stable, social unit, and the “nursery” of citizen participation in public affairs.[96] Comments like these would have clearly resonated with ARGO’s position vis-à-vis the Ottawa Plan. Not long after the conference Carver joined ARGO and began attending their regular meetings. In 1947 Carver was named vice-president of CPAC and became chair of the CMHC’s research committee the following year. With the addition of Carver to their group, ARGO’s membership quickly spread to numerous government organizations. By 1948 the group’s meetings were attended by members of the National Capital Planning Commission, the Film Board, as well as CMHC and CPAC.[97]

For Sise, ARGO’s controlling interest in CPAC positioned the institution to play a key role in fostering support for international modernism. He illustrated this point in a curious diagram where he showed how local CPAC branches and CIAM groups were locked in a mutual relationship of influence and action (fig. 16). At the top of the page, Sise showed how Armstrong (A.A.)—in his capacity as both national secretary of CPAC and Canadian delegate to CIAM—was the vital link that connected these local groups to national and international affairs. Through Armstrong, Sise charted a continuous flow of information from Zurich (where CIAM had reconvened) to Canada. Armed with this information, Sise believed that local planning groups would, in turn, promote modern planning at the local level, spurring patrons to hire modern architects who were members of the local research groups and generating financial support for local CIAM initiatives, like the exhibitions created in Montreal and Ottawa, which were exemplary in Sise’s mind. In effect, Sise was imagining a hypothetical bureaucracy (Armstrong was never in fact a delegate to CIAM) that would funnel commissions into the hands of young architects while bypassing the established profession.

Figure 16

Hazen Sise, diagram of relationship between local CPAC and CIAM chapters, n.d.

Source: Library and Archives Canada

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In the important role Sise envisioned for CPAC, he felt the organization should embrace the issues of housing and building in addition to planning. He even went so far as to submit a motion at a local CPAC meeting in Toronto to have the organization change its name to the Housing and Community Planning Association of Canada.[98] Later he pressed Armstrong to produce a handbook of planning and architectural design, specifying that it include “matters in the sphere of architecture” like the “virtues of simplicity” and the “honest use of materials,” as opposed to “stylistic fancy-dress.”[99] He submitted this proposal to Carver at CMHC as well.[100] Sise’s position at the Film Board afforded him other opportunities to weigh in on CPAC’s affairs. In 1948 he accepted an invitation from Carver to serve as a member of CPAC’s Information Committee to oversee the production of print, film, and other promotional media.[101] One of the committee’s first decisions was to promote a maritime tour of “Your City and You” for use by local CPAC chapters.[102]

Among CPAC’s promotional tools was the journal Layout for Living, which they began printing in 1947. The journal—edited by Armstrong, with Carver serving as a member of the editorial subcommittee—published the opinions and ideas of a diverse and international field of experts. Public participation in community planning was central to the journal’s argument, and it habitually extolled the principles of Modern design.[103] In 1947 Carver contributed an article on Canada’s impending housing crisis, where he argued that increased efficiency and economy in the building industry would necessarily result in “simple, straightforward solutions to problems of design,” adding that “efficiency and beauty have for one another a natural affinity.”[104] The journal often reprinted parts of articles and extracts from books whose authors supported a citizen-led approach to community planning, including authors from Britain, the United States, and occasionally even CIAM.[105] To assist in educating the public about planning and building, the journal advertised graphic aids, radio broadcasts, recently published books, pamphlets, and films for use by local CPAC chapters. Many of these promotional tools were produced by the Film Board, including a 35mm film strip featuring ARGO’s exhibition, which Armstrong promoted in the pages of Layout for Living[106] (fig. 17).

Figure 17

Panel from the exhibition “Your City and You,” Layout for Living, April–May 1947

Source: Library and Archives Canada

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Throughout 1947 and 1948 criticism of the ongoing National Capital Plan continued to serve as a clandestine vehicle for the introduction of modernist planning doctrine. For ARGO, the Ottawa planning commission’s opaque proceedings and Gréber’s managerial role remained a sore point that contrasted sharply with their own ambitions for the future of Canadian practice. As ARGO’s influence spread within CMHC and CPAC, these public institutions provided additional outlets to disparage re-planning efforts in Ottawa and to attempt to interfere in its realization. As with ARGO’s earlier efforts, citizen participation was a rhetorical strategy that continued to underpin this attack.[107] The first issue of Layout for Living opened with a perfunctory statement: “Community planning does not mean a scheme believed in only by a few experts. Neither does it mean a collection of drawings that can be set aside (or vetoed) by a few people under temporary pressure. Good community planning is orderly development which the citizens of the community have shared in preparing.”[108]

To mark CPAC’s first annual meeting, the group organized a three-day National Conference on Community Planning in Montreal, which was attended by over 300 delegates from across the country.[109] The keynote speaker for the event was the renowned British planner Frederic Osborn from the Town and Country Planning Association in London.[110] After the conference Sise arranged to have Osborn visit Ottawa and meet with members of the planning committee, Gréber, and the chairman of the Federal District Commission, Frederic Bronson, at a luncheon hosted by the local Board of Trade.[111] Sise hoped the event would help catalyze the formation of an Ottawa-based chapter of CPAC. In a separate editorial he complained that the lack of such an organization was “especially to be regretted in a city which is currently undergoing large-scale redesigning and improvement.”[112] His real motivation, however, was revealed by his promise that such a group would be ideally situated to “assist unofficially” in the formulation of Gréber’s plan by acting on behalf of local citizens.

ARGO’s position was strengthened in this respect in 1946 by the arrival of Harold Spence-Sales at McGill University, where he established Canada’s first graduate program in planning. In 1947 Sise attended a conference at McGill organized by Bland and Spence-Sales on the education needs of professional planners.[113] In his address to the conference Spence-Sales described how contemporary planning was no longer the domain of individual genius, but required a team of co-ordinated experts—a statement that Sise recorded with obvious approval in his notes.[114] Not long after the conference, Spence-Sales began attending ARGO meetings in Ottawa and quickly became a leading voice in the promotion of planning education in Canada.[115] In public and university lectures he championed planning as a civic act and its ability to resuscitate urban decay.[116] In one radio talk he complained that town planning “is regarded usually as the imposition of regimentation by remote control.”[117] “Planning cannot be a secret operation carried on behind the closed doors of officialdom or the rarefied atmosphere of committee rooms … nor is it the sole prerogative of highly skilled technicians familiar with abstractions of almost unfathomable complexity … It is a matter to be fought and wrangled over, to be discussed and argued about on the street corner, in the press, in the clubs, and in the homes.”[118]

The unspoken object of these accusations was—in all probability—the Ottawa Planning Commission, and Gréber in particular, to whom Spence-Sales referred jokingly as “Button Boots.”[119] As if to underscore this point, in 1949 Spence-Sales produced a scathing review of the preliminary report on the official Ottawa plan, which appeared in Layout for Living—a journal produced by CPAC, published by the Film Board, and edited by Armstrong and Carver. The review attacked the “visual beauty” of the scheme, “achieved at the expense of the vigour and vitality of the city,” and compared Gréber’s proposal to an outmoded “citadel with a moat” by which Canada’s capital was to be transformed into a single, urban unit covered with ubiquitous majestic monuments, avenues, and spacious buildings.[120] “Great government offices in almost every quarter of the capital, cyclopean public buildings at every turn! A vast array of splendour in contrast to which houses and community buildings would no doubt be treated with appropriate touches of architectural meekness!”[121]

Especially troubling for Spence-Sales was the lack of quantitative data contained in the report—a fact leading him to suggest that the plan was based on little more than a “superficial examination or intuitive reaction” to Ottawa’s prevailing conditions.[122] Instead of providing sounds plans for the treatment of future commercial areas, a reasonable cost estimate, and effective transportation management, the plan, he charged, was a “heroic” and “bygone” European imposition predestined to failure: “The city as the institution of free men rebels against the impact of autocracy.”[123]

In addition to gaining an influential voice in Canada, ARGO contributed to a conversation about modernism in planning and building by affiliating themselves with a resurgent CIAM and participating in the group’s international congresses. In 1947 the first postwar meeting of CIAM was held in Bridgewater, England, with a view to restoring communication between disparate modernist groups around the world. In April that year Sise attended a meeting of CIAM delegates in New York to discuss preparations for the upcoming conference, and he reaffirmed Canadians’ commitment to the organization’s cause.[124] He then arranged to have ARGO member Peter Oberlander attend the meeting in Bridgewater and deliver a statement on behalf of the Canadian group.[125] In preparation for the meeting, Sise briefed Oberlander on the current Canadian situation, with particular attention to the role of CMHC and CPAC in promoting reform. “From the CIAM point of view,” he cautioned, “Canada hasn’t very much to be proud of, so you mustn’t be disappointed if nothing much seems to be expected from you.”[126]

By 1948 ARGO was already discussing possible contributions for the next CIAM congress.[127] Oberlander had since returned to Ottawa, where he was installed as secretary of the group, with Watson Balharrie as chairman and Alan Armstrong as acting chairman. Among the items they discussed that year was the possibility of reconstituting the group as an official CIAM chapter and establishing similar groups throughout Canada.[128] With public institutions like CMHC and CPAC now spearheading the promotion of planning throughout Canada, ARGO reasserted their role as a sponsor for Canadian architectural modernism.[129]

Later that year the Architectural Research Group was relocated back to Montreal after Sise was invited to take up a teaching position at McGill. To distinguish the group from its previous two incarnations, the new research group adopted the moniker ARGOM.[130] The new group immediately set about preparing a study of Montreal’s recreational needs using the CIAM grid for display at the upcoming congress in Bergamo, Italy, in 1949.[131] ARGOM member Ann Luke attended the conference in place of Sise and Bland, who were, since 1947, official Canadian delegates to CIAM.[132] For his own part, Sise sent Giedion an article on the state of modernist architectural education in Canada by former ARGO member Frederic Lasserre as Canada’s contribution to a discussion on architectural education chaired by Walter Gropius.[133]

Conclusion

ARGOM’s participation at the Bergamo conference represents the fruition of their activity in Montreal. However, in no way was the group’s dissolution a sign of their resignation. As a result of their prolific activity from 1938 to 1949, the group’s modernist vision had become firmly entrenched in the fabric of Canadian practice and its institutions.

Whether ARGO influenced the work of the National Capital Planning Commission is debatable and not within the scope of this article to answer.[134] That groups like CPAC were more receptive to ARGO’s advocacy for citizen participation is hardly surprising, given CPAC’s mandate to foster widespread support for planning. There is also irony in this, however, as citizen participation failed to materialize in the actual practice of postwar planning. Indeed, centralized decision making continued to empower modernist practitioners throughout the 1950s and 1960s, despite their earlier and virulent criticism of an elitist approach to urban design. Ultimately their attempts to fit urban complexity into a rationalist mould and to combat urban blight through slum clearance would inspire participation of a different kind, as citizens rallied in protest of modernism’s impassive approach.[135] Nonetheless, ARGO’s advocacy does appear to have paid dividends in other local instances. In the 1950s a national competition was won by John Bland for the design of the new Ottawa City Hall, a hallmark of the international style in Canada. He then served as urban renewal advisor to the City of Ottawa after 1958. Together with Gordon Stephenson and Jean Issalys, Bland prepared a report on reconstruction in 1967, which presented a socio-economic argument for widespread urban renewal and slum clearance in Ottawa.[136]

The Architectural Research Group is also notable for intersecting with Canada’s foremost modernist educators and architects. For example, from 1945 to 1946 James Donahue and Douglas Simpson carried out experiments in the building research division of the National Research Council, where they developed plywood housing panels and moulded plastic furniture. Donahue (who was the first Canadian to graduate from the Harvard School of Design in 1942) left in 1946 to take up a teaching post at the University of Manitoba, while Simpson moved to Vancouver in 1947, where he established a successful practice. Sise continued to teach architectural history at McGill until 1957, then co-founded one of Canada’s largest architectural firms, Architect’s in co-partnership, and executed several prominent modernist buildings across the country.[137] After teaching briefly at McGill from 1944 to 1945, Frederic Lasserre was made director of the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia, where Peter Oberlander was invited to teach, beginning in 1950, and where he founded a new school of Community and Regional Planning in 1956. Humphrey Carver continued to chair the CHMC’s research committee until 1955, then chaired the organization’s Advisory Group until 1967. Following his 1948 book Houses for Canadians in which he presented an argument for the demolition and renewal of Toronto’s slum neighbourhoods, Carver produced numerous influential books with an increased focus on humanizing Canada’s urban and suburban landscapes.[138] Harold Spence-Sales and John Bland formed a private practice specializing in town planning, while continuing to modernize architecture and planning education at McGill. Together they prepared plans for many new and existing communities across the country, from Vancouver to St. John’s.

The period from 1938 to 1949 represents a turning point for Canadian architecture and planning as the roots of international modernism penetrated deep within Canada’s postwar institutions. It also suggests a new vector for the development of Canadian modernism by highlighting the distributed agency of postwar planning and building practices, and the political pretensions of its early practitioners. Rather than a definitive set of practices or a style, modernism’s induction was in the form of an overtly political campaign centred on state intervention in building and planning.[139] Nor was the politicization of building and planning practices a benign process for many young Canadian professionals who sought to legitimize modernist discourse by leveraging new, state-sponsored institutions and their actions. Even as some of the more dogmatic tenets of international modernism became unhinged over the next two decades, the immediate postwar period testifies to the compelling force of this ideology and remains an important precursor to the widespread practice of Modern architecture and urbanism during the 1950s and 1960s.

Organizations like the Architectural Research Group were instrumental in facilitating these knowledge transfers. Crucial to their efforts was the federal government’s involvement in the development and promotion of the Ottawa plan. In a rare confessional moment, Sise sent Gideon a description of the ARGO exhibition. “Reading between the lines,” he wrote, “you may perceive that we are not entirely happy about the situation so far … Until recently [Gréber] seemed very appreciative of our efforts for public education, but he now shows signs of turning against the principles we represent.”[140] The promotion of citizen participation as part of this education was a strategy that served multiple purposes. By allegedly democratizing planning and building, citizen participation was meant as a challenge to the government’s system of public patronage.[141] At the same time, it provided a rhetorical screen for modernist social and functional doctrine. By enlisting public support for modern architecture and planning, young architects sought to mitigate the influence of an older generation of architects and planners who were averse to these views. By contrasting the “dictatorial” approach taken by Canada’s government in the re-planning of Ottawa with their own “democratic” aspirations, young architects exploited postwar sensitivities to the maximum. Moreover, these disruptions occurred and at a critical moment when community planning was being institutionalized in cities and at universities across the country. Through their simultaneous commitment to urban renewal and their patrimonial approach to instituting a plan for the National Capital, Canada’s federal government fuelled modernist sentiment across the country by unifying Gréber’s opponents and lending a new sense of urgency to their modernist project.

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