Happy Canada Day! Three Phases of Canadian Architecture

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Canadian architecture is an important part of the national narrative that often gets overlooked in the discourse about national identity. When many Canadians think about the great artistic influences in their country’s history, they may think of the Group of Seven or Jean-Paul Riopelle. If the architecture of a nation is symbolic of the aspirations of its people, then the architecture of Canada should be apart of that narrative. As one of the boldest types of art forms, architecture reveals an abundance of information about the Canadian identity. If you’re moving to Canada to make the most of the wonderful architecture, take a look at the best moving companies in canada.The architecture is one of the main reasons why people move to Canda, and a particularly popular place is wellington st toronto.

Canadian architecture can be summarized between three major phases in Canadian history, consisting of six periods with approximate starting and ending points.

Phase One: Confederation and Railway Expansion – setting the foundation of the narrative for the feeble nation.

Phase Two: Expo 67 and 1976 Montreal Games – expressing Canada’s modernist chapter of shedding its past to make itself anew.

Phase Three: Expo 86 and 2010 Vancouver Games – which is still ongoing, when Canada comes out on top of most of its competitors.

These three phases help to influence the architecture of this country post-Confederation, and illustrate the evolution of the Canadian identity through the buildings and projects constructed over the last 145 years.

Phase One:

In the years after Confederation, there was a need for Canada to begin the process of becoming a nation. Phase One, the Confederation and Railway Expansion Phase, depicts a Canada unsure of itself, still clinging to colonialism in many areas, but striving to produce its own identity out of survival. Confederation was merely a political milestone for the Dominion, demarcating the power between the new federal government and its provinces, however the actual identity of the nation was yet to be formed.

After Confederation, there was a push to create an architecture that represented Canada, which was a desire the federal government had for public buildings. During the build up to Confederation in 1866, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa were completed in High Victorian and Gothic Revival Styles, which Prime Minister Mackenzie King thought was symbolic of the new Dominion. It is after Confederation that the new provinces try to establish their national significance by constructing their own legislative assemblies based on European styles with vernacular elements and materials. As a result of the attitudes of the time, the architecture of aboriginals was not seen as anything worth imitating or being inspired by.

Parliament Buildings (1856-1866) in Ottawa by Fuller and Jones Architects.

Second Empire styled Quebec Legislative Assembly Building (1877-87) by Eugène-Étienne Taché in Québec City .

Ontario Legislative Assembly (1886-92) in Richardsonian Romanesque by Richard Waite in Toronto.

The Quebec Legislative Assembly, which was designed in the very popular Parisian style of Second Empire, was modelled after the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. The Ontario Legislature displayed the political might and stability of what was Canada’s largest province in terms of population. Such styles were used to project power and influence, yet it is interesting to note that they still relied on the styles emanating from France and Britain to create the new Canadian architecture. The architecture of the Dominion mirrored its nascent political institutions.

With the expansion of the railway, styles were able to cross the country not only as the population migrated westward, but also as technologies were shipped east. Soon, Second Empire style, which was widely used in Quebec, begin being accepted in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, along with other styles used in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. As the Western towns developed with styles brought from the east, Western Canada was beginning to create its own technologies suitable for their climate. British Columbia Mills designed ready-made houses for the Prairies and prefabricated wall sections which Central Canadian companies purchased to get a jump on their competition. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commercial built many branches using prefabricated building elements from British Columbia Mills. As a result of railway expansion, we begin to observe the beginning of a borrowing of architectural styles between regions and provinces on a large scale.

Canadian history often describes the westward migration and the transportation of freight that allowed for the development of Western Canada, but the architectural influences that were now open to transportation have influenced the manner in which buildings across the country were built at the time. In the haste to create a Canadian identity through architecture, there was nothing to hold back Western settlers or architects from building in styles they had experienced in the Eastern parts of Canada thousands of kilometres away.

Second Empire inspired Custom House (1873-1875) in Victoria designed by the Federal Department of Public Works.

Architectural influences became even more pronounced as a result of people finally being able to travel as tourists en masse across the Dominion. Train stations such as the Union Stations in Toronto, Winnipeg and Ottawa, and Windsor Station in Montreal, were all examples of luxurious transportation nodes. Adjacent to the stations, or in the vicinity, were often opulent hotels that offered tourists and business persons the convenience of being across the street from the station. Examples of such an arrangement would be the Royal York Hotel in Toronto built across the street from Union Station or Chateau Laurier in Ottawa casting a morning shadow over the Union Station in that city. Visitors to these cities surely went home to their native towns sharing their experiences of arriving at mainly Beaux-Arts inspired train stations and sleeping at extravagantly built hotels.

Top Left: The Beaux-Arts designed Toronto Union Station (1919-27) by Ross & Macdonald, Jones with John Lyle and their Art Deco inspired Royal York Hotel (1919 – 1927) with Sproatt & Rolph.

Top Right: Ross & MacFarlane’s Ottawa Union Station (1912) in Beaux-Arts style and their Chateau Laurrier (1908-1912) in Chateau style.

Bottom: Edward & William Maxwell’s Beaux-Arts inspired Winnipeg CPR Station (1904-1905) and their Royal Alexandria Hotel (1906).

As a result of the exposure due to rail travel, the styles people saw with admiration were used for museums, banks, schools and a myriad of building types. If the status of the Dominion during these decades early decades is considered, it makes sense that there would have been a desire to create a sense of place through architecture. Canadians were still British subjects with no Canadian citizenship; Canada’s foreign and trade policy was that of Britain; the military was an extension of Britain’s ; and the political sovereignty of the central government was limited. With the Dominion’s status as a quasi nation with few venues to express its burgeoning nationhood, architecture was one area in which Canada had the ability to carve out an identity out of its colonial past.

Phase Two:

In contrast to the first fifty to sixty years after Confederation, Phase Two, the period circa Expo 67 and the 1976 Montreal Games, is what influenced a more expressive and progressive country. The utopia of modern architecture was just beginning to be proven to be fraudulent by some in the architectural profession, yet in Canada it flourished. Globally, modern architecture was criticized for removing meaning and historical elements from buildings. However, modern architecture in Canada in the lead up to Phase Two revealed a country with a modern style of building loaded with meaning.

Montreal’s Place Ville Marie, built in 1962, was a signpost that signaled Canada was about to enter into global architectural prominence, which was later emphatically reinforced by Expo 67. The building’s spacious interiors and soaring height superseded any office building in the Commonwealth giving Canada favour in the eyes of world. Architectural magazines featured Place Ville Marie as an advertisement for Canadian aluminum production and the headquarters for the Aluminum Limited Group of Companies. Place Ville Marie’s use of one of Canada’s main exports to drape its structure, showed that Canada was embracing its modernity and about to enter a new chapter in its national narrative. The optimism explodes with Expo 67 and the triumph of Canadian modernity.

Left: The International Style of I.M Pei & Associates’ Place Ville Marie in Montreal under construction (1961)

Right: Queen Elizabeth inspecting the model of Place Ville Marie (1959).

Expo 67 was an enormous national statement considering the colonial influences of Phase One. On display at that world’s fair were new forms, creative shapes, innovative materials and imaginative spaces. Not to mention the advances in techniques of urban programming and circulation. Furthermore, Expo 67 took place on a man-made island engineered with the soil removed to construct the Montreal metro system. Also, one of the most famous buildings in Canadian modernism made its debut adjacent to Expo 67, known as Habitat 67 (read how this website got it’s name here). Expo 67 was transformative in changing the idea of Canada in the mind of Canadians and in the eyes of the world, celebrating “the end of little Canada.”

Some of the pavilions from Expo 67.

Top: The “Cubic Agglomeration” of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 (1966-67).

Bottom: Axonometric and Section.

In true modernist style, Canada was shedding more of its historical ties to Britain, and was developing its image anew with confidence. The fact that Expo 67 took place in Quebec made its modernist shift move in tandem with the mood of the Quiet Revolution, emphatically reinforcing Quebec’s shedding of its historically rural and religious ties to embrace a technologically advanced future. Expo 67 was not only a defining moment in Canadian history, but one of Canada’s most significant architectural moments.

Inspiration from Expo 67 can be found in projects such as Ontario Place, built in 1971, and the redevelopment of Vancouver’s Granville Island in the 1970’s, which were both projects built in such a way that the surrounding water actually became part of the scheme of the architecture. Incorporating the natural setting into architecture has been an often used building technique in Canadian history.

Left: Ontario Place (1971) by Ed Zeidler and Michael Hough in Toronto.

Right: Granville Island, built from reclaimed land in 1915, was industrialized between 1932 to 1960 and redeveloped in 1970.

The 1976 Montreal Games had as its centerpiece the Olympic Stadium, which was a massive structure built mainly of concrete.

Montreal Olympic Stadium (1973-1976) by Roger Taillibert.

Though the 1976 Montreal Games did not directly spur the development of similar concrete structures, it’s a period that caps off years of expressive concrete construction in Canada. Recognizable structures such as Simon Fraser University’s Academic Quadrangle from 1965, Toronto City Hall built in 1966, Scarborough College from 1966, Winnipeg Art Gallery (1971), Robarts Library (1973) and the CN Tower completed the same year as the 1976 Montreal Games, are all evidence of the wide use of concrete during that time in Canada.

Academic Quadrangle (1965) in Burnaby by Arthur Erickson.

Robarts Library (1973) by Mathers & Haldenby Architects.

It is around this time that we see experimentations with concrete, glass and space frames, all widely used at Expo 67 on building’s such as the Provincial Law Courts of Vancouver (1973) and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (1976). Some of these buildings have become iconic structures in Canadian architectural history and were added to the national identity along with their architect, the late Arthur Erickson. Erickson was also one of the first non-aboriginal architects in Canada to use spatial and structural techniques used by First Nations peoples.

B.C. Law Courts (1979) in Vancouver by Arthur Erickson.

Museum of Anthropology (1976), inspired by Aboriginal architecture (West Coast longhouse).

Phase Three:

Phase Two is a contrast of Phase One, in that the architecture looks forward rather than backward. Taking advantage of the momentum from Expo 67 and the 1976 Montreal Games, Phase Two of Canadian architecture is where design and a way of planning relating to Canada become identifiable through the works of popular figures such as Arthur Erickson, Douglas Cardinal and the designer of Habitat 67, Moshe Safdie. Canada was beginning to be known for its complex monumental structures.

Phase Three of Expo 86 and the 2010 Vancouver Games, is when Canada not only is admired by the world, but Canadians actually accept their identity as being heterogeneous in its makeup.

Though Expo 86 was not laden with the political symbolism of Expo 67, it nonetheless help to inspire the latest productions of Canadian architecture. Canada Place, the building built for Expo 86 as the Canadian pavilion, with the tensile roof and its ship like appearance, became a symbol for Vancouver and Canada’s Pacific coast.

Vancouver got its SkyTrain as a result of Expo 86.

Canada Place (1986) by Eberhard Zeidler and MCMP & DA Architects + Planners.

Mike Harcourt, then mayor of Vancouver, credited Expo 86 for helping to give that city the experimental SkyTrain system, but especially for the redevelopment in False Creek. Expo 86 spurred the development of False Creek South, which became an area of condominiums in the vicinity of the world’s fair that showcased Vancouver’s sense of design and style. Vancouver had changed as a result of Expo 86 and this was noted by journalists who said it was “a coming out party for a backwater.”

False Creek, Yaletown, Coal Harbour and downtown Vancouver, before Expo 86 (left) and years after (right).

Concord Pacific Place (1993 – ongoing) in Vancouver.

The building of Concord Pacific Place around False Creek North, and the Coal Harbour projects facing Vancouver harbour, increased the amount of Vancouverites living downtown. This created the urban planning term known as ‘Vancouverism’, referring to the design philosophies of mixed-use, high density, transit-oriented, tall-and-lean, landscape designed developments. ‘Vancouverism’ became part of the Vancouver identity and it became so popular that architects and urban planners from around the world came to research this new form of urbanism created in Canada. Not only was this architectural idea carried throughout the Lower Mainland, but also to Toronto.

Concord Pacific Place was built by Concord Adex, which is the developer responsible for Concord CityPlace along Toronto’s waterfront next to the CN Tower. What both Concord developments have in common are clusters of glass towers and high density living. Even beyond CityPlace, Toronto is full of glass tower condominiums which have become part of the urban landscape of the city and its identity.

Concord Pacific Place (left) in Vancouver and Concord CityPlace in Toronto (right).

Similar to Phase One and Two, there is an interchange of styles from one part of the country to another, with Expo 86 contributing directly to the makeover of Vancouver and indirectly to the skyward development of Toronto.

Toronto skyline from Billy Bishop Airport.

Downtown Toronto from Centre Island.

In the preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Games, buildings such as the Richmond Oval (2009) and the Vancouver Convention Centre (2009) would help to elevate Vancouver and Canada’s image.

Richmond Oval (2009) by Cannon Design.

Vancouver Convention Centre (2009) by Architect LMN, Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership and DA Architects & Planners.

The SkyTrain, expanded since Expo 86, and even more so for the 2010 Vancouver Games, also adds to Vancouver’s status as a sustainable urban centre.

SkyTrain stations.

With the modernity of a Canadian city on display for the world to witness for a major event, again, the 2010 Vancouver Games can be argued to have highlighted a similar shift in the national identity as Expo 67 did. Contrary to Expo 67, during the 2010 Vancouver Games, Canada came off as a beyond modern, progressive, multicultural country, filled with optimism from athletic victory and a stable economy. Vancouver, as the showcase city, represented a Canada that was more accomplished, more playful and bolder than at anytime during the previous 143 years. In much the same way that Montreal became a symbol of Canada’s arrival on the global scene at Expo 67, the 2010 Vancouver Games marked Vancouver as a symbol for Canada’s triumph as a nation. The playful side of the Canadian identity, which became famous from Expo 67, can be seen echoed in the following buildings built within the last 9 years.

Palais Des Congrès (2003) in Montréal by Tétreault Dubuc Saia et associés and Hal Ingberg.

Slanted legs in front Alsop Architects’ Sharp Centre for Design (2004) in Toronto.

Sharp Centre for Design in Toronto.

The beyond modern identity can be seen expressed in post-apocalyptic or other-worldly architecture of the following buildings.

Royal Ontario Museum Crystal (2007) in Toronto by Daniel Libeskind.

Frank Gehry Partners’ expansion and renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario (2008) in Toronto.

National War Museum (2005) in Ottawa by Moriyama & Teshima Architects and Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects.

Art Gallery of Alberta (2010) in Edmonton by Randall Stout Architects.

Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building (2006) in Toronto by Foster and Partners.

What does Canadian architecture say about the Canadian identity now?

Some might read contemporary Canadian architecture as a repudiation of the historical ties of just after Confederation or they can see it as the result of a country that has become more sure and confident in its identity. Humble and unpatriotic Canada has been replaced by a nation of towering skyscraper cities. Spaces of voyeurism and spectacle, such as Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto and le Quartier Des Spectacles in Montréal, display a contemporary Canadian culture and its increasing commercial aesthetic. Such urban spaces of crass spectacle approaching the level of Times Square would have been unthinkable in the years just before Expo 67, because the Canadian identity was not ready for such exposure.

Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square (2002) by Brown and Storey Architects.

Quartier Des Spectacles (2010) in Montréal by Daoust Lestage inc.

Considering the scramble for identity that occurred in the wake of Confederation, the national narrative Canada has built through its architecture in just 145 years is astonishing and has no similar comparison in the world.

Canadian architecture imitates the nation’s identity in that it is multi-stylistic and lacking in any clear definition. Endeavouring to determine the identity of Canadian architecture is similar to trying to decipher what is Canadian culture.
It is ironic that despite the physical size of Canada and the differences in topography between regions, that architectural styles are echoed across the country. As a country without a defining culture, distinct language or clear identity, architecture in Canada now and since Expo 67, is not beholden to any historical past which dates back thousands of years. This is the case with some European countries that have a distinct identity, but not with Canada. The result is a diverse architectural landscape representative of its population.

People tend to take a regional view of architecture in Canada, but we have just mapped out a national perspective that is actually more coherent than we realize. Even though the six periods which make up the three phases are well known and great moments in Canadian history, the legacy of architecture in contributing to the national narrative seems to be hiding in plain sight.


Phil Roberts is the creator of sixty7 Architecture Road.

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