Thinking About Canadian Architecture

Canadian Modern Architecture, 1967 to the present, edited by Elsa Lam and Graham Livesey

Review by Jenna Collignon, Editor, Matrix Group Publishing

Throughout the last 50 plus years, Canadian architecture has gone through many shifts and changes. Canadian Modern Architecture, edited by Elsa Lam and Graham Livesey, is a comprehensive tome that covers the history of how Canadian architecture has evolved since the 1960s. It is a beautifully thought out and compiled collection, and each essay is thoroughly researched and written exceptionally well.

The photographs included with each essay are a mix of black and white and colour, which mostly distinguishes the historical, older shots from the modern ones. There are also diagrams and blueprints included alongside these, which add an insightful visual element to the chapters of the book.

The book itself is divided into four chapters, in which there are three to four essays to accompany the central topic of the chapter. 

National Movements

This chapter focuses on the architecture of various government and provincially funded buildings, including the likes of museums, embassies, airports, and universities. Marco Polo and Colin Ripley discuss the Centennial Grants Program and the Confederation Memorial fund, and how they resulted in over 2300 projects across Canada from their inception. In his essay, George Thomas Kapelos explores the architecture of key Canadian public institutions, with a special focus on the Olympic Games and airport terminals. 

Lisa Landrum focuses on the history side of university architecture across Canada, and the last essay in this chapter, written by Odile Hénault, explores the transformative changes across architecture in First Nations communities since the 80s. 

International Influences

As this section’s title suggests, this chapter explores global changes influencing Canadian architects, and also how Canadian architects played a crucial role in creating trends around the world. George Baird explores the concept of the “megastructure” building that was widely embraced in the 60s and 70s throughout Canadian architecture, where Larry Wayne Richards explores the impact of postmodernism on Canadian architecture. Following this, Ian Chodikoff discusses the revitalization of cities through big projects such as Granville Island, Vancouver; the waterfront in Montreal; and downtown Toronto. To close out the chapter, Steven Mannell focuses on the history and evolution of green legislation on building and construction codes.

Regional Responses

This chapter divides itself into a further four sections: West Coast, Prairie Provinces, Atlantic Provinces, and the North. Sherry McKay studies the Pacific Seaboard and how it was essential to the emergence of modern architecture in the 40s and 50s, whereas Graham Livesey studies the four phases of Prairie Architecture. In his essay, Brian Carter examines the architecture of the Atlantic Provinces, and finally, Lola Sheppard and Mason White have examined the efforts to develop standardized housing for First Nations communities since the 60s. 

Centers of Influence 

In the last section of the book, three essays explore the three largest cities in Canada: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. These essays explore how these three cities spawned most of Canada’s incredible range of architectural practices. David Theodore examines Quebec’s architecture and how their cultural revolution impacted developments since the 60s. Elsa Lam’s essay focuses on Toronto’s commercial buildings, and closing out the chapter and book, Adele Weder discusses the recent architecture on the West Coast.

All in all, this tome is not only informative but an incredibly beautiful read. It covers not just one specific section of Canada, but the entire nation; from East Coast to West, North to the Prairies. Lam and Livesey have compiled a collection of essays that demonstrate a uniquely Canadian view of architecture and the design thinking behind them all.

I highly recommend this book if you are part of the construction, architectural, or design industry and wish to learn more about how Canadian architecture has evolved over the past 50 plus years.