Bookshelf: New Buildings in the Commonwealth

During the 1950s Canadian architecture was largely unknown to the outside world. A handful of Canadian buildings were published in foreign books and periodicals (largely American and British), but the architectural output of the Great White North received little international attention until the mid-1960s completion of Arthur Erickson’s Simon Fraser University, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat and John Andrews’ Scarborough College.

The sole book to reasonably document 1950s Canadian architecture in its time is New Buildings in the Commonwealth, published in 1961 by The Architectural Press in London. Canada accounts for the largest section of the book’s 240 pages, alongside Commonwealth countries Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Trinidad and Jamaica. Many of Canada’s best-known buildings of the era are represented, albeit with some notable omissions and questionable inclusions, and more than half of of the 42 Canadian buildings profiled are located in the Toronto area. The prolific John B. Parkin Associates is represented by the OAA headquarters building, Ortho Pharmaceuticals plant and offices, Don Mills Convenience Centre and John C. Parkin’s own Bridle Path residence. Peter Dickinson’s work for Page & Steele includes the Park Plaza Hotel, Workmen’s Compensation Board Hospital and Rehabilitation Centre, Regent Park South towers and the 500 and 561 Avenue Road apartment buildings. Rounding out the Toronto contingent is James Murray’s Anglo Canada Insurance building, Shore and Moffat’s York Township municipal offices, Peter Caspari’s City Park apartments and Irving Grossman’s Betel residence. Ottawa City Hall has an impressive three-page spread, the most allocated to any building, and Stratford’s Festival Theatre, the 1958 Massey Gold Medal winner, is also present. But Hart Massey’s striking steel-framed Ottawa residence is unaccountably missing, along with Peter Dickinson’s One Benvenuto Place apartments and O’Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts.

Outside of Ontario, coverage is disproportionately sparse and somewhat idiosyncratic. Vancouver’s diamond-shaped BC Electric tower, probably Canada’s best tall building of the period, leads off the Canadian section and adorns the book jacket, but the city’s main public library and Burrard Building are mysteriously absent, as are any of the celebrated houses by the likes of Ron Thom and Arthur Erickson. A single church represents the entire province of Quebec, and Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada are shut out entirely. Edmonton City Hall, the Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, a Calgary apartment complex and a concrete highway bridge give Alberta more than its due, while Manitoba warrants only a library at the University of Manitoba. The university’s elegant J.A. Russell Building for the Faculty of Architecture certainly justified inclusion, at a minimum.

A short essay introduces each country or geographical region. Frederic Lasserre, head of the Department of Architecture at the University of British Columbia, characterizes the development of architecture in Canada as a series of borrowings from other countries and cultures, a stylistic potpourri further exacerbated by widely varying regional interpretations. Perceiving little domestic creativity and lamenting the lack of a unified national style, Lasserre concludes, “A Canadian architecture is unlikely. A Canadian architectural contribution is much more of a possibility.” Plurality quickly trumped purism; within a few years an identifiable Canadian style seemed not only unreachable but beside the point, an irrelevant middle ground between global design trends and regionalized expressions of Canada’s diverse geography, climate and culture.

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