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Is Canadian architecture bad?

Tracey Lindeman over at the Walrus recently asked: Why is Canadian architecture so bad? Is it because Canadians are too passive and apathetic when it comes to good design? Or is it because we’re too cheap and don’t like our tax dollars being spent on unnecessarily lavish public buildings?

Whatever the case, there is an argument out there that we maybe had this wonderful period between the 50s and 70s where we really excelled in modern architecture and design (including graphic design), but that we kind of stopped caring and have built mostly banal stuff since then.

Part of Tracey’s argument is simply that we’re cowards. We’re more interested in “checking boxes instead of taking chances.” We’ve become too bureaucratic when it comes to procuring new public architecture. And she’s not wrong.

Why we accept it is a patently Canadian phenomenon: our national psyche has us much more interested in checking boxes than in taking chances. Our standard process for contracting buildings often gives projects to the lowest bidders, even if a vastly more beautiful design is just a little bit more expensive. We have become so devoted to frugality and bureaucracy, and are so readily appeased by basic functionality, that we have lost the fortitude to take and demand risks, even if the outcome could be the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen.

Great architecture requires not only great architects, but also great patrons of architecture. That has generally been the way all throughout history. But here’s the fortunate thing. We have lots of wonderfully talented architects in this country and lots of people who see the value in architecture.

In fact, I think you could argue that over the last 5-10 years we have seen the quality of architecture in our cities step up dramatically. Some of these projects have been designed by top Canadian architects and some have been designed by leading international architects.

In both cases it’s because we see the value proposition and have decided to invest in architecture and design. Now we just need to be bolder across the board and get bureaucracy and checkboxes out of the way of Canadian creativity.

9 Comments

  1. Myron Nebozuk

    I am an architect and I think that Canadian architecture is woefully boring. This wasn’t the case a generation ago. With professors like Thom Mayne and Lebbeus Woods, many of us felt that we were on the edge of a brave new world. What happened? Architects with design chops were cut down by neo-Marxist critics (Michael Sorkin, amongst others). Blossoming wokeness further sucked the joy out of our enterprise. Beginning in the 1990s, heroism and exuberance in design was increasingly derided as the work of lackeys who were executing the visions of “late capitalist” masters. Today, there is much less focus on and teaching of design in architecture schools. Instead, students are repeatedly pressed to demonstrate their fealty to ephemeral causes. Witness this: if you like to do things to a consistently high level over and over again (like every baker I know), you are a white suprematist. Many of the causes now being promoted in architecture schools have absolutely nothing to do with design questions at a building or urban scale. Every professor’s chosen “intersections” are mildly interesting, for all of five minutes and no more. Building science- the stuff that makes buildings stand up and work- is increasingly diminished as a core subject in architecture schools because some students find the math challenging. Our society’s requirement for safety (all we ask is that buildings remain standing and that people inside not be barbecued) diminishes these students’ self esteem; the possibility of offending these students (clients) has been largely eliminated from faculties of architecture across Canada – and elsewhere to be fair. In the place of testable skills, we now have demonstrations of virtue and compliance. These demonstrations bear a disturbing similarity to the shame circles that Soviet workers endured at their workplaces for several decades. Consequently, design has gone missing. Ask the vast majority of contemporary architects about building excitement or beauty: most of them will dance on the spot and tell you that these questions are no longer urgent or relevant. Back in the mid-eighties, one of my most influential professors- Tom Dubicanac- encouraged us to be “aggressively good or bad. Do not dare, even for a moment, to be boring”.

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  2. Nancy

    My mother who knew nothing about architecture always commented when she visited me in Toronto that the looked like the eastern block. My 40-year practice was focused on the client side, selecting architects for significant client projects with the hope that together they would create better architecture. I have insight from both sides. I called Canada a Walmart society where as a nation we think that what we buy at Walmart is good enough. To complicate things, our institutions are the same driven by politicians who generally only care about getting re-elected and not risking their political capital on supporting innovation or beauty. There is some kind of national shame in spending money on anything beautiful or better.

    The lack of caring and understanding about the importance of a creating and protecting a beautiful built environment is endemic in Canada, from the top to the bottom. Architects are just as guilty as anyone else. There is little support in our school system for learning about architecture, outreach from the OAA is slim, we are looked at as technocrats by many – a necessary evil to get something built (condos), and in meeting with clients many architects are just failures and need to learn to listen.

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  3. I agree with Tracy wholeheartedly. However, I also agree with your comments at the end (about ‘some’ project designs coming around and trying to break the ‘ boring barrier’; the difference is that it’s the private sector projects that are trying to change the landscape while the municipally and federally funded work is mundane, unappealing, and cheap….yet vastly overpriced!!
    Take the case study of the new(ish) streetcar barns on lakeshore. The ONE time in the last 20 years Toronto decided to do something slightly above average they completely missed the boat on the site logistics and buildings location. The result was a ridiculous kilometre of wall running parallel to Lakeshore Blvd East.
    Good design is a combination of imagination/creativity, planning and science.

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  4. doug pollard

    And then we get into what is good vs bad, interesting/useful vs boring etc. etc, About two emails down from this one came one noting what the RIBA named as the best building in the world: a rural hospital in Bangladesh composed of the simplest cubic brick forms albeit in a rather interesting composition around a water feature. I wonder if this would be considered boring or best or beautiful in Canada.

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  5. I’ve always love the Toronto City Hall and a lot of the buildings in Montreal when I visited as a kid in the mid-70s (if you’re talking public buildings). I will say, that we share a lot with Canadians in the rather boring/bad domestic architecture I’ve seen over the past decade or so on all of the “flipper” shows shot in Canada (before they migrated to N. Carolina or California), e.g., Property Virgins, Property Brothers, Love It or List It. A lot of the houses were pretty bad…in fact, the running joke with my wife when we saw the first exterior shot on any of these shows was “must be a Canadian episode.”

    A lot of new architecture sucks…and it’s not just a Canadian issue…

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  6. Denis

    An example of a great patron is the Toronto Public Library system. How they do it, I don’t know. Patronage is super important. And we won’t be developing many of them when they are educated in boring/ugly cinder block institutions and surrounded by uninspired buildings.

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    • Nancy

      Good point, also universities have been raising the bar, likely due to donations, which is another matter altogether. Those buildings built by donations should have a stipulation, if they want their name in the building then no tax deduction. Shouldn’t get to flock a family name for a huge tax write-off which may cause embarrassment in the future. Big example is the Sackler family and the OxyContin mess.

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  7. Pingback: Good design is about caring – BRANDON DONNELLY

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