06 . 30 . 2015

When our country was built: An exhibit at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre will showcase centennial architecture projects

AUTHOR Laura Beeston

Roughly 50 years ago, a crop of 900-odd performance art spaces, science museums and rec centres was established coast to coast explicitly to encourage Canada’s development. The intention of giving each young province a few public institutions was to spur homegrown culture, with the governments of the time believing the buildings themselves had a key role to play in cultivating our national identity.

A project to construct “architecture of significance” was generously funded by Ottawa for our 100th birthday in a robust period of support for Canadian arts and lifestyle infrastructure. Prince Edward Island, for instance, got the Confederation Centre for the Arts, Toronto built the Ontario Science Centre, Winnipeg got its Centennial Concert Hall, Calgary received a planetarium, and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa became the first true performing arts venue in our nation’s capital – finally allowing visiting symphonies to play in something grander than a high school auditorium.

Flash forward to July 1, 2015, and the NAC will feature an exhibit on these centennial architecture projects that will display extensive archival materials from 20 of the buildings. And considering the controversy surrounding contemporary projects – from the Canadian Memorial to the Victims of Communism to Mother Canada to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg – the timing could not be better.

“When Canada was commemorating 100 years, we were very forward-looking. We weren’t nostalgic at all,” says Marco Polo, associate professor in Ryerson’s Department of Architectural Science and co-curator of the exhibition, Architecture and National Identity: The Centennial Projects 50 Years On. “We were optimistic.”

In a move that Polo thinks would be incredible were it to happen again in our current political climate, former prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Lester B. Pearson personally addressed professional architects at the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada during two annual general meetings in 1960 and 1964, and tasked them with expressing a national character through their work. The centennial institutions were to provide opportunities for cultural expression, production, and regional and national community building. The emphasis was to build for our hopeful future.

So it’s curious to take stock now of how (with a few exceptions) these buildings remain working within their original intention: The majority withstood the tests of time; it seems as though, culturally speaking, we can reap what we sow. But the idea that architecture was seen “as an essential building block” in creating our national identity and public policy that supported our arts and ambitions is something that, at least according to Polo, “we’ve lost to some extent.”

It’s difficult to compare today’s projects to an architectural climate of the past, and too general a question to ask if they possess the same foresight. “Starchitects” didn’t exist in the same way that they do now; a hard-and-fast architectural rulebook has long been thrown out; and there isn’t a national design brief today that holds public buildings in account to one another, or to the surrounding urban environment. There is nothing in place to demand we think about that future we once emphasized so heavily. Still, Polo believes our national identity has “a huge role to play” in our contemporary buildings.

“[Architecture is] inherently an identity-building activity. It says a lot about our values whether we build well or poorly and what we’re prepared to invest in,” he says. “Intentionally or not, it says a lot about us.”

So as this country turns 150 years old in 2017, architects and urban critics alike see an opportunity for Canadians to take a hard look at public spaces and structures and start asking an important question: Who do we want to be in 2067? Or 2117?

To kick off the centennial exhibition, Polo will join Ryerson colleague and co-curator Colin Ripley in a panel discussion with heritage architect Barry Padolsky and Donald Schmitt, principal architect of the NAC’s $110-million “rejuvenation project,” on July 1 at the NAC in Ottawa.

“Looking at 2017, we have a fresh set of challenges in architecture and urban design,” says Padolsky. “Our biggest issues are how to deal with the growth of cities, handle climate change, conserve our natural environment and conserve our built heritage … how do we make our cities as a whole more equitable, sustainable and safer?”

And at this point in the life cycle of our modern institutions, new conversations are also emerging about whether the centennial fleet should now be considered heritage buildings, too. And if so, what can they still teach us about building toward the future?

“They were brilliant in their restrained modesty, a perfect reflection of our better selves,” says architecture writer and critic Adele Weder. “Decision-makers today seem to be seized by this dangerous mentality that something has to be big and blingy to be good … but we were confident enough back then that we didn’t have to build these huge, expensive, brash, out-of-place tourist attractions.”

Weden also points out what she views as a crisis in leadership when it comes to the role of today’s architect. “These days, the best Canadian architects are too often squeezed out of the action, because museum boards often want foreign brand-name architects and bombastic architecture to impress their prospective donors,” she says. “At the same time, governments tend to err in the opposite direction – favouring bleak, out-of-date architecture that doesn’t look expensive, regardless of its actual cost.”

Public and service-oriented community buildings succeed when they “nurture us and our activities as a people,” Weder adds. “It’s both gratifying and sad to look at the Centennial projects and realize we never had it so good.”

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