Architecture news: Letter from Canada
It is difficult to reduce Canadian architecture to a singular theme: the country’s great size and variety mean that its designs are shaped by regional climates and cultures from the cold North Atlantic to the the lush Pacific coast. This has led to great work - from that of Arthur Erickson on the west coast to Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple on the East today - that is firmly in dialogue with the landscape and rural vernaculars. But Canadians are mostly - and increasingly - urban people; today architects across the country are coping with the challenges of urban centres that are quickly growing larger and denser.
In Toronto, the country’s biggest and most prosperous city, a building boom has brought a new scale of tall buildings in quantity. A proposed project by Frank Gehry, a complex of three 80-storey condominium towers together with a private art gallery, will be the most dramatic example. And downtown in the younger and smaller city of Calgary, BIG has been hired to design a highly sustainable 58-storey mixed-use building. Both cities are often emulating the mixed-use urbanism of Vancouver - with tall ’point towers’ surrounded by a mix of fine-grained uses at ground level. This new model has been broadly a success.
But subtle reinvention is the stock-in-trade of Canadian modernists, who have long favoured an incremental and respectful approach to building in older precincts. This attitude left the country’s historic centres in fine shape during North America’s era of ’urban renewal’. Among the leaders in this regard was Jack Diamond, whose firm Diamond + Schmitt Architects Inc. continues in this tradition today; recently DSAI remade a characterless industrial building into a gallery and photography research centre at Ryerson University, with dramatic results. Not far away, the office of KPMB designed an expansion to the management faculty at the University of Toronto which has the sophistication of a bespoke wool suit (with hot pink lining).
This manner of design, with a focus on complex materiality and sober, careful form-making, defines the culture of Canada’s best offices. But if some are making way for bolder expressions of digitally derived form-making - as in the academic buildings by Teeple Architects or a sport facility led by MJM Architects - there is room for this as well; it is a big country, after all.