- Substance over Spectacle
In 2005, eighteen years after he curated A Measure of Consensus: A Survey of Canadian Architecture, UBC architecture professor emeritus Andrew Gruft mounted another exhibition at the Belkin gallery on the UBC campus. His book Substance over Spectacle records and supplements it with a wide-ranging suite of essays by him and architects George Baird, Sherry McKay, Georges Adamczyk, and Marco Polo.
Gruft's goal is to 'raise the profile of Canadian architecture,' which he feels gets little respect and support. He and McKay echo the familiar lament about Canadian identity and international anonymity, summed up in the first line of Gruft's introduction: 'Why does no one seem to know about Canadian architecture?'
The buildings themselves display a self-confidence perhaps missing in the text. The main part of the book, running from pages 19 to 175, showcases a diverse range of recent projects from twenty-seven different firms. Following the sun, the buildings range from east to west coasts, beginning with three evocative Maritimes coastal houses by MacKay Lyons and ending with a suite of rapid transit stations on the Millennium line of the Vancouver SkyTrain system. In between are a city hall, a water treatment plant, and a blizzard of academic and institutional buildings and multi-family housing.
The photography and colour reproduction are very good; some projects include conceptual drawings and plans, reproduced (in most cases) large enough to decode; each firm's work is described with the equivalent of an artist's statement, mostly written in relatively plain English. The book has a soft cover with French flaps; unfortunately it lacks a sewn binding, so it has an annoying habit of snapping shut if unattended. But it is a practical-sized book, not a thudding coffee-table tome, befitting its title and the country that spawned it.
The works demonstrate the sharply regional nature of Canada and the contrasts between urban and rural, east and west, personal and [End Page 438] institutional. The high-rise residential work of James Cheng is unmistakably Vancouver, as the university and institutional buildings in Ontario and Québec look 'eastern.' It is this 'mannered regionalism' that dominated the 1990s, according to former Canadian Architect editor Marco Polo. The Quebec scene is skilfully analyzed by Georges Adamczyk as a combination of postmodernism and a rediscovery or 'reappropriation' of its heritage.
Sustainability is a word often used in the text, but it is the sustainability of these new buildings. Recycling, whether of buildings or materials, receives little attention, and projects that add layers onto existing urban fabric are few and far between. One notable exception is the Umbra World Headquarters in Toronto, by Kohn Shnier, a dramatic sexing-up 'like sunglasses' of a mundane industrial building in a bleak urban-edge landscape.
What about the collegial and collaborative nature of architecture in this age of celebrities? George Baird's essay reflects on the 'starchitects' of the international scene and wonders whether some of the Canadians in the exhibition, such as Vancouverites John and Patricia Patkau, should be branded as auteurs. But regardless of such matters, readers will applaud the listing of the members of the teams for each project, supplemented by Marco Polo's ruminations on the complexities of life for young architects in a globalizing world of huge projects.
'Substance over spectacle' is a good title. There are few flights of fancy and little evidence of the craving sometimes heard in city councils and chambers of commerce for an iconic Sydney Opera House or Bilbao Guggenheim plunked in the centre of town. But the truly evocative works hark back to the folkloric Canada of settlement in a hard land – shelter from the storm – such as the above-mentioned Maritimes houses. And there is an anomaly in this book of buildings: the landscape installations in Quebec of the architect Pierre Thibault entitled Winter Gardens. Lanterns placed in a grid on a frozen lake. A line of igloo-like, lamp-lit tents photographed at night stretching across a frozen lake and disappearing up a hillside. This is pure...