- Architecture and the Canadian Fabric ed. by Rhodri Windsor Liscombe
In executing the Sisyphean task of providing an architectural-historical synthesis of a nation with no architectural-historical consensus, Architecture and the Canadian Fabric provides an invaluable service to students of the built environment. This edited anthology of multidisciplinary research covers most of the “bases” of Canadian architectural expression, with treatments ranging in scale from close readings of individual structures to magisterial overviews of entire planning paradigms. The early chapters draw on the scant and inscrutable sources that remain from the early settler period, attacking them with a persistent attention to detail and nuance. As the contributors nudge us gradually toward the present day, and as their documentation becomes more complete and intelligible, they indulge in more deeply theoretical flights of fancy. The reader is taken on a journey through both history and historiography in a most effective fashion, and the sense of acquiring a holistic view of the work being done on architecture is [End Page 472] palpable. The achievement of this aggressive ambition, however, does come at a price.
The book consists of seventeen chapters in seven parts, arranged according to a rough chronological and thematic plan: impressions of early French and Aboriginal Canada; the rise of Toronto’s urban colonial society; the construction of symbolic architecture in the young Dominion; early modernism after the Second World War; late modernism on the wane in the sixties and seventies; postmodernity and globalization in the age of neoliberalism; and finally a somewhat abrupt return to indigeneity and identity. This heroic sweep is rife with both promise and peril; it allows for the drawing of connections between periods and paradigms that are rarely juxtaposed, but it also prevents each section from becoming more than a primer for its particular set of concerns. No reader is left hanging out to dry in a desert of ignorance – if background information is required, it is always provided. For an enthusiast of the entire history of Canadian architecture, should one exist, or a budding scholar hoping to narrow down a broad interest in the field to a more specific time and place, this approach is invaluable; for the serious academic hoping to broaden his or her knowledge of a single subject, the offerings here are rewarding but necessarily brief. Indeed, the greatest criticism that can be levelled against this work is that in every chapter, bar none, the conclusions arrive too soon.
Nevertheless, this is no loose and episodic agglomeration of case studies. The collection’s central conceit is a fascination with architecture’s interpenetration with the “fabric” of society, articulated differently by each author and contributing to an engaging and generative discussion. Michael McMordie puts it best: “Canadian identity is like a yarn spun from many individual fibres, none of which continues through its whole length but all of which contribute to its substance, strength, and colour. It is dialogic, negotiated, and dynamic” (451). In this idiom, the chapter on Maple Leaf Gardens becomes more than just yet another hockey piece (although it certainly is that); it contributes a sense of collective experience and identity in the age of modernity, which becomes intertwined with a subsequent chapter on Marshall McLuhan and the “architectures” of the “global village.” That willingness to play fast and loose with the meanings of architecture pays off in spades. Placing big-box stores in praxis with Aboriginal longhouses; elucidating the themes of gothic revival and modernist architecture in isolation; then bringing them together in a study of the contextual axes between the Parliament Buildings and the Museum of Civilization; a complex fabric is woven, and the anthology reads like the proceedings of a successful and collegial academic symposium. [End Page 473]
Finally, the essays on problematic and contested architecture deserve special mention. Vanished and forgotten Aboriginal structures, and the partisan descriptions of them we have inherited from missionaries and colonists, are handled with particular care and sensitivity; so too are the persecuted vestiges of modernism, rubbed out of the urban fabric with nearly as...