Canada Day 2015: Celebrating Three Centuries of Canadian Architecture

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TORONTO – This year’s Canada Day celebrations will carry with them an extra significance, as 2015 marks the 300th anniversary of the conclusion of War of 1812 in February of 1815. Bolstered by a newfound sense of nationhood, the extensive building and rebuilding that followed – particularly in Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario) represented the first steps towards a distinctly Canadian architectural legacy.

Here at GTA Real Estate News, we believe that understanding almost any of Greater Toronto’s neighbourhoods usually starts with an appreciation of its built designs – the public and the private; the historic alongside the ultramodern.

With that in mind, we decided to mark Canada Day this year by taking a glance at the history of architecture in Canada – one that is as important for the real estate industry of today, as it was for Canada’s earliest nation-builders.

19th Century: Adapting European Traditions

Here in Toronto, one of the earliest notable buildings to achieve completion was The Grange – a custom home built in 1817 for D’arcy Boulton Jr. Drafted by an unknown architect, the building’s unique façade – designed in a similar manner to many banks and government buildings of the time – would prove highly influential to the designs of subsequent 19th-century Canadian mansions.

Still accepting visitors as a vital component of the Art Gallery of Ontario, The Grange stands as one of the city’s earliest examples of the Georgian neo-classical architectural style.

Brought to Upper Canada by its British administrators, the Georgian style was indebted stylistically to 16th-century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, whose various design trademarks – including prominent entranceway columns and distinctive rounded windows – can also be seen in buildings like the Campbell House (1822).

Towards the mid-19th century, Canadian architecture – which, at that time, largely embraced the sensibilities of British and Loyalist-American immigrants – heavily adopted the popular neo-classical style, which derived its features from ancient Greek temples.

It was upon utilizing this neo-classical style that Toronto’s first highly prominent architect, a British immigrant named William Thomas, built his own legacy. Many of Thomas’ “Greek Revival”-inspired designs can still be seen around Ontario, including the newly-renovated and repurposed Old Don Jail and – perhaps most notably – the Commercial Bank of the Midland District, a true downtown gem whose well-preserved façade can now be seen as an interior feature of Brookfield Place’s Galleria.

Credited by the Globe and Mail as the man behind “some of the most tasteful buildings our city can boast,” Thomas was (according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography) also acknowledged by Architecture Canada’s Thomas Ritchie as “one of the founders of the Canadian architectural profession.”

Interestingly, the push to professionalize architecture across Canada did not begin until roughly the mid-1880s – more than two decades after Thomas’s death. Ontario has the distinction of being the first province to witness the organization of its architectural professionals, with the formation of the Ontario Association of Architects in 1889.

In 1896 – not even a decade later – Canada’s first architectural school opened its doors at McGill University in Montreal.  Still regarded as one of the nation’s finest architectural faculties, McGill’s program provided the training grounds for such internationally-renowned figures as Arthur Erickson and Moshe Safdie.

Meanwhile, the 1876 completion of Ottawa’s iconic Parliament Buildings had ushered in an era of Canadian architecture embracing the Victorian High Gothic style. Incorporating features of medieval origin such as pointed arches, crenellations, and steeply-sloped roofs, Gothic-style architecture also generally included ornate detailing, marking a dramatic departure from the starker sensibilities of the Georgian era.

One of Toronto’s best-preserved examples of Canada’s late-19th-century Gothic spree is the St. Stephen-in-the-Fields church, located near the intersection of College and Bathurst Streets. Completed in 1858, the church was designed by Toronto-born architect Henry Langley (who would go on to play an instrumental role in forming the Ontario Association of Architects).

20th Century: In Search of a National Voice

During the very early 1900s, Canadians still favoured a blend of classically-inspired and “neo-Gothic” architectural designs – a status quo left over from the previous century, and one that was soon to be shaken up by the arrival of the Jazz Age and, with it, the influence of the Art Deco design school.

Combining machine-age imagery with more traditional elements of the “Arts and Crafts” architectural style that preceded it, Art Deco found one of its most highly regarded champions in the Montreal-born Ernest Cormier, who designed the Supreme Court of Canada building in Ottawa as well as the main campus of the Université de Montreal, which turned out to be his most famed and influential work.

“In its complexity and its symbolic importance, the Université de Montréal transcends questions of style,” reads a Cormier biography released by the Canadian Centre for Architecture. “It is a work that is at once North American in scale, and also profoundly informed by the long tradition of the Beaux-Arts and of the engineer’s aesthetic in contemporary French architecture.”

Here in Toronto, the original Toronto Stock Exchange building completed in 1937 – the façade of which has been preserved as a part of the expanded facility around it – provides an enduring example of the Art Deco style near the height of its Canadian popularity.

During the early 1930s, Canadian architecture began a trend towards Functionalism – a style whose proponents believed that buildings’ designs should be based primarily on their utility – before the bulk of ambitious building (save for university development) was put on hold by the Great Depression and the events of World War II.

The design priorities of functionalism would again pop up during the 1960s, when Modernism took hold among Canadian architects and, in the words of Kelly Crossman, “led Canadian architecture to a self-confidence unique in its history.”

One of the biggest catalysts for that self-confidence was Montreal’s Expo 67, where stunning works such as Moshe Safdie’s iconic “Habitat 67” not only championed the Modernist movement, but sought to imagine its most ambitious possibilities. The influence of Expo 67 is tangible in major developments designed during the years that followed, such as the distinctive atrium of Toronto’s own Eaton Centre (which commenced construction in 1973).

It was in Canada that the Modernist movement found one of its most decorated and influential proponents: the Vancouver-born and McGill University-educated Arthur Erickson, who was declared “Canada’s greatest architect” by the university following his death in 2009.

An American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal recipient and a Companion of the Order of Canada, Erickson provided the vision for many major Canadian developments, including several university campuses – most notably the renowned design for British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University.  Here in Toronto, the Erickson-designed Roy Thomson Hall (completed 1982) stands as a tribute to his legacy and one of the city’s most highly-regarded Modernist works.

21st Century: Modernism 2.0

Over the last decade and a half, development in Canada – particularly in competitive real estate markets like ours, where the “Condo boom” has taken hold – has adopted a firmly “neo-modern” style which, while still embracing the stylistic principles of Arthur Erickson’s generation, also places stronger emphases on simplicity, function, and the maximization of limited space.

Here in Toronto, the 21st-century need for simple-yet-striking high rise developments helped spawned the careers of home-grown architects like Peter Clewes, the city’s “condo king” – who, not altogether coincidentally, began his career working under Erickson’s mentorship.

Clewes’ company, architectsAlliance, is a critical part of the design team that worked together on Canary District – a stunning example of functional neo-Modernism that, much like the vaunted installations of Expo 67, will be shown off on an international platform when it hosts the Americas’ best athletes during the upcoming Pan Am / Parapan Am Games.

Erickson’s work also helped influenced Stephen Teeple, another Toronto architect whose work on University of Toronto’s ultramodern Graduate House (2000) – designed in partnership with the California-based Thom Maybe – reflected a distinctly 21st-century Canadian architectural trend: design innovation through international collaboration.

Years later, when Fernbrook and Cityzen held a design contest for their Absolute Towers development in Mississauga, the project took on its own international dimension when a young Beijing-based architect, Ma Yansong, was successful in winning the bid. The final design, produced in collaboration between Beijing-based MAD Architects (Yansong’s firm) and Mississauga-based Burka Architects, became a recipient of the prestigious Emporis Skyscraper Award in 2012.

“The way the two structures twist organically by up to eight degrees per floor is not just a superb technical achievement,” said the judging panel in their statement, “But also a refreshing change to the set forms of high-rise routine.”

Thanks largely to the 11 postsecondary architecture programs currently on offer at universities across the country, as well as public institutions like the Montreal-based Canadian Centre for Architecture, the future continues to look bright for the advancement of Canadian architectural styles. That’s a terrific thing, not only for real estate buffs, but for any Canadian interested in learning more about our national culture – and all of its forms of expression.

For those interested in reading a more comprehensive overview of Canadian architectural history, we recommend checking out parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the Canadian Encyclopedia’s History of Architecture, which proved to be a crucial resource in our initial research of the above feature.

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