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BriefsReportTable of ContentReport IndexRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences

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1. Architecture and town planning are related to almost all the arts and to many of the sciences. They affect almost every aspect of the life of a community. In general, ignorance of them, ignorance even of their existence, is widespread. We were very glad therefore to have the benefit of the specialized knowledge of a number of professional architectural societies and of individual architects, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Institute of Professional Town Planners, the Community Planning Association of Canada, and an informal group of young architects. We also commissioned two special studies, one by an eminent authority on the history of art in French-speaking Canada, the other by a member of the faculty of one of Canada's leading schools of architecture. We were struck by the fact that many of these groups and individuals, differing in interests and in training, and sometimes differing sharply on matters of detail, showed a surprising similarity in their views on the general state of architecture and town planning in Canada, and on what should be done about it.

2. That modern architecture cannot be dissociated from town or community planning was a statement made in all the representations to us. At present, we were told, 54 per cent of Canada's population is urban, and the proportion is growing rapidly. It is increasingly urgent therefore that anyone who constructs a building of any kind consider the relation of the new structure both to the site and to neighbouring buildings actual and potential, a point strongly brought to our attention by a professional architect who referred to this responsibility both as a public duty and as architectural good manners.

3. On the general state of both architecture and town planning we received somewhat disturbing reports. Architecture, according to one group, although it has the greatest influence of all the arts on the manner of living, is largely ignored by the public. "Builders are creating across the breadth of Canada row upon row of architectural monstrosities in communities whose almost immediate pattern is one of decline and blight."1 The justice of such a forthright statement by a group of younger professional architects, if not accepted, is certainly not denied by older individuals and groups, professional and amateur, who gave us their views. It was submitted to us that architecturally the public in general


has little respect for the past, is heedless about the future, and apathetic or confused about the present. Of the importance of the newer art of town planning, Canadians, it seems, are for the most part still unaware.

4. Mechanical mass production has affected architecture everywhere, but nowhere, we were told, more than in Canada. The use of standard materials and designs has tended to wipe out regional characteristics which would otherwise have had an opportunity to develop. The industrial towns of Britain could not conceal the architectural glories or efface the fine traditions of a thousand years; and even in the United States older communities have retained permanent examples of fine building. In Canada the examples are fewer and the tradition far weaker. In Quebec, Ontario and the Maritime Provinces, there are, we were reminded, evidences of "urbanity and charm", "pale shadows of eighteenth century towns abroad". These constitute our "vernacular" and they have not been without influence on later building. On the whole, however, we have succumbed more completely, we were told, than most other countries to the characteristics of this "period of architectural confusion".2

5. The result is, we were frequently told, that Canadians are still too little aware of the power of the architect to enliven and enrich their lives; they are too little conscious of mass-produced houses and characterless public buildings. We were interested to hear of an architect, returned from Europe, who was struck by the fact that continental schools, sometimes inferior to ours in lighting and ventilation, often included amenities which we apparently cannot afford, such as ornamental sculptural groups designed for the pleasure of children who, in Sweden and other countries, are thought to need imaginative surroundings quite as much as light and air. Judging from Canadian schools, hospitals, town halls, and lesser (or even greater) public buildings of all sorts, we seem to feel no such needs. "Our town halls", says a senior architect, "are for the most part dreary monuments where people would not go except for the payment of taxes or fines; our older post offices can only be described as sordid; our prewar public libraries give the appearance of being gloomy strongholds for the preservation of precious incunabula; and our smaller railway stations, in V-jointed varnished lumber, have not changed in design since the track was cut out of the prairie or primeval forest."3

6. A specific problem of architecture in Canada has been the tendency toward imitative and derivative styles of architecture. The authors of both the special studies prepared for us dealt severely with the long standing and widespread practice of imitating inappropriately styles of past generations or of other countries which have indeed solved their own architectural problems but not necessarily in a manner which can be suitable at this time and in this country. Imitation has not been confined to the decoration of buildings but has even included the plan, as illustrated


by the well-known and imposing railway station fashioned after the model of a famous Roman bath. Such imitations, we were reminded by an informant from French-speaking Canada, may be even less desirable through the use of inferior materials. Yet it is argued that this "cult of the extinct" is the inevitable striving for form in building of a country without architectural roots. Financial institutions, for example, saw in Imperial Rome an architecture that symbolized power and wealth and the security which the customer would associate with masonry walls and a Doric portico. This literary attitude towards architecture, we are told, is far from dead.

7. Nonetheless many hopeful signs of a growing architectural sense in Canada have been brought to our attention. There are the possibilities of the new "engineering architecture" symbolized in Canada chiefly by grain elevators, whether in wood as is typical on the Prairies or in concrete about the Great Lakes. On the architectural merits of these, opinion differs; one of our informants finds them honest and no more, another admits a beauty in "simplicity of form, unbroken surface texture and the play of shadow".4 We were, however, reminded that in French-speaking Canada as elsewhere important experiments are being made in public buildings and in domestic architecture. Architects, we are told, are striving at once to come to terms with the new technology, and to shake off an obsession with the past. They are insisting on the right to face their problem as it is, dealing with the conditions imposed by site, the spiritual and physical needs of the clients and the cost. It was drawn to our attention that there is increasing consciousness of the need in Canada for the development of a regional architecture adapted to the landscape and the climate and also to the materials typical of the area. Earlier signs of this, as we have noted, disappeared in the flood of cheap standardized materials. There are now, however, distinguishable regional developments in British Columbia which take advantage of commanding views and of the relative cheapness of wood. No such experiments are yet apparent elsewhere. It has been stated to us that a true Canadian architecture must develop in this way.

8. One of the hopeful signs for the future is an increasing tendency to look back to those few sound traditions of the past, which have survived our rapid industrial expansion. We have already referred to the fact that historical societies spoke of the importance of preserving evidences of our architectural history in the many fine old houses of Eastern Canada which prove to us that our ancestors had a sense of form and of dignity in living.

9. This respect for tradition added to the determination to face modern problems and to solve them by modern means represents a new spirit which is particularly strong in Canadian schools of architecture with their growing numbers and increasing enthusiasm. For some twenty years, since the passing of the first registration acts by the provinces, schools of architecture


have been the principal entrance to the profession. (There are, however, we are told, no schools and no adequate course in town or community planning, and the want of these in view of the growing importance of the profession is felt to be a serious drawback.) There are now five schools of architecture in Canada offering a five-year course with a total enrolment in the final year (1950) of 172. The present tendency is to associate professional training more and more closely with the humanities and the social sciences on the assumption that the professional man, and not least the professional architect, should have a liberal education. The communal aspects of architecture make it also advisable that the architect know something of sociology.

10. We do not venture to discuss here the delicate professional relationship of architect and client; from the skill of one and the desires of the other architecture must, in large measure, stem. There is, however, one patron so powerful as to constitute a decisive influence on the whole future of Canadian architecture and town planning. This patron is the Federal Government which during the four years prior to 1949 was responsible for twenty-five per cent of all Canadian building. "Societies in other ages never saw so great a patron of architecture or so powerful a client."5

11. The Federal Government, in addition to its construction throughout Canada of administrative buildings, post offices, customs houses, military storehouses and other structures, since 1935 has assumed increasingly wide responsibilities in the construction of private dwellings. The newest and most active Federal Government building agency is the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, responsible in 1948 for one-quarter of all Canadian houses built in that year. This organization encourages better housing by insisting on certain minimum standards for all houses built with its assistance. It offers approved designs for houses at nominal prices and it has retained architects to prepare plans for its own houses. It has also made grants to universities for research in community planning. Various of the witnesses before us emphasized that the Government has a grave duty for the orderly, pleasing and systematic arrangement of housing centres in Canada.

12. Professional architects, it was apparent to us, are far from satisfied with the record of the Federal Government as a patron. It is suggested that too often men, however able as administrators, are given responsibilities which should be undertaken only by architects; further, the services of architects in private practice, as distinct from those in the government service, are not used as they might be.

13. The Institute of Professional Town Planners expressed regret that the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation had not paid more attention to experience gained in the "Greenbelt Towns" of the United States


and the "New Towns" of England. It was urged that the various federal agencies should co-operate with one another, and with provincial and municipal authorities in all building projects. We were told, for example, of a housing project for veterans arranged by one federal agency directly in the path of the Trans-Canada Highway with which the Federal Government is directly concerned. This was not an isolated instance; others were cited from five other Canadian cities. It was further suggested that insufficient attention is paid to the effect of a federal public building, or of a housing project, on the community in which it is placed. Public buildings themselves were subjected to somewhat harsh comment in one of the briefs; for example, we were told by a group of young architects that our public buildings reveal "weakness, frustration and static indecision".6

14. The prevailing pattern of Federal Government buildings at Ottawa has been a matter of severe comment. Although, in theory, there is to be no regimentation on style in the buildings contemplated under the new Capital Plan, there is a danger, we are told, that the "romanticism" of the Chateau Laurier will be replaced by that of Greece and Rome. The Capital Plan was also criticized for its apparent assumption that all public buildings should be monumental in character. It was urged that in modern times government buildings should be monumental or otherwise according to the purposes for which they are designed, and that rigidity in such matters is unrealistic.

15. Two important suggestions were made to us. First, all important buildings should be designed in open competition. Such a procedure would help to avoid the mediocrity which so easily besets government architecture and would provide at once an example to private enterprise and a stimulus to the architectural consciousness of the public. It would have the added advantage of encouraging the able young architect who too often must spend his early years executing the plans of others. We were reminded that in a number of European countries all administrative and public buildings are now designed by architects selected through open competition. This tradition indeed is well established. St. Peter's in Rome, the Houses of Parliament in London, many famous buildings in France, Belgium and Scandinavia have been built under the supervision of architects selected by competition. Measures of that kind, if applied to Canada, would, we were told, help to raise the standards of our architecture and would contribute at the same time to the development of a healthy sense of rivalry in the profession.

16. Second, it was urged that the Federal Government recognize the importance of community planning and aid it, insofar as this lies within its power. Regional directors, now used by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, should be employed, we were told, for all federal projects and should work closely with provincial and municipal governments; and


federal loans and grants should be made only on the condition that building is to proceed according to a suitable and coherent plan.

17. Other measures suggested were the institution of travelling fellowships for architects, the employment of more professional architects by government building agencies, and clear pronouncements of policy which would make it possible for architects to co-operate more efficiently in government building projects.

18. There was general agreement, however, between non-professional groups, professional architects and government agencies, that it is of the first importance to arouse public interest and develop public understanding on a matter of such universal consequence. In an age of increasing urbanization it is more than ever essential for Canadians to become aware of the influence exercised by architecture on the lives of all citizens; this influence, since we are largely unaware of it, is all the more profound.

* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.

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