Canada Architecture and Urban Planning Since the 1950s

By | December 25, 2021

The development of architecture in Canada has taken on decisive and autonomous characteristics only since the 1950s, in the same period in which, with the rapid development of the town, the problems of urbanized areas were pressing.

The premises for the affirmation of specific characters are to be found in the construction techniques, in the settlement structure and in the evolution of institutions. The geographical extension of the country, the rigorous conditions posed by the climate, the low settlement density and the presence of the decisive French-speaking component have contributed to the establishment of a strong regional tradition in domestic architecture and in the structure of rural settlements. In public architecture, ethnic references to French colonization and Anglo-Saxon immigration have established historicist models such as Romanesque and Baroque in Quebec and Gothic in the English-speaking provinces.

Another element that had a great influence on the development of Canadian architecture and urban planning was the practice of public intervention, which had the most significant precedents in the first National Housing Act, in 1938, and in the powers attributed to the National Capital Commission. (established in 1899) for the realization of the urban plans of the capital. For Canada 2009, please check

Finally, on the level of the renewal of the forms of territorial government, the constitution of the metropolitan area of ​​Toronto (1953) represented, not only for Canada but for all developed countries, the first example of political recognition of the metropolitan entity. The metropolitan authority has been given extensive powers over land use, public services and transport, overcoming the limits and particularity of the municipalities included in the area.

During the 1950s, the most widespread presence of modern architecture in Canada was linked to the forms and types of commercial buildings. Almost all the central areas of Canadian cities can boast a few blocks rebuilt in those years with the large parallelepipeds of office buildings. More recent constructions are also placed on this line of intervention, such as the cruciform tower of the IBM in Montreal (1966, arch. IM Pei); the Toronto Dominion Bank skyscraper (1970, L. Mies Van Der Rohe); and, in general, the activity of the most prestigious Anglo-Canadian firms, Parkin, Webb, Erikson, Adamson. Parkin is also the conception of the terminal of the intercontinental airport of Toronto, where the vehicles go directly to the center of the

In Quebec, while spreads the language of modern architecture (by M. Pariseau buildings and E. Cormier, in the thirties, to the pavilion of the ‘ Expo ‘ 67, and at the Grand Théâtre in Quebec), the affirmation of identity French-Canadian architects pay more attention to their specific traditions and to the preservation of the historic centers of Quebec and Montreal. The expressionistic researches of Paul-Marie Coté and Roger d’Astous also go in this direction.

At the end of the 1950s, with the great development of urban centers, some reorganization interventions of existing urban organisms were taking shape. In 1957, the international competition for the City Hall of Toronto proposed, within the regular orthogonal grid of the urban fabric, the attribution to the municipal building of an exceptionality and focus to be achieved through architecture. The winning project, by the Finnish architect Viljo Revell, built in 1965, achieves its objective by exposing the completely closed walls of the two towers towards the city, which house the administrative offices, arched and opposite each other, and opening a large public space on several levels towards the blocks of the central area most crowded with commercial skyscrapers.

The desire to overcome the rigidity of the spatial organization of the uniform blocks has produced in the renovation of the center of Montreal a model of spatial relations autonomous from the individual buildings and from the existing urban fabric, understood as an integrated system of pedestrian paths and urban functions, free from traditional definitions of “public” external space and “private” internal space. From the Place ville Marie (1962, IM Pei, Webb and others), to the Place victoria (1965, L. Moretti, PL Nervi), to the Place Bonaventure (1967, Affleck, Dimakopoulos and others), multifunctional and continuous structures link the great towers for offices, hotels, commercial areas, car parks and public services, creating an absolutely new urban space.

Within the framework of the overall urban development, the interventions in the center of Toronto and Montreal, contemporaneous with the construction of the metropolitan transport networks, qualifying some points of the urban fabric with exceptional structures, not only require the demolition of entire residential blocks, but also create the conditions for an accentuated and radical restructuring of entire urban sectors. The reaction to this type of intervention was widespread and effective, sparing Canadian cities the negative experiences experienced by the major cities of the United States. Citizens’ organizations have managed to avoid, in some cases, both the transformation of the fabric and functions of the central residential districts of the cities, and the degradation and abandonment that affect areas that do not attract people.

There are few metropolitan areas in North America that still have large, low-density residential areas in their core. In Toronto, around 400,000 people live within a pedestrian area, one fifth of the population of the entire metropolitan area. Thanks to this persistence and to the considerable participation of citizens, tools have been developed to challenge unacceptable development choices. AJ Diamond and B. Myers, in the plans for Sherbourne St., Henry St. and Beverly St., in Toronto, have shown that the means exist to raise the number of dwellings per unit area, while preserving the essential characteristics of the areas and degl existing properties. In Montreal, the plan of the Îlots Saint-Martin (1968, architect Jean Ouellet) accepts existing domestic architecture as relevant,

A particular place in the interventions within urban areas must be assigned to the reuse of the vast railway parks, which occupy large areas in the center of many Canadian cities. The removal of the railroad crossing in the 1950s allowed Ottawa to build a beautiful urban park along the Rideau Canal. The relocation of the railway park gave Toronto a multifunctional settlement with residences, offices and large commercial spaces (1967, J. Andrews and Webb, Zerafa, Menkes).

The best opportunities for innovation presented themselves to Canadian architects with the development of public facilities: universities, exhibitions, museums and galleries. Around the same time, 1963-1964, two new universities are planned: Simon Fraser, in the Vancouver area and Scarborough, in Toronto. The winning design of the Simon Fraser University competition (1963), by Erikson and Massey, represents a decisive overcoming of the campus modelNorth American, corresponding to the separation of faculties and disciplines. At the same time, the project responds to the nature of the chosen place: the top of a relief in an area far from the city and immersed in the woods, with a sequence of spaces articulated along an axis coinciding with the crest of the hill. The spatial result is exceptional: the large covered square and the system of multi-level paths link together and animate the common functions of the university, opening onto an extraordinary landscape of mountains, woods and glaciers. Scaborough College (1966, J. Andrews) is instead a compact megastructure, organized around a single closed pedestrian path and the general services and administration block. Large structural elements, inclined to follow the slope of the ground, they support the series of volumes of scientific laboratories and institutes. In the opposite wing, the different floors of the classrooms and studies of the humanistic institutes open directly onto the internal road, which cuts across the entire height of the building.

Some important interventions were also carried out on campus existing. Worth mentioning is the one designed by Diamons and Myers in 1969, for the University of Edmonton, which consists of a series of structures that develop within the area already occupied. The planned structures eliminate the crossing of vehicles and link all existing buildings with a network of residences and commercial equipment served by covered pedestrian paths and protected from the harsh climatic conditions of the city. Another significant intervention for having managed to change the traditional university organization without demolitions, interruptions of activities and occupation of space to the detriment of the adjacent residential areas, was carried out in Winnipeg. The architects (Moody, Moore and associates) designed an open system which, using some free areas and overlapping the existing buildings, he connected them in a new structure of closed paths, satisfying the demand for new space for the functional needs of the university. Among the many other achievements in the cultural equipment sector, the Ottawa National Arts Center (1969, arch. Affleck and Desbarats) and the Winnipeg Art Museum (1971, arch. G. da Roza) should also be mentioned.

Finally, one of the great opportunities that Canada has offered to experiment and verify new spatial and functional models is the Montreal Expo ’67. In fact, some traditional researches of contemporary architecture have been brought to a conclusion in the national pavilions, especially from a structural and technological point of view. We can mention, for example, the large modular elements of the Canadian pavilions; the United States geodesic dome (Buckminster Fuller); the tight coverage of the Federal Republic of Germany (Frei Otto). It is not much if you think of the 441 billion lire that the exhibition cost. The permanent structures built as part of the Expo are more interesting: the stadium with prefabricated sectors; the link to minirail between the city and the two islands of San Lorenzo; finally the habitat.

The habitat (designed by M. Safdie) represents the concrete experimentation of the aggregation of individual living cells in a complex with high density and compactness. The result of proposing a new residential typology has been achieved: private spaces have the variety, individuality and privacy of single-family housing; the large suspended galleries that reach the cells offer unusual visions and perceptions in the urban landscape; the system of prefabrication and aggregation of the cells prefigures a generalizable model for the realization of living spaces.

From this concise itinerary among the most advanced creations of contemporary architecture in Canada a picture of a committed and extensive construction activity emerges. The architects responded to the needs of development by creating organizational models of the territory and urban spaces that adhere to their own reality. The models disseminated by the modern movement have been unscrupulously reworked with the non-secondary result of bringing professional practice and current building production to medium levels of high formal and technological quality.

Canada Architecture