An architecture policy sets an aspirational goal for what we value about the built environment, and helps create a framework for that contribution to culture. The Ordre des architectes du Québec (OAQ) is actively consulting with the government on the establishment of a provincial architecture policy. This is a positive move and shows leadership in the preservation of Canadian culture. It is an example that our federal government should follow.
Every building we see today, and build tomorrow, will be here for generations so it behooves us to invest properly and get the design right.
As architects, we think about how society will be using and interacting with the built environment. Are the entrances and levels accessible? Is the building pleasing to the eye? Does it respond to the context of its surroundings? Is it sustainable?
The built environment shapes our collective memory of place, and houses the important cultural events of our society. In 2016, the Ontario Association of Architects made a submission to the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, on the failure to include architecture in its cultural policy. This submission noted that “some of our leading architects do their best work abroad – often exclusively so – in jurisdictions that welcome and promote architecture as an important aspect of our culture.”
Doug Saunders, in his book Maximum Canada, explored this issue: our population density is too low to support major public institutions and “the situation is worse in Quebec, where the market size of media is even smaller …” When applied to architecture, this is even more true, because it is not just publicly funded buildings but also the private development that creates much of the built environment. When Mr. Saunders interviewed architect Frank Gehry, he said “Canada had not offered the well supported educational institutions, the critical mass of creative people to produce radical new ideas, or the consumer markets for architecture to support more inventive practices.”
We see this in the built environment we have today. Projects may be designed by local architects but only up to a certain threshold, often based on a budgetary figure, but sometimes a matter of profile or stature. Above that limit or public profile, they are awarded to Toronto firms, which may be perceived to bring greater innovation due to a larger population base. Take, for example, projects at universities and colleges: Routinely in Ottawa, they are awarded to out-of-town firms, with only a minor or subordinate role for a local practice, even though those local firms might have the experience, knowledge and capacity to do the whole project. Really big projects end up being awarded to international firms; the Canadian Museum for Human Rights; the Halifax Central Library and Calgary’s New Central Library are recent examples. While each of these projects involved a local partner, the celebration of the design is awarded to a non-Canadian. This isn’t because a Canadian architect isn’t capable, or considered, but because the perception is that there is better design talent found on the world stage.
In Europe, a majority of countries have an architecture policy. We often look to these countries for statistical comparisons on health care, quality of life and taxation, so why not also seek inspiration on the cultural policies that shape the built environment?
We have a small population and if we’re not careful to nurture our homegrown architecture talent, we’ll soon find that all the buildings in Canada, not just the once-in-a-lifetime ones such as museums and libraries, are being designed by others. There are only about 12,000 architects in all of Canada. We struggle with the challenges of being small businesses, in a small market, trying to compete on national or global stages.
Perhaps Mr. Saunders predicted Quebec having the first provincial architecture policy: “Quebec has done a better job than English Canada of maintaining institutions of thought and communication …” The awakening of Québécois consciousness, nationalism and self-identity “at the political, cultural, institutional” levels in the postwar years as part of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s manifests itself today in a clear sense of self-awareness, and desire to protect and nurture Quebec culture to ensure it is not lost in English Canada.
We should have this desire to support, nurture and protect Canadian architecture in a global context.
While Canada shares many similarities with other countries, our architecture needs the support of a national policy in the same way we support our arts and culture, and our businesses, through federal cultural policies. Without that support, the profession of architecture may well find itself marginalized, misunderstood and undervalued for its contribution to culture and economy.
We do this by consulting Canadians on the built environment, and setting policy objectives that value innovation, quality and sense of place.
We must nurture those qualities in all that we build, renovate and venerate as built form in Canada.