The study of architecture in Canada focuses on biographical and aesthetic categories. Early 20th-century scholars adopted systematic methods from art history in order to celebrate outstanding architects, to describe and classify monuments, and, to some degree, to promote knowledge of traditional vernacular buildings. In recent decades, new scholars have sought to expand these methods by incorporating approaches from geography, material culture, folklore studies, and critical theory. In both eras, scholars have studied the built environment in order to distinguish the Canadian built environment from its colonial past (under Britain and France), and from that of its much larger neighbor, the United States. Despite some overlap between the old and the new approaches, there is an abiding tension between scholars who look to understand buildings and cities as aesthetic achievements, wherein progress is classified as a succession of stylistic changes, and those who wish to use buildings as a source for writing a broader social history connected to everyday economic and political life. In addition, much scholarship on buildings has been generated to accompany exhibitions. In such cases, the texts aim both to communicate to nonacademic readers and to entertain visitors to the exhibition. An emphasis on the products and personages of a male-dominated profession means that our understanding of women’s contributions to the built environment is limited. Likewise, indigenous architecture receives attention as archaeological prehistory and as contemporary architecture, but almost no attention is given to indigenous buildings produced between 1700 and today. In addition, there is surprisingly little systematic study of architecture’s role in environmental history. There are few analyses of the structures associated with Canada’s resource industries: mining, fisheries, forestry, and, more recently, the tar sands. Finally, there are few examples of the reliable and robust scholarly monographs or articles on singular celebrated architects and buildings readily available for other nations. Chronologically, a logical first division concerns the federation of the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Upper Canada, and Lower Canada into the Dominion of Canada in 1867, and the completion of a national railway in 1886. Confederation is also a convenient starting place for the issue of modernism, and, subsequently, it is possible to tie the development of Canadian architecture to urbanization and industrialization. A second inflexion point historians invoke often is 1967, marked by both a flurry of federally funded civic projects and the world exhibition in Montreal, Expo 67. One important conception of Canada is that it is an agglomeration of diverse regions, so that a study of architecture in Canada would necessarily include a balanced account of all regions. This regionalism is accentuated by the existence of a French-speaking province with a strong collective identity. Yet even as scholars insist that Canada is decentralized and characterized by its regions and peripheries, their studies to date have overwhelmingly emphasized Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes, leaving scant scholarship on the West Coast, the Prairies, and the Arctic.
General Surveys and Overviews
One constant of scholarship on architecture in Canada has been the search to elucidate what is “Canadian” about Canadian architecture. Adams and Bressani 2003 argues that Canada both physically and mentally stands on the edge of empire. This volume surveys both the teaching and writing of architectural history, and assesses the influence of regional histories, with particular reference to Quebec in Morisset 1949 and Traquair 1947. Comprehensive general surveys of Canadian buildings, including Gowans 1966, Kalman 1994, and Sabatino and Windsor-Liscombe 2016, argue that architecture expresses and reflects a Canadian national identity as it changes over time. Williams 2014 is a similar national survey devoted to landscape design. The authors collected in Windsor-Liscombe 2011 explain architecture as an instantiation of multiculturalism in Canada. Kalman 1972, Buggey 1977, Lerner and Williamson 1991, and Guttman 1996, while not argument-based, are reliable guides to the sources for the study of architecture in Canada. The bibliography in Sabatino and Windsor-Liscombe 2016 is also useful.
Adams, Annmarie, and Martin Bressani. “Canada: The Edge Condition.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62.1 (2003): 75–83.
A survey of the teaching and writing of architectural history in Canada that argues for the history of Canada (and Canadian architecture) as taking place at the periphery of empire: first French, then British, and now American.
Buggey, Susan. “Researching Canadian Buildings: Some Historical Sources.” Social History/Histoire sociale 10.20 (1977): 409–426.
Useful and reliable overview of extant original sources for studies of buildings and architects.
Gowans, Alan. Building Canada: An Architectural History of Canadian Life. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Gowans is best known for including vernacular buildings alongside high art in his studies of the material culture in the United States. But he also wrote this early and widely read assessment of the development of Canadian building traditions. Published just before Expo 67, it is an updated version of his volume Looking at Architecture in Canada (1958).
Guttman, Renata. “Architecture in Canada: French-Language Publishing, 1981–1995.” Art Libraries Journal 21.3 (1996): 4–28.
Reliable and comprehensive survey of publications on architecture ranging from government reports to exhibition catalogues and monographs during a key moment of growth in publishing on architecture.
Kalman, Harold. “Recent Literature on the History of Canadian Architecture.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 31.4 (December 1972): 315–332.
Useful and reliable overview of the field up to 1972.
Kalman, Harold. A History of Canadian Architecture. 2 vols. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Major two-volume survey of architecture in Canada. Kalman focuses on buildings designed by professional architects, but he surveys an array of buildings, including infrastructure and engineering works such as bridges. He synthesizes a vast amount of documentary scholarship, and alternates between attention to the use and social history of buildings with more traditional style-based assessments of canonical monuments and well-known architects. This two-volume edition has become a standard reference text, although Kalman also condensed and updated it in A Concise History of Canadian Architecture (2000).
Lerner, Loren Ruth, and Mary F. Williamson. Art and Architecture in Canada: A Bibliography and Guide to the Literature to 1981 = Art et architecture au Canada: Bibliographie et guide de la documentation jusqu’en 1981. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Reliable and pioneering bibliographic guide.
Morisset, Gérard. L’Architecture en Nouvelle France. Quebec: Author, 1949.
Pioneering history of architecture in Quebec using systematic, up-to-date methods from art history. Influential study that promotes conservation and preservation of historic architecture in the service of Quebec nationalism.
Sabatino, Michelangelo, and Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe. Canada: Modern Architectures in History. London: Reaktion Books, 2016.
An ambitious, one-volume, encyclopedic survey of modern architecture in Canada from the late 19th century to the present. Argues that the diversity of Canadian buildings reflects the multicultural diversity of its citizens, augmented by the importation of modernist architectural styles with the arrival of immigrant architects from Europe.
Traquair, Ramsay. The Old Architecture of Quebec: A Study of the Buildings Erected in New France from the Earliest Explorers to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century. Toronto: Macmillan, 1947.
Pioneering study of architecture using extensive systematic fieldwork and measured drawings. Early statement of the concept that architectural idioms reflect regional identities.
Williams, Ron. Landscape Architecture in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.
Williams surveys the history of landscape design in Canada. He argues that the design of cemeteries, plazas, parks, urban squares, and suburban playgrounds makes man-made landscape both a democratic, social practice and a locus of environmental stewardship.
Windsor-Liscombe, Rhodri. Architecture and the Canadian Fabric. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011.
Edited collection of seventeen essays that assess the contribution of buildings to Canadian identity since New France. Includes essays on vernacular building types such as the Quebec postwar bungalow.
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