Canada 150 won't leave much of a 'concrete' legacy, architects say

When Canada turned 100, the federal government drove the creation of major construction projects coast to coast. Why did Canada 150 not see the same?

Trudeau says focus should be on people, not buildings; architects say the Centennial was much different

The Royal B.C. Museum was the biggest Centennial-related construction project built in B.C. In the years surrounding the 1967 Canadian Centennial, the federal government drove a major building boom to build Canadian identity and improve community facilities. Canada 150, architects note, does not have the same emphasis.

The legacy of Canada 150 will include many festivals and other events but architects are noting that's a very different legacy from the Centennial in 1967.

That milestone saw the federal government invest about $725 million in 2017 dollars in almost 900 construction projects across the nation, primarily to build up cultural infrastructure.

In B.C. those projects ranged from tiny projects like community bandstands all the way up to the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria.

"The emphasis this time has been on events rather than legacy projects," said Ryerson University Architecture Professor Marco L. Polo. "I think it speaks to a different attitude towards the role of architecture in representing national ambitions.

"[The period leading up to the Centennial] was a period of very strong Canadian nationalism. So the federal government was investing a lot of money not only in architecture but other forms of cultural production.

"We're living in a very different set of conditions now than we were 50 years ago."

Fear of Canadian culture being swamped

Polo says the 1967 building boom was motivated by a fear Canadian culture, then distancing itself from its British identity, was being swamped by American culture.

Canada had few museums and performance venues back then — he notes symphonies would sometimes play in high school gyms — but the idea was that erecting more cultural buildings would lead to a more vibrant arts scene.

"That was an important part of the 1967 Centennial: the projects were contributing to a national identity," Polo said.

"The buildings that were built were all very modern. They were not nostalgic in any way.

"It was really about thinking of Canada's future, so the projects were partly about constructing a new identity for Canada."

The Museum of Vancouver opened in its current location in 1968, one of nearly 900 Centennial buildings constructed in Canada during the 1960s. (Museum of Vancouver)

Polo thinks what's different now is how thinking of Canada as having a single national identity has changed to a focus on multiculturalism.

Another reason is the general lack of resources provided at the federal level for these kinds of public works. He says the redesign of the Vancouver Art Gallery is just one example of how cultural projects are driven by local and provincial governments.

Prime Minister says focus is people, not buildings

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended what he called a focus on people rather than buildings for Canada 150 celebrations.

"I respect that people will be looking for different things to mark this milestone but I always focus on Canadians, on the stories we tell each other," Trudeau said Thursday in Charlottetown.

"Our greatest strengths are not in bricks and mortar or even in the land, but in the people who share these communities who want to build a vibrant future together."

Polo called that thinking "kinda lame."

"If you're investing in bricks and mortar, who is that for if not for the people?"

He says one opportunity that could have been pursued was the old U.S. embassy in Ottawa.

That building has been pitched as a new Indigenous centre, but some Indigenous leaders have criticized the federal government for a lack of consultation on the project.

The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada's Indigenous Task Force has also criticized the design of the building as a "hand-me-down" and "not a culturally appropriate space."

They argue Indigenous architects should be involved in the creation of a new building or at least a significant overhaul of the existing one.

The former U.S. embassy in Ottawa. Would a redesign or complete reconstruction of this building, driven by Indigenous architects, made for a good Caanda 150-related project? The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Indigenous Task Force thinks so. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Not without pitfalls

Vancouver architecture critic and writer Bruce Haden says having a concrete legacy for major milestones like Canada 150 sounds like a good idea, but shouldn't be done for its own sake.

He points to the recent example of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, which brought on numerous projects with mixed success.

"If it had not been for the Olympics, we would probably still be arguing whether the Arbutus Corridor or Cambie is the right direction for the Canada Line. Sometimes a deadline can really ... move something forward," he said.

"The disadvantage is you can sometimes get buildings that are just associated with a festival or sporting event and then are completely useless afterwards. And that has been a terrible problem for the Olympics.

He says centennial buildings largely avoided those problems and have endured as improvements to the communities where they exist.

With files from The Canadian Press

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