50 years on, centennial buildings still important symbols
Nearly 900 buildings across Canada were a major step in national unity, architecture profs say
You've probably been inside one, and maybe without giving it much thought. But there are roughly 900 so-called centennial buildings still standing that were constructed in each province and territory during the 1960s to celebrate Canada's 100th birthday.
And with the nation's 150th coming up next year, many of those buildings are approaching 50 years old — a lasting legacy, but also buildings that are, or soon may be, in need of renovation.
The Ryerson University architecture professor co-wrote Architecture and National Identity: The Centennial Projects 50 Years On, a companion book to an exhibit on centennial projects that opened at Charlottetown's Confederation Centre of the Arts in 2014, and also ran last year at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
"I have to say that in terms of forming Canada, in terms of what Canada is today, it's had a really big role."
860 buildings nationwide
There are approximately 860 buildings across the country that were constructed as centennial projects. The plan to provide funding for the structures was announced by then-prime minister John Diefenbaker in 1961.
By 1964, the federal government had earmarked approximately $100 million — about $743.6 million in 2012 dollars, according to a Parliamentary report — for centennial-related projects.
Each province and territory received funding for one marquee structure, and every municipality got money too — a dollar for each citizen.
But Ripley said the centennial funding also resulted in so many buildings people often take them for granted, although he said they represented a major step in national unity at the time.
Exercise in nation building
"Up until that point we had an English identity, we had a French-Canadian identity, distinct regional identities," he said.
"This was an attempt, explicit, to find out what it was to be Canadian."
The first building constructed under the centennial program was the Fathers of Confederation Memorial Building in Charlottetown — now called the Confederation Centre of the Arts.
Its exterior is smooth sandstone with few windows, stark and unapologetically modern for the time.
"Within architectural circles one would call them, for the most part, brutalist," Ripley said of the centennial buildings.
For the most part, all of the marquee centennial projects remain vital venues in their communities, according to Ripley.
Culture flourished, but national unity elusive
And so in one sense, Diefenbaker's dream came true — arts and culture flourished. But national unity was more elusive, Ripley said.
He notes that right around the peak of the October Crisis in 1970, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa was completed, and Pierre Trudeau attended its opening — while the nation was transfixed by insurrection.
And then a year later, the last of the centennial buildings was completed — Le Grand Théâtre de Quebec.
"Certainly by the time that building opened, there was very little appetite for centennial celebrations in Quebec," according to Marco Polo. He's also a professor of architecture at Ryerson, and Ripley's co-author on Architecture and National Identity.
"So literally, by the time the whole project came to completion, the whole national unity project was in serious trouble."
Some buildings in need of renovation
Polo also said tastes in architecture changed, and for several decades afterward the brutalist style was considered by many to be ugly.
But now, 50 years later, he says brutalism is back — and many of his students love it.
The Royal Alberta Museum, for example, is moving venues — and Ripley and Polo said there's a question mark over the centnnial building's future.
But they also said they're eager to see how the current refurbishment of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa will turn out — a project set to be complete by July 1, 2017, just in time for Canada's 150th.