Terrence Smith-Lamothe of Architech Ltd. was the presenter for the "Identifiable Canadian Architecture" session at the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada's 2017 Festival of Architecture, held on May 26 in downtown Ottawa.
Smith-Lamothe said there are instantly identifiable Canadian features such as the Mounties, maple syrup, and hockey, but further out it is tougher to identify "Canadian-ness".
The world thinks Canada is log houses and wood cabins, as we portray a rustic image to the world. The world also thinks of railroad hotels such as the Banff Springs and the Royal York. But the Chateau Frontenac, arguably the showcase railroad hotel, was designed by a New Yorker.
Smith-Lamonthe said we have 150 years of history, so we can't do what many cultures do to express themselves through architecture, build forms that last and are identifiable through centuries. A shared heritage within a homogenous population is also another marker of identity, and Canada does not reflect that.
Another factor is a limited climate and geographic variation...which Canada doesn't have. Identifiable architecture uses regional materials in construction, and Canada does have a tradition of working in wood.
We're up against pretty stiff competition in wood and stone," Smith-Lamonthe said, citing Japan and other cultures as formidable sources of wood architecture.
There are characteristic construction features and techniques across cultures, and "I don't see that in Canada. There aren't many identifiable features in Canadian architecture," Smith-Lamonthe said.
The answer to the question, Smith-Lamonthe said, is that "no, there isn't any identifiable Canadian architecture. Sorry."
But there are exceptions, he said.
When the building identifies itself as Canadian, with a British lion on one side and the French unicorn on the other, with a beaver on top, "there's no question it's Canadian."
Scotch Dormer style houses are all over Halifax and other parts of Nova Scotia, and you can definitely identify a house from Winnipeg as compared to one from Halifax, he said.
Winter, Smith-Lamonthe said, determines everything in our architecture. Careful orientation to the sun is one feature, as is clustering of buildings. We do cluster buildings, but "not on a regular basis."
Thick insulation is a surprisingly recent development, he said, and Passive House is a good step in that direction. The oil crisis of the 1970s pushed things forward, but anything built previously is "hit or miss."
European DNA is part of Canadian architecture, Smith-Lamonthe said, Pattern books emerged in the late 19th century which reinforced this trend. They also produced Gothic Vernacular type houses throughout Canada.
The Modernist movement has also influenced architecture, with its views of form following function, minimal ornamentation, architects having social responsibility and modernist sensibilities.
Architecture also has more to do with fashion than with principles, Smith-Lamonthe said.
The future, he said, is in the past. Smith-Lamonthe proposed looking at what indigenous people were doing and use that as a step forward. He pointed to long houses as ideally suited to our climate, and also said our geographical variation makes a consistent architecture across Canada difficult. But indigenous peoples used available materials and used characteristic construction features and techniques.