Our Country's Rich Diversity is Reflected in its Architecture

From the colourful homes of Newfoundland to the charming, historic French architecture throughout Quebec, from the earthy low lines of buildings outlined in the prairie sunset to the glass-clad skyscrapers in Vancouver reflecting coastal waters, Canada boasts diversity from coast to coast. (DARRYL DYCK/For The Globe and Mail)

Thunder Bay architect John K. Stephenson was elected OAA president earlier this year.

By the time the Blitz was over and the Luftwaffe had turned so much of London into rubble, the resolute Winston Churchill, calling for reconstruction of the great city, remarked: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

How true. Bricks and mortar connect people, build communities and shape us all. They’ve been doing that in Canada for more than 150 years.

The diversity of Canada is, and has been, reflected in our architecture for longer than we’ve been a country. From the colourful homes of Newfoundland to the charming, historic French architecture throughout Quebec, from the earthy low lines of buildings outlined in the prairie sunset to the glass-clad skyscrapers in Vancouver reflecting coastal waters, Canada boasts diversity from coast to coast.

My childhood is enriched by memories of sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ home on a street lined with similar front porches, each in their uniqueness telling a part of the story of the people and families who inhabited the homes behind them.

Later, as a young man travelling in Spain, I was awestruck by the imagination of the original builders of Barcelona, who imagined and built a city with a front porch at an urban scale called Las Ramblas, a marble paved “street within a street” designed to support the Mediterranean tradition of the evening promenade and framed by the wonderful variety and expressions of architecture of that time. In a curious way, it brought back memories of that front porch of my childhood.

Architecture inspires people, creates communities, tells stories and connects the past to the future.

It’s been said that people ignore design that ignores people. As the current president of the Ontario Association of Architects, part of my responsibility is to challenge my profession to reflect on the question of how to assert the value of the work we do by creating safe and healthy environments that perform at the highest levels and, most important, lift the human spirit.

Architects must speak up and show their value to clients and society every day and with every project. But beyond the work they do, architects must also speak out on issues that affect the quality of our buildings and cities and their ability to contribute their unique training and skills in solving the pressing challenges of building healthy and vibrant communities. In their holistic approach, architects are strongly positioned to articulate the value of excellent city building and architectural design and they must defend its importance.

For example, the leadership of architects is of critical importance when it comes to issues such as sustainable design and the benefits of low carbon building design. This is the compelling technical challenge of our time and the building designs of the past are a significant contributor to the problem. Net zero carbon approaches in the design of new buildings and the deep retrofit of the existing building stock are a core part of the solution and architects are uniquely positioned to help meet this challenge.

We know the value of an accountant. Numbers tell a pretty clear and compelling story. But architects and the value they contribute are much more esoteric, seemingly buried behind bricks, glass, steel and concrete. Some architecture is loved, some loathed. Great and even modest architecture stimulates emotion in people. It’s hard to quantify the important value of this emotional response.

We feel it and intuitively understand its importance, but there are no metrics by which to measure it. In a society obsessed with data, it is a continuing challenge to defend the exact value of good architecture to society.

Ultimately though, there is no medium like architecture for capturing and crystallizing the stories of the communities of people who inhabit the built environment. It has been said the architecture of our built environment is the tangible expression of the history and culture of society through time, and without architects there would be no architecture.

More than 200 years ago, the great German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described architecture as “frozen music.” That description has stood the test of time. It succinctly captures the value of the architects’ contribution to society: Some music we love, some we don’t; but we all need music in our lives.