Canada is Brutal

The Brutalist movement in Canada during the post-war era had its roots in the work of James Stirling and the New Brutalism of Alison and Peter Smithson in the UK, the ‘béton brut’ of Le Corbusier in Europe and the contemporary work of Paul Rudolph in America1.  What makes it distinct is the role this architectural style had in the cultural context of the establishment of the Canadian nation-state.  Brutalist Canadian architecture was contemporary with the adoption of the Canadian flag (1965), the Centennial (1967) and the signing of The Constitution Act (1982).

Canadian national identity is a mosaic of regionalisms that constructs a rich national narrative, but lacks stylistic unity.  Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1968-79, 80-84) saw the Centennial projects as “repositories of the kind of cultural capital necessary to the external recognition of nation-states.3” It was the coincidence of the rise of Brutalism, Canadian political will, and the celebration of the Centennial that allowed the style to be co-opted by the political agenda of nation building that began with Lester B. Pearson.  As André Lortie states, "Nationalism + Modernization = Nationalization.4"  This intentional investment in monumental architecture has resulted in the only truly unifiable Canadian architectural style - a distinct identity across the breadth of the nation.  From the Centre for the Arts in PEI to Place Bonaventure in Quebec, the Nation Arts Centre and Scarborough College in Ontario to Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, these Brutalist works dominate the cultural landscape of Canada.5 As Reyner Banham states, these buildings were "perceived as a comprehensible grouping of architecture united by ambition, ingenuity and the ground upon which they stood.6"  

Brutalism was at the height of fashion in the late 1960s and it was this timing that enabled Brutalism to become a style associated with civics and culture in Canada, though the style itself had inherent traits to be exploited; the massiveness of the megastructure allowed for visible investment in society and the street while allowing architects to isolate the expansive landscape as a human environment. In the United States, influential work of architects like Rudolph and Louis Kahn pushed the technological boundaries of concrete structure, the potential for spatial composition through planar massing and the aesthetics of raw material expression in prominent public buildings. Without physical proximity to such examples, Brutalism would not have been adopted to construct a national identity in Canada. 

In hindsight a range of identifiable architectural styles were explored in the post-war era but not all were equally suited to the task of nation building. By selecting Butalism as a vehicle for advancing a national narrative, it became enshrined in the Canadian psyche as a symbol of authority, power, civics and culture. As a result, these buildings have become cultural monuments in Canada and remain as relevant as the civic functions they embody. Any discussion of Brutalism today must account for its role in the political unification of the Canadian nation-state.

1 Frampton, Kenneth. Modern architecture: a critical history. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.
3 Liscombe, Rhodri Windsor. Architecture and the Canadian fabric. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.
4 Lortie, André, and Olivo Barbieri. The 60s: Montreal thinks big. Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2004.
5 Liscombe, Rhodri Windsor. Architecture and the Canadian fabric. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.
6 Banham, Reyner. Megastructure: urban futures of the recent past. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Essay featured in Calgarious (architecture design interiors calgary) exhibition: Building Curiosity, November 2013.