Architecture

Clever people, these Canadians

January 23 1978
Architecture

Clever people, these Canadians

January 23 1978

Clever people, these Canadians

Architecture

Sheikh Abdulrahman Alissa, a Saudi Arabian General Motors dealer, was holidaying in Portugal. It was 1976, he had just sold his entire year’s stock of Chevrolets in four months, he had three million dollars, and he wanted to spend it. As the sheikh sat on the beach in the warm Lisbon sun his thoughts drifted to a long-cherished fantasy: a dream home, a palace that would satisfy at once his American-educated modern self and his deeply rooted Arabic traditions. On the same beach Egyptianborn engineer Samir Zaghloul was enjoying a last bit of sunshine before flying home to Canada. The two men met and started talking. It seemed the engineer knew just the man to build a three-milliondollar dream—a Canadian friend named Peter Hamilton. Before the conversation ended, an agreement had been signed and Peter Hamilton had a job.

Back home, Hamilton, Ridgely, Bennett and Partners of Toronto joined an elite but expanding club: Canadian architects with international credentials. In Cairo and the Caribbean, Kabul and Kathmandu, they are abandoning the listless Canadian economy to seek—and find—work elsewhere. More than 400 of them currently are at work on billions of dollars worth of overseas contracts. In Saudi Arabia, Project Planning Associates of Toronto has designed a $500-million university; in Kuwait, Vancouver’s Arthur Erickson is working on a $250-million apartment complex; in Singapore, Neish Owen Rowland & Roy (NORR) of Toronto is building the world’s largest flight kitchen; in Afgha-

nistan, Toronto’s Parkin Associates has award-winning plans for an exotic $35million airport.

Hamilton, principal architect of the Saudi Arabian palace, admits his small firm would not be working in the Middle East were it not for an Egyptian engineer with Arabian connections. It is standard practice in the Middle East for a local businessman to “sponsor” a foreign project for a hefty 10% fee. In fact, business usually can’t be done any other way. In this case, the engineer knew a businessman in Riyadh who knew the GM dealer and happily acted as sponsor. When the 30,000square-foot concrete dream is complete (construction starts this spring atop two hills is Riyadh) it will have Arabic-style terraces for outdoor sleeping, a futuristic kitchen, sunken tubs, saunas, pools and waterways, a small zoo, and, says Hamilton, “a parking lot on one side and a camel-lot on the other.”

Hamilton can afford to joke. In the whoyou-know world of architecture, international contracts usually go to large, fashionable firms such as Project Planning Associates (the nice folks who built Don Mills, Ontario). The urban planning experts have been active in the Middle East for 15 years and were chosen to select a site and design a new capital city for Tanzania at a cost of $300 million. That city, Dodoma, is now under construction, and its master plan recently won the American Society of Landscape Architects’ award for regional development design. As well, the firm recently completed the master plan

for King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a $500-million project that will house and educate 18,000 students. In Egypt, the firm is responsible for the much ballyhooed Pyramids Oasis, a massive resort and residential community near the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Also busy globally is Montreal-based George Eber—the man who designed or helped design 11 pavilions for Expo 67 and has done nothing in Quebec since. Eber has worked on projects from Australia to Venezuela, but the most spectacular yet was initiated in 1973 when he was introduced to a confidant of Jordan’s King Hussein. A keen water-skiing enthusiast, Hussein had decided he wanted a resort development on the Gulf of Aqaba, near his residence on the Red Sea. The confidant smoothed the way for Eber to present his plans to Hussein on his official visit to Canada in April, 1976. It took 10 minutes. Two months later Eber and his allCanadian consortium, led by Genstar Ltd., were summoned to Jordan to make a formal presentation of Eber’s designs. The $250-million hotel and housing development will be built along artificial inland lagoons and will have—to please the King— a water skiing course of world championship proportions.

Eighteen months ago, Vancouver’s Ar-

thur Erickson was awarded a project of 1,000 apartment units by the National Housing Authority of Kuwait. It marked the prominent architect’s first venture in the Middle East. “We had to invest considerable time and effort to get it,” says managing director Graeme Whitelaw. “But once you have done a project in the Middle East, they are inclined to give you more work.” Apparently. The Saudi government has just commissioned Erickson to design a new foreign ministry building in Riyadh, encouraging the Canadian firm to open an office in nearby Jeddah.

Offices may be opening elsewhere, but in Canada the economic pinch is being felt. The Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden Partnership, Canada’s largest architecture firm, was forced to reduce its staff a year ago from 240 to 120. Even Raymond Moriyama, the creator of the Ontario Science Centre and the new Metropolitan Toronto Library, is looking for work and says he may have to leave Canada to find it. And if times are tough for an established architect such as Moriyama, they are disastrous for the one-man office that can’t afford to seek work elsewhere. The Alberta building boom, with a record $757-million worth of construction last year in Calgary alone, has encouraged some middle-sized firms to open offices there. But the wealthy client, in a Stetson or a burnous, is beyond the reach of the majority of Canadian architects. They get beaten every time by the biggest and the best.

Responding to the obvious need for Canadian architects to find work somewhere, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada recently appointed an overseas task

force to advise architects on how to compete internationally. Its chairman, Derry Robertson, says Canadian architects certainly have the expertise. “We’re doing great work, faster, and at a lesser cost,” he says. “A Canadian architect will have done three times as much work as his European counterpart.” He suggested that stringent building codes, combined with Canadian extremes of climate, have demanded design excellence from Canadian architects.

The task force recommends the consortium approach in securing work overseas, a method that certainly has worked for NORR. In consortium with Acres International, consulting engineers, the NORR group has designed airports in Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia; and construction begins this spring on an airport terminal in Kathmandu, India. As well, the firm has been selected from among 29 international competitors to design an imaginative project for the Singapore Airport Terminal Services: the world’s largest flight kitchen, a 500,000-square-foot food preparation complex which will service all airlines arriving at Singapore.

International projects face a whole range of special problems. There are always imponderables about language, custom, law and location, but perhaps the

most unmanageable problem is political upheaval. Eber knows that the fate of his Gulf of Aqaba resort rests with Middle East peace negotiations. Similarly, construction on two airports designed for the Jamaican government by Parkin Associates has been postponed due to political unrest. Says Parkin: “The real problem in all foreign work is the frailty of government changes.” He speaks from experience. In the four years that his firm has been designing a $35-million airport terminal for Kabul, Afghanistan, the country has overthrown its monarchy, exiled the king to Rome and become a republic.

But it is a trade joke that architects spend most of their time building models, not buildings. Even if a project is completed, says Parkin, “the scale of time we work in is something people don’t comprehend.” The Kabul airport, for example, will be completed in the year 1990—if all goes well. That means many of those now working on the project may not live to see it finished. As Parkin says, an architect—especially one who goes international—must be a 20th-century Imhotep, the builder of the Pyramid of Cheops: part businessman and mathematician, part salesman, politician and diplomat. And he must be patient. MIKE MACBETH