New architecture rounds the corner

James Loken December 21 1981

New architecture rounds the corner

James Loken December 21 1981

New architecture rounds the corner


James Loken

Looking down from his 31st - floor office in Montreal’s Place Ville Marie, David Culver, president of Alcan International, is anticipating his longawaited descent to ground level. Culver’s flight from his eyrie to a 19th-century townhouse on Sherbrooke Street is a move many high-rise office workers would envy. But the renovated Atholstan House, with its 14-foot ceilings and marble fireplaces, is only one component of Maison Alcan, the corporation’s new international headquarters. Instead of erecting yet another skyscraper, Alcan is refurbishing almost an entire block of Sherbrooke Streetfour greystone townhouses and an old hotel —to front an ultramodern yet rounded aluminum and glass low-rise building.

The humanized dimensions of Maison Alcan typify the changing spirit of Canadian architecture as it breaks out of the sterile parameters of international style modernism—the glass box in the windswept plaza. Since the mid-’70s, a brewing revolt against the skyscrapers of modernism has begun to soften the face of Canadian cities. Architects in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver are rounding corners, tiering towers and adding color and historical ornamentation-friezes, arcades, protruding lintels, moulded corbels, cornices, pilasters—all in a flamboyant celebration of building as sculpture. That idea accompanies the already widespread efforts by architects to graft new buildings onto existing older structures, thereby preserving the character of the area. A public demand for architecture that provides inviting gathering places has spawned a new design ethic. Corporations and banks are, like Alcan, cheerfully swallowing the extra cost for added prestige. Alcan project architect Ray Affleck is a firm believer in the new style. “Today we want a richer, warmer, more humane architecture,” he says.

Initiatives in the vein of the aquatic curves of Eberhard Zeidler’s Eaton Centre in Toronto, or Philip Johnson

and John Burgee’s Manhattan AT&T building with its Chippendale-like broken pediment, have caught public fancy. Yet only a decade ago, such experiments would have brought charges of heresy from the so-called modernists. The legacy of the post-First-World-War German Bauhaus group, which stripped architectural design down to the bare essentials of steel and glass, was a farreaching abhorrence of ornamentation. Under the influence of Bauhaus founders Walter Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe, the American skyscraper (which in the ’20s and ’30s soared upward in exotic Gothic and art deco forms) became a minimalist rectangle—an icon of anonymous corporate power. Imperfect clones of Van der Rohe’s own designs, such as his elegant black Toronto Dominion Centre, have, in many cities, since created a clutter of blank mirrored walls and dreary canyon vistas.

Corporate titans, throwing financial

caution to the wind, are spearheading the humanistic trend to forge appealing public images. According to Toronto architect Jack Diamond, companies are investing in buildings as statements. In Toronto, corporate trademarks now include the CN Tower and the golden shimmer of the Royal Bank Plaza. “People identify these buildings by which is the shiniest, which is the highest, which is most bizarre, and which simply shouts out its name the loudest. Now corporate clients are beginning to realize they can achieve the benefit of that identity with buildings that have characteristics that are most humane.” Alcan’s design, for example, was largely due to Culver’s interest in preserving the rich assortment of Victorian and Georgian architecture-good public relations. “Alcan wanted to symbolize that Montreal was our permanent home,” says Culver. “What better way than to restore part of Montreal’s main street?” In Calgary, ATCO Housing and Development Corporation’s design for a new 37-storey tiered red granite office tower will stand out sharply from what its architect, David Scott, calls Calgary’s “monotonous white.” Says ATCO President Otto Steiner, “Tenants now appreciate a landmark building.”

Public pressure to save historic buildings has also led many developers to make a perfunctory bow to the past before throwing up 20 storeys of curtain wall. Historical-modern combination buildings attempt to meet these demands. Toronto architects Raymond Moriyama and Ronald Thom collaborated to do just this in their Confederation Square project in downtown Toronto. The design centres on the original Confederation Life Building, an ornate and looming 19th-century neo-Romanesque structure. By extending the red sandstone building with new materials, preserving the same scale and motif, the design encloses a new aluminum and glass tower. “The very important principle behind our decision,” explains Moriyama, “was that the new should not be wrapped around the old but that

the old should be wrapped around the new.”

Not all designs appease preservation advocates. In Montreal, the Place Mercantile project incorporates as a facade the original row of greystone townhouses that stood on the site.

They were dismantled stone by stone and partially reconstructed to offer each major tenant an exclusive Sherbrooke Street address. This sort of false-front historicism draws the ire of some critics who feel the result is a travesty of both the original and the modern architecture. “Developers are cashing in on the prestige of Sherbrooke Street,” says Melvin Charney, architecture professor at the Université de Montréal,

"but at the same time they're knocking down the buildings that created that prestige."

Most heretical in the post-modernism wave is the use of decorated architecture. American architects have taken much bolder steps in this direction than their Canadian counterparts. The jagged turrets outlining the three apexes of the Republic Bank Center in Houston, a project by Johnson and Burgee, dramatically illustrate how Gothic ornamentation can complement a new tower. And Michael Graves’ Portland Public Office Building daringly combines a classical portal with an art deco design.

But if William McElcheran has his way, ornament will become a necessity for the inhabitants of the closely packed cities of the ’80s—otherwise doomed to “Bauhaus barracks.” The Canadian sculptor has been urging architects, municipal planners and concrete builders to employ sculptors and craftsmen. By using only a few upper-storey open arcades and pilasters, argues McElcheran, a building can provide visual relief. Cost, the greatest obstacle to such efforts, remains relatively low,

rounded design, such as Jean Ouellet’s Complexe Desjardins with its galleria and broad mezzanine in Montreal, hearken back to the tradition of the public square. The serpentine curves of the Grande Prairie Regional College and St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, Alta., seek to evoke a harmony with nature, and, according to architect Douglas Cardinal, were designed to raise the spirits of local inhabitants.

Meanwhile, thanks to big business, the skylines of Canadian cities as a whole are visibly changed, geared to appeal, not just function. Even the banks have adapted. The Bankers’ Hall project in Calgary, a collaboration between the Royal Bank and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, will erect twin towers of silver and gold, re-

he points out, since concrete can be poured into any shape an artist desires and the fee is amortized over the number of castings. More important, sculpture can use symbols to illustrate life in the building.

Similar sentiments are finding expression across the country. In Montreal, Jean-Eudes Guy’s plans for Place Beaver Hall specify a copper roof echoing those of surrounding older buildings. At the exclusive women’s club project, “The Elmwood” in Toronto, patterned brickwork embellishes a new addition adjoining the main historical building. According to the architect, Paul Martel, the decorated wall cost only 25 per cent more than straight bricking.

The plea for urban diversity, passionately articulated by Jane Jacobs in her seminal book Death and Life of Great American Cities, has also generated a social design ethic. Showpieces of

peating the colors of the banks’ head offices in Toronto. The sloping, needlelike towers top existing buildings with a sweeping central arch. Explains associate architect Khosla Ramesh: “We’re trying to create a stronger sense of skyline by using varying forms.”

Some Canadian architects resist the more radical projects. “I don’t think you have to play hoaxy games with historical details to be progressive,” says Ronald Thom, pointing to the more urgent priority of energy efficiency. At DuBois and Associates, Macy DuBois agrees: “Post-modernism is almost a philistine movement.” Post-modernists would reply that theirs is a code of open-mindedness, a willingness to experiment. Or as architect Peter Rose, a lecturer on architectural historyat McGill University, suggests, “We’ve lost the absolute faith in the future that inspired the modernists, and pending our reassessment of it, we don’t want to throw away the past.”

John Barber