Canada’s master builders

DON CUMMING November 11 1985

Canada’s master builders

DON CUMMING November 11 1985

Canada’s master builders


The Aga Khan stayed at a Canadian-designed hotel in Agra, India, in 1980 and he was so impressed with the structure that he asked the architects to build two more like it in Pakistan for his Serena hotel chain. An Australian entrepreneur visiting Vancouver was so taken with the float-

ing houses of Vancouver’s Granville Island that he asked its architect to design a multimillion-dollar marine paradise for Queensland’s Gold Coast. And last week the city of Phoenix, 'Ariz., announced that the Toronto firm of Barton Myers Associates had beaten more than 100 U.S. contestants to build a new $65-million city hall and court complex. Recently, such events have become almost routine, and designs by Canadian architects are changing the face of cities around the world, from London to Lagos, Ankara to Kathmandu and Paris to San Diego.

Indeed, a Maclean's survey showed that there are at least 40 major Canadian-designed international projects that have been recently completed, are currently under construction or are about to be built. In sheer size,

many outstrip any building project now under way in Canada. Arthur Erickson’s California Center, for one, an 11-acre redevelopment scheme in downtown Los Angeles, will cost $1 billion by the time it is finished in 1990. Others, including Toronto-based Neish, Owen, Rowland & Roy’s new airport in Maseru, Lesotho, are more

modest. But together they represent building worth a total of $4.4 billion —almost as much as the value of all nonresidential building in Canada’s three largest cities this year.

As the architects’ international success has increased, they are to a degree expressing Canadian society’s vision of what a city should be, and that vision is selling well abroad. Few Canadian architects would argue that a consistently recognizable “Canadian style” is sweeping the world as the Europeanbased International Style did earlier in the century. But the resi-

dents of almost any Canadian city regularly see and use buildings that have gone on to serve as prototypes for projects rising on every continent except Antarctica.

Although their styles vary, most of the largest offshore Canadian designs have easily identifiable Canadian precursors. Norman Hotson’s Granville

Island design is being transplanted to Australia just as Ray Affleck’s garden hotel complex, Place Bonaventure in Montreal, was adapted to India. The Salle Wilfrid Pelletier in Montreal’s Place des Arts and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre —designed by Affleck’s partner, Fred Lebensold, who died last July —now have their counterpart in Tampa, Fla.

Barton Myers’s Citadel Theatre, a major landmark in Edmonton, has a lineal descendant in Portland, Ore. Eberhard Zeidler’s Eaton ^Centre in Toronto, which knits a spectacu§ lar interior street sys-

tem into an existing city grid, will soon be adapted to San Francisco in the $700-million Yerba Buena Gardens project. Another innovative Zeidler design, the McMaster Health Sciences Centre in Hamilton, Ont., produced a commission to design Detroit’s Wayne State University Health Care Institute, which an American Institute of Architects awards jury praised for both its functionalism and its “bright and jolly” interior space.

Indeed, there is likely at least one

Canadian architect working abroad every day. Arthur Erickson, 61, the most prominent of the Canadian designers, estimated that he routinely logs 800,000 km of air travel every year pursuing and overseeing offshore projects. And for his part, Toronto’s Raymond Moriyama, 56, covered an estimated 650,000 km in one year while taking care of business in Asia, the Middle East and the United States.

But to be a top-ranking architect in

the 1980s requires more than a tolerance for air travel. Also needed are a diplomat’s social graces, a burglar’s nerves, a marathoner’s staying power and a boxer’s ability to get up after a knockdown. Said Winnipeg’s Etienne Gaboury, designer of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City: “The international work has its glamor appeal, but it sucks up all your energy.”

It also presents odds that many businessmen consider to be formidable. For most architects the process

begins when a prospective client invites them to submit a proposal for a project because of previous contacts, their relationship with a venturesome Canadian developer or engineering firm or simply because of the quality of their previous work. At that point they put their prestige, their time and usually their own money on the line. Indeed, a proposal for a large project can cost more than $100,000—and often it fails to capture the commission.

Moriyama first acquired an international profile with the Ontario Science Centre in 1969, and as a result his firm usually ends up on the short list of any client planning to build a similar museum. But after two years of work on a similar centre for Hong Kong, the architects learned early this year that the project was being postponed. Said Moriyama: “I gather [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher does not want any more British money spent on a facility that will be handed over to the Chi-

nese within a few years.” Zeidler and Arcop have had similar experiences with unsuccessful Hong Kong projects. But even when the architect’s perseverance is rewarded with a completed building, more difficulties often arise. Declared Hotson: “Sometimes it is hard to get paid when the client is halfway around the world.”

No region in the world has proven more difficult for Canadian projects than the Middle East. But its oil-rich

kingdoms and sultanates—especially Saudi Arabia—continue to tantalize architects with the prospect of megaprojects and corresponding fees. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz University, which was planned 18 years ago as a $1.4-billion scholarly community for 50,000 people in the desert at Jeddah, is a case in point. So far, the Saudis have managed to build residences for only about 1,024 students. Now the government proposes to build a slightly smaller version of the original plan, because of the steep fall in the price of oil. But despite the setbacks the two Canadian architectural firms that are currently in charge of the design are still eager to be part of it.

One is Erickson’s. He describes his 10-year involvement with the university as “an exasperating experience.” He said that a man named Saad Gabr, who initially represented the Saudi authorities, appeared to spend more time investing funds in the development of North Hatley, Que., as a resort. In 1983 Gabr was fired from the project, leaving a legacy of suspicion, and further work was suspended while the Saudis investigated the matter.

Still, Erickson was somewhat optimistic that the final contracts would be signed this month. And Boris Zerafa of Toronto’s Webb Zerafa Menkès Housden (WZMH), which took on about two-thirds of the design work four years ago, said he was confident that by 1990 Canadian-style classrooms, libraries and laboratories will have been completed in the desert.

The architects’ reasons for pursuing international business despite the difficulties vary widely. For some of them it is an issue of economic necessity. Erickson, who said that “building has been very slow in Canada in recent years,” added that offshore work is “vitally important” for his firm. In fact, it accounts for 60 per cent of his practice. And Hotson declared, “It adds credibility, and because of it I had my best year when some firms in Vancouver were folding.”

Still, most architects say that the work is valuable mainly for the chance it offers of demonstrating that they can compete with the world’s best. Said Toronto’s Barton Myers, 51: “It is a little like being a football player in the Canadian league. He knows he’s good but he always wonders if he could make it in the NFL.”

Rene Menkès values international architecture for other reasons. He says that it provides a “mind-opening experience.” His firm won a competition to design the Paris head office of ElfAquitaine, the French national oil company. That kind of success, added Menkès, 53, “puts you in the profession’s front rank. Somebody with a lot

of prestige has decided you are good.” Moriyama says that his firm’s financial success is not dependent on international design. But he added, “It is important from the point of view of satisfaction, of knowing that we are not kidding ourselves, that we can compete with the best in the world.” And Myers says that he enjoys the lifestyle.

He maintains offices in both Toronto and Los Angeles and compares his situation to that of the ferryboat skipper played by Alec Guinness in The Captain’s Paradise: he had a staid wife in Gibraltar and a tempestuous mistress in Tangier. Said Myers: “In a working sense Toronto is my wife and Los Angeles is my mistress.”

Zerafa, 52, a founding partner in what is now Canada’s largest architectural practice, with fees of more than $20 million a year, made his first entry into the international marketplace

to disprove critics of local designers. In the 1970s he said that he became “sick and tired” of potential clients telling him that he could not compete successfully in Toronto against local firms which used designs that originated with large American companies. “That was bullshit!” he declared. As a result, he decided, “If I can’t beat them on my own territory, I will beat them on theirs.” WZMH now has offices in half a dozen U.S. cities, and 60 per cent of its practice is located there. And in 1976 Zerafa designed the stunning Royal Bank Plaza in Toronto. It was the first of Toronto’s soaring modern bank towers to be designed by a Canadian, and it is a favorite with Torontonians. Now Zerafa has designed a 68storey tower on the corner of King and Bay streets for the Bank of Nova Scotia.

The Canadians have often encountered resis-

tance in other countries to their activity. In Paris there was an outburst of controversy in 1983 when President François Mitterrand chose the entry of little-known Toronto architect Carlos Ott in an open competition to design the new Opéra de la Bastille, a commission of exceptional prestige. But that quickly passed when Ott, 38, set up an office in Paris, formed an alli-

ance with a French architectural firm and began employing numerous French engineers and technicians.

As well, politicians and the press in Buffalo expressed anger in 1982 when Moriyama & Teshima won the job of redesigning Main Street to accommodate a new transit system and to revitalize a downtown area suffering from severe decay. The deputy speaker of the New York State Assembly, William Eve, declared that state and federal funds were going to a Canadian firm which had not submitted the lowest estimate, and he threatened to appeal the choice to the governor.

William Clarkson, chairman of the high-powered Buffalo task force that fired an American architectural firm for nonperformance before setting up the competition that the To-

ronto company won, recently recalled the controversy. Said Clarkson: “It was awful. I regretted ever having taken the job.” But Buffalo Mayor James Griffin supported the selection, and transit authority commissioner Ronald Anthony commented: “If you are contemplating open-heart surgery, you don’t shop around for the cheapest surgeon. You want the best available.”

Canada’s harsh climate has created a tradition of high-quality building, required by strict government standards. That has given Canadian builders and architects a reputation similar to that enjoyed by Japanese car manufacturers. In addition, said Menkès, “We have had to be very competitive, as compared to Americans, because our opportunities have been more limited. We have had to be a little better. It is a discipline most of us have picked up that is very useful.”

Canadian architects also gained valuable early experience with large mixed-use projects, including Affleck’s Place Bonaventure, which required them to concentrate on solving complex planning problems. Erickson, for one, said that that experience is one of Canada’s most exportable architectur-

al assets. “The American approach was: one building, one lot and to hell with what is around them,” he said. “We have been taught to think in a larger context and to try to look at the broader consequences of what we do.”

It was that kind of respect for context, social as well as physical, that led Dallas City Council to retain A. J. Diamond & Partners of Toronto to provide a plan to preserve a neighborhood on the fringe of downtown. Jack Diamond first gained prominence as a leader of the Toronto urban reform and preservation movement in the early 1970s. A similar talent attracted the Aga Khan to Arcop’s hotel designs, and that firm’s Indian-born architect, Ramesh Khosla, responded with a design for Quetta, Pakistan, which reflected the local tradition of mud building. It was actually reinforced concrete—mud-colored but earthquake and monsoon resistant as no mud could be.

The thrift, pragmatism and lack of imperial pretence that are accepted characteristics of such Canadian-born architects as Affleck, Erickson, Gaboury and Moriyama have also been supplemented by many immigrants. Sidney Bregman, of Toronto’s Bregman & Hamann Associates, was born in Poland, Diamond in South Africa, Menkès in France, Myers in the United States and Zerafa in Egypt. Together they have formed a critical mass of creative energy that has enabled Canada to develop a unique and cosmopolitan vision of urban design.

Unlike many Canadian artists, Canada’s architects generally do not feel a need to live elsewhere in order to succeed. Despite his newfound celebrity, Carlos Ott said that he will return to Canada when he has completed his Paris project. Ott, scion of a wealthy Uruguayan family, said that he wants to return to Toronto because of both its living conditions and its architectural community, according to partner William Neish. Indeed, Ott has said that the current state of European architecture does not impress him.

To 59-year-old Zeidler, the success of Canadian architects abroad is more than a source of national pride. Zeidler, who escaped from East Germany in 1951, says that vitality is more important to cities than the beauty of individual buildings. He added that Canadian architects, in his view, are well placed to make a contribution to the art of city building. Declared Zeidler: “We can have better cities if enough people get interested.” And he added that because livable cities are essential to the future of mankind, “this could be the ultimate expression of democracy.”

-DON CUMMING in Toronto