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Rhodri Windsor Liscombe and Michelangelo Sabatino, Canada

London: Reaktion Books, 2016 (Modern architectures in history series)
Daniel Maudlin
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Rhodri Windsor Liscombe and Michelangelo Sabatino, Canada, London: Reaktion Books, 2016 (Modern architectures in history series)

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

architecture moderne

Index by keyword:

modern architecture

Indice de palabras clave:

arquitectura moderna


Moderne Architektur

Parole chiave:

architettura moderna

Index géographique :

Amérique, Amérique du Nord, Canada

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1Canada is latest volume in the global survey of the history of modern architecture by Reaktion Books. From Brazil to Turkey, Canada joins a current list of ten titles that explore the architectural history of twentieth-century architecture, focussing in particular on the lifecycle of Modernism as it has been adopted, reinterpreted and/or rejected around the world. Here, my use of architectural history and architecture in the same sentence is not a redundancy but a clarification of what the reader will find in this book. It is not, as the series title states, “modern architectures in history” but rather an art history survey of prominent architectural works. “Architectures in history” implies the series considers the role architecture has played in shaping past human events. What we find instead is the reverse: a history of design as it has responded to different times as seen through the work of different architects. If this seems to be splitting hairs it is not because it goes to a fundamental question on the purpose of architectural history as an academic discipline (or as a type of book). On reading a book about historic buildings, should the reader come away having learned something new about history through the examination of built space, or should they come away the better informed about the narrower world of architectural practice; who designed which building when, who and what they were influenced by, and who they in turn influenced. Of course, there is no right answer. Different books serve different interests and different audiences. What the reader needs to know before reading Canada is that, despite the subtitle, it is very much the latter, where the object is a history of architects not history through architects. For instance, this book of buildings is populated throughout with people, there are many names, but they are all architects. There is little or no mention of the people who used, occupied, or had their lives framed by the buildings under discussion. I cannot say these concerns amount to a criticism of Canada, or of the series from which it takes its lead. Rather, more that it (intentionally and proudly) occupies a specific niche that may not appeal to all.

2Having said that, we can now turn to what Rhodri Windsor Liscombe and Michelangelo Sabatino have to offer. Canada is as close to a comprehensive account of twentieth-century architectural practice that is possible in a single volume. It is very well-written, extensively researched and intelligently put together. It is a model of its type. As defined by the Reaktion series, that type is the chronological survey. This has limitations in terms of the concepts and ideas that can be engaged with as per a thematic monograph—see Sabatino's excellent Pride in Modesty—but, in this case, it should perform extremely well in the role of standard reference work for students and practitioners. Chapter one begins in the early 1900s, the final chapter ends with the present day and the chapters in-between chart the course of architectural practice from one to the other over a century or so of change and staying the same. What Liscombe and Sabatino delineate very clearly are the changes in the nuances of form, space and materials; that is, the establishment, evolution and deconstruction of style within the apparent hegemony the Modernist project held over much of the twentieth century. This much is immediately clear from looking at the buildings shown in the extensive illustrations.

3However, for me at least, what are most interesting are not the concrete-and-steel geometric forms in themselves but the changing briefs to which those 'modern' forms have been applied through the twentieth century. For instance, the chronological survey format highlights the bunching of civic buildings such as theatres, universities and schools around the mid-century as the post-war utopian dream spread across Europe and Canada (a particularly interesting group of buildings are Canada's post-war Catholic churches which match in their social and formal agenda a similar programme I am familiar with in Scotland). Here, the contrast when it comes with the commercialism and consumption of the 1980s and 1990s is brought to the fore by the survey format (caveat: the series overall needs to be clearer in what it takes 'modern' to mean. Does it mean Modern, avant-garde, or merely relatively recent? Much twentieth-century architecture is not included, presumably because it is not considered ‘modern’).

4Canada argues that twentieth-century architecture (read Modernism) in Canada was born of two distinctive factors: its young, migrant population (including many young migrant architects); and, the vastness of its landscapes. The result is a national architecture that is both conscious of the (architectural) world beyond Canada and conscious of the (natural) world that surrounds it. Accordingly, many of the works discussed and illustrated owe clear debts to other works elsewhere while also reinterpreting those other architectures in new ways that have then become Canadian. I do not think this is particularly unique to Canada and Canadian architects. It is how culture is transmitted, exchanged and absorbed in an interconnected world. Nonetheless, as the book shows, those conditions make for some very good architecture with a particular concern for place (whether that relationship between architecture and place be resolved through juxtaposition or dialogue). Indeed, it is towards the end of the book that the authors put some edge on the survey in their criticism of the global architects who have not taken the time to get to know Canada.

5Just as we think we see the direction of travel as moving inexorably towards a terminus that juxtaposes global starchitects with Nature-infused regionalism, Liscombe and Sabatino put a twist in their narrative through the introduction of the truth that the vast majority of the Canadian population is urban, strung along the US border and, thus, most Canadian architecture must in fact first address urbanism. And so, a different set of issues arise that are concerned with living in cities and which reminds us that there is more to building than regionalism in Nova Scotia or art galleries designed by Gehry, Koolhaas, Libeskind et al. There is also Richard Florida, planning and the post-industrial city. Thus, within the confines of the Reaktion modern architectures in history series, Canada manages to be both thorough and questioning. It may not address the question of modern architecture in history, but it might well become the standard art/architectural history reference work on twentieth-century Canadian modern architecture.

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Référence électronique

Daniel Maudlin, « Rhodri Windsor Liscombe and Michelangelo Sabatino, Canada »ABE Journal [En ligne], 12 | 2017, mis en ligne le 26 janvier 2018, consulté le 19 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Daniel Maudlin

Professor, Plymouth University, Plymouth, United Kingdom

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