A Short Guide To
Architectural Guidebooks

in Canada:
One Vancouver, Many Montréals

As might be expected, real "architectural guides" according to the parameters I've described have been few and far between in culturally colonial Canada. However, a quick word must be made about the many guidebooks, booklets, pamphlets, etc put out through the years by innumerable local architectural and historical associations in Canada as elsewhere. For all their worthiness --and many (especially the early ones, created when heritage-recognition and preservation was still a crusade rather than a cliche) are excellent indeed, though not a few are a bit gawky and naive or otherwise vanity-pressish --they really exist in a different sphere from the Pevsnerian/Gebhardian tradition, being geared in general toward the more conventional (the less charitable might say middlebrow) heritage/history afficionado, for whom "architectural worth" may be inextricable from the "heritage" factor. (Dead giveaways are the existence of "heritage metaphors" in the title, or the use of drawings in lieu of photos of buildings. The latter gesture has indeed become an emblem of earnest, self-conscious "olden time" kitsch; but given the alternative of frequently execrable photo-reproduction quality, the decision may be more reasonable than it first appears.) While these publications can serve the production of more comprehensive architectural guidebooks, due to their limited parameters--stylistic, generic, or geographic--they are no substitute. But as far as popular outreach goes--as well as, when you read between the perhaps necessarily sentimental "heritage/history" lines, the degree of careful local research and documentation involved--they certainly offer important lessons.


One problem is that the architectural guidebook is, by nature, a very contemporary, "urban" or at least "urbanizing" genre--even when, as with Pevsner and BUS, they seek to tackle the small towns and countryside. And the danger in small-town Ontario is of looking too inorganically highfalutin' fer yer own britches; thus, it is usually through specially commissioned architectural and planning studies, rather than the more "popular" guides and pamphlets, that one senses how, if properly framed, a true architectural guide might be able to "fly" just about anywhere. And if one looks carefully, on very rare and qualified occasions you might even find an architecturally-geared (and sometimes equally naively earnest) opposite number to the common "heritage guides"; consider the booklet on Kitchener-Waterloo modernism that accompanied a Kitchener exhibition a few years ago...or even "East/West", for that matter. A good architectural guide should be able to bridge that gap, and be palatable to a generally younger and/or more sophisticated latent market whose contemporary, all-encompassing "sense of place"--anyplace, even the countryside, even suburban anomie--might be more akin to Reyner Banham's Los Angeles (or, if you want, Douglas Coupland's Vancouver) than to the offputtingly genteel, effete, and parochial "olden time" vacuumland too often associated with heritage groups (and in its turn, these days too often an unfortunate short step removed from McMichaelesque reactionary crankiness).

coupland's vancouver

A true oddity is that in spite of its having the most sophisticated architectural culture in all of Canada--due in no small part to Phyllis Lambert and the CCA--and an exemplary program of neighbourhood, community, architectural, urban et al studies, Montreal's been notably sluggish in producing a truly worthy, comprehensive architectural guide. Perhaps it's the net effect of the language wars, or Phyllis Lambert's intimidating shadow? Wolfe & Grenier's "Decouvrir/Discover Montreal" came closest, but even it now appears as a watered-down precursor to Access Guidedom; and Remillard & Merrett's "L'architecture de Montreal/Montreal Architecture" is an odd, too-terse (if not bad) hybrid of style guide and architectural guide that reminds us how well suited, if followed through, the Cartesian/ chronological model would be for this historically very Europhile metropolis. But if Johnson & Widgington's recent "Pedestrian's Guide" is any indication, Montreal's will to guide, architecturally, has been relegated to nth-division bridesmaid level. Or maybe it's just too "vulgar" for the CCA-infected bigwigs who'd rather stick with curatory and scholarly work and leave the guiding up to high-style populists like Richard Saul Wurman. Oh, well...

CCA church guide


It's a different story in the West, where a young Harold Kalman set the way with "Exploring Vancouver" in 1974 (2nd edition, 1978). In retrospect, this unassuming, seemingly matter-of-fact volume was quite remarkably precocious, although its format was elementary to the point of banality; six walking and four driving tours of the Vancouver region w/intros, marching along one entry + photo at a time. "A history of Vancouver through its architecture", as the general introduction noted, "intended primarily as a field guide for active participation". Most impressive was Kalman's willingness and tackle Vancouver as a straightforward built fact, disregarding elite architectural judgment or those who might dismiss a less-than-century-old "boomtown" as lacking in architectural heritage or worth; thus one finds, carefully contextualized and interrelated, not only the requisite relics of old Gastown but contemporary apartment and office towers, Shaughnessy mansions and speculative or even unplanned development, early North Shore modernism --even a generic McDonald's restaurant! In a sense, "Exploring Vancouver" reflected a very open-minded, au courant "West Coast" spirit --the northern outpost of the forces which led on the one hand to the Venturian-via-Banham/Moore appreciation of the "pop landscape", and on the other hand to the fruitful fusion of architectural history with vernacular studies now symbolized by scholars such as Dell Upton at Berkeley. Yet Kalman was very Canadian in his reserve, his lack of boastfulness or self-conscious swagger --unlike Gebhard in his 70s guides, he didn't "try too hard" --and in this, he marked more of a refined continuation of the spirit of Alan Gowans, whose willingness to treat architecture as a kind of cultural anthropology, appropriate to a "colonial" architectural culture such as Canada's, was a precursor to the concerns of Dell Upton et al. (Little wonder that Kalman ultimately supplanted Gowans as author of the standard Canadian architectural history text.) But there's also a real, rare "hit-the-ground-running" delight evident in "Exploring Vancouver", akin to the early days of Pevsner-guide creation; one can still feel, from the pages, Kalman and his seminar students (whom he dedicates the book to!) simply getting out and researching, and seeing, seeing and loving and learning from Vancouver in all its haphazard old-new eclecticism. Almost as if to demonstrate that we can do it too, wherever we are, and share that warts-and-all total-environment love with others --and its sad that so few have taken that cue. (And the fact that the 1974-era Vancouverite architectural historiography shows its age --though it's surprisingly good, considering-- is almost beside the point.)
          The magic of the original "Exploring Vancouver" was, unhappily, difficult to recapture in later, more cynical times. Kalman and photographer John Roaf reprised the formula in "Exploring Ottawa" (1983), but the result --which the more waggish might blame upon the dead-weight presence of federal bureaucracy-- was tepid by comparison. And when a thoroughly revised, reformatted third edition of "Exploring Vancouver" --now co-authored by Robin Ward and Ron Phillips-- came out in 1993, the insouciance of the original had been compromised by misplaced architectural-critic jaundice and overdesign, including photography that's often too arty for its own good (for the jaundice and photos one may blame Vancouver Sun critic Ward). And amidst all the additions and deletions, something went awry with the selection; that seminal 50s Modern landmark, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, is nowhere in sight!

ottawa, vancouver


Pevsner and WPA

America: the first wave

AIA Guide to New York City

David Gebhard: America's Pevsner

Goldberger, Banham, and Moore (and more).

Buffalo: Vindication

Chicago: Maturity

The Buildings of the United States series

London + Vienna + Berlin = Cartesian Europe

One Vancouver, many Montréals

Toronto: Opportunity

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