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Review

Architecture and the Canadian Fabric

By Rodri Windsor Liscombe, editor

November 4, 2013

Review By Christopher Macdonald

Broad in scope and filled with both insight and intriguing fact, Architecture and the Canadian Fabric positions itself in a productive cleft between architectural and political discussion — discussion largely attentive to the perennial interest in locating our elusive national identity. The breadth of interest is revealed historically, ranging from European settlement through the present, and topically, ranging from the progeny of vernacular culture to aspects of our most privileged material heritage. While varied to an extreme, the contributions overall demonstrate an originality of focus and a persistent attempt to locate architectural production in a complex and often nuanced formative realm.

In both the editorial introduction and subsequent commentary, the overarching theme of the collected essays is pointed in avoiding any claim to being comprehensive. The aim is rather to suggest that this miscellany of highly specific examinations of Canadian built fabric carries an implicit sense of nationhood and place symptomatic of our collective mosaic spirit. In its inclusion of an extraordinary range of topics, this tactic is no doubt successful, if at odds with an overarching clarity of purpose.

The project represents the outcome of a recent academic symposium, and retains evidence of the authors’ differing degrees of confidence. Several chapters read as if transcripts of dissertation defences frustratingly interrupted by innumerable footnotes and efforts to establish intellectual provenance. This unevenness disrupts the ultimate continuity of the text and prompts a lingering question of curatorial discretion.

Against the breadth of concern evidenced in the collection of writing, individual essays are remarkable for their extreme sense of introspection and topical focus. Very few of the contributions, however, attempt to locate their interests within the larger critical gaze of the collection. For instance, the evocation of “big box” culture is timely and lucid in its own terms, yet draws attention to a topic that could be usefully measured against the wholesale renovation of our cities’ historical cores through the voracious creation of inner city malls. The thoughtful review of the emergence of the Quebec bungalow type is equally engaging, but how might it be further enriched by reference to — say — the contemporary artifact of the “Vancouver Special”?

Without question a sense of collective context may be inferred by the accumulated reading of the essays, and the “what if…” questions suggested here constructively speak to an element of provocation in the writing. Yet there remains a concern regarding this accomplished work, the question of an intended audience. As a primer for a certain kind of interdisciplinary course in cultural studies, some chapters serve as more explicit points of departure than others — whether in terms of research methodology, criticality, or writing — but ultimately the whole remains decidedly uneven.

More positively, this collection serves to entice a more sustained consideration of the regard between the messy realities of social practice and the production of this thing called architecture. As such, it includes both surprises and delights while providing an important step forward in cultivating critical discourse in an unquestionably fertile field of enquiry.

Architecture and the Canadian Fabric
Rodri Windsor Liscombe, editor
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011 536 pp, $39.95