Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Harold Kalman, A History of Canadian Architecture

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Harold Kalman, A History of Canadian Architecture

Gerald L. Pocius
Memorial University
Harold Kalman, A History of Canadian Architecture, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994, 933 pp., illus., maps, notes, bibliographies, glossary, building index, index. 2 vols. Cloth $95, ISBN 0-19-540696-6.

1 Harold Kalman's A History of Canadian Architecture has been in the works for a number of years now. It will quickly find a place among those standard works that any researcher starts with when addressing architectural questions in a national context. This book joins the earlier work by Alan Gowans and the more recent studies such as that by Leslie Maitland, Jacqueline Hucker and Shannon Ricketts (A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles, Peterborough: Broadview, 1992) that are introductory studies dealing with the development of Canadian architecture. Kalman's book will obviously be the new standard reference work, but it is important to know what it is and what it is not.

2 A History of Canadian Architecture intends to be a survey introduction to the topic. While the book is filled with Kalman's own reflections on general trends in Canadian architecture, it is primarily a synthesis of recent secondary work written across the country. In this regard, then, it is a summary of the research on Canadian architecture that has occurred in the last twenty years. Work conducted by academics — architectural historians, folklorists and historians — is drawn upon, as are studies from other sources: Parks Canada, provincial government researchers, and professional architects.

3 As a general introductory survey, Kalman often attempts to summarize rather than speculate. This book, then, is different from the earlier standard introductions to Canadian architecture, specifically the work of Alan Gowans in Building Canada: An Architectural History of Canadian Life (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1966) and Looking at Architecture in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1958). Gowans' work posited a number of themes in the development of Canadian building traditions, and certainly was not as concerned as Kalman with providing the many detailed descriptions of individual buildings. Kalman's focus on an extensive number of structures chronologically is, in many respects, the strength and weakness of the work. For most regions and periods, numerous examples are given of particular architectural traditions, enabling the researcher to investigate the particulars of numerous structures. Yet, the danger is that the reader sometimes becomes lost in the progression of examples of particular types, losing the overall point of the particular discussion.

4 Kalman's survey is first and foremost an architectural history. As such, it reflects the methodology and concerns of the discipline of architectural history over the years. The focus of this work is a history of buildings — how building forms and technologies characterize certain regions, and how these have changed over time. With this traditional emphasis of the architectural historian, the work is building-focused, rather than culture-focused. This is not to say that Kalman does not attempt to place his material in an historical context. He often does, and reading his book is in many ways like reading an illustrated history of Canada. But the cultural aspects of buildings often play a secondary role to the analysis of architectural features. This may be partly because so little of a culturally interpretive nature has been written on Canadian buildings. The material is often just not there to summarize.

5 The pursuit of architectural history, however, often methodologically forces the analyst to ask building-centred rather than cultural questions. Architectural history (like art history) often assumes a progression of styles over time, with each style reflecting some fundamental societal concerns of the era. Yet, much architectural history becomes fixated on the notion of style itself, and style becomes the overriding force that governs scholarship. Buildings follow certain styles, styles are adapted or are altered, one style succeeds another. People get lost in this equation; how styles reflect fundamental values is often missing. Buildings sometimes become super-organic entities, lacking the faces of human beings as they confront daily needs and concerns. And the architectural historian, as in this book, is often concerned with "firsts;" Kalman has, whenever possible, included the first example of an architectural style or technology, a different concern than emphasizing what is ordinary or everyday.

6 To Kalman's credit, he includes chapters that deal with more thematic concerns than regional chronological evolutions. The section on the domestic home chronicles the ordinary mass-produced homes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of them influenced by builders' guides and mass-produced technologies. Again, the chapter on resource communities reflects the recent interest in industrial housing. Yet, finally, this is a very different survey from, say, Gwendolyn Wright's Building the Dream, A Social History of Housing in America (New York: Pantheon, 1981), which attempts to introduce the ordinary architecture of the United States in a socio-cultural framework.

7 One should recognize Kalman's book, finally, as an introductory survey of buildings (many elite) that mark the major highlights and players in Canadian architectural history. For anyone studying the wide scope of the history of Canadian architecture, it will be the new reference work from which to start — an instant classic in the field. That A History of Canadian Architecture is limited largely to a methodology of architectural history may be as much a reflection of the overall kind of scholarship that has been produced in Canada on architecture — a chronicling of styles, styles that often use as benchmarks buildings in the United States, Great Britain, or France. Kalman's book summarizes current research remarkably well, giving an overall view of Canadian scholarship. What is clear from that overview is how extraordinarily much still remains to be done.