Towards the end of last week, the architecture world on both sides of the pond was scandalised when pictures emerged of Frank Gehry giving the finger to a reporter who dared to ask the Pritzker Prize-winning architect how he addresses critics claiming that he practises “showy architecture”. The incident happened during a conference in Oviedo, Spain, which Gehry attended to receive the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts. On top of this, Gehry claimed that nearly all architecture nowadays is, I quote, “shit”.
Fellow architects jumped to defend or, au contraire, attack the Toronto-born architect, the latter saying that his buildings, despite being beautiful, often lack functionality – a fundamental principle that each good architect should use as a starting point for design.
I’ll leave it to the enlightened industry insiders to decide on the outcome of this debate but the incident made me think about architecture as a soft-power tool – Canadian architecture in particular. A line of thought mostly influenced by the fact that here at Midori House we are currently wrapping up our December/January edition – which, as always, focuses on soft power – while on newsstands is our biannual Design issue. In it we profiled the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, which opened in September on the outskirts of the city. Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki designed the building with the help of Toronto-based Moriyama & Teshima Architects.
A couple of weeks after the launch, the same venue hosted the first Raymond Moriyama Prize, recognising outstanding buildings from around the world and their roles in serving the community. The award went to Li Xiaodong of China for his Liyuan Library near Beijing. While most attendees were complimenting the winning project, one thing was clear: local contenders were left empty-handed. It raised the ongoing concern of how to make Canadian architecture sexier and more appealing to international audiences.
Indeed, the architectural industry of Canada remains shy on the international platform. The lead-up to the Montréal Expo in 1967 marked a high point of confidence for architecture in the country but little has been built in the past 50-odd years to compete with the groundbreaking mid-century designs.
Undoubtedly we live in an era of optimisation and concentration where the real needs of housing and the respect of nature and design are often neglected; just have a look at Toronto’s downtown. On the other end of the spectrum is the Liyuan Library – proving that you don’t need flashy “starchitecture” to make a statement but a unique, if at times nutty, vision.
With other countries around the world lauding the likes of Oscar Niemeyer, Santiago Calatrava and Norman Foster, it’s about time young Canadian designers reflected on the bravura of Gehry, Moriyama and Ron Thom. There is an opportunity to rediscover the pleasure of designing independently using the unique scenery of Canada as a starting point; a touch of audacity wouldn’t hurt either.
Nelly Gocheva is Monocle's Toronto bureau chief and acting business editor.