Mid-Century Architecture in Victoria From the University of Victoria Special Collections and University Archives

1. Introduction

Victoria to 1945

British Columbia Parliament Buildings

In his 1942 portrait of Canada, The Unknown Country, Bruce Hutchison describes Victoria, saying: "On the southern point of Vancouver Island, to your right, Victoria suddenly appears, like an arrangement of toy houses, an architect's dream of the perfect human habitation, rising tier on tier from the sea upon a green hillside. It looks like the south coast towns of England. It looks like an artist's picture from which every disagreeable feature has been carefully removed" (332). Victoria has grown and changed in the decades following that book, however, her built landscape remains very much a monument to the pre-WWI era and the British Empire. The harbour – Victoria’s emblem and symbolic entrance – is perfectly representative of its character. At the head stands the châteauesque Empress Hotel (Francis Rattenbury, 1908), flanked on the right by the Romanesque British Columbia Parliament Buildings (Rattenbury, 1897), and on the left by the Edwardian terracotta Belmont Building (Hoult Horton, 1912). Moving away from downtown to the eastern residential neighbourhoods one finds a plethora of Tudor, Gothic, and Arts-and-Crafts houses by the likes of Samuel Maclure and Percy Leonard James.

Victoria suffered the same post-WWI stagnation as most other cities in Canada did. The dearth of building materials in the 1920s, the depression of the 1930s, and the war of the 1940s collectively ensured that Canada’s cities remained trapped in the pre-War world. Despite this, Victoria had by no means been resistant to modernism. A collection of high-quality art deco and moderne buildings dot the landscape. Representative examples include the Bay Street Substation (637 Bay Street, 1928), Tweedsmuir Mansions Apartments (900 Park Boulevard, 1936), Mount St. Mary Hospital (999 Burdett Street, 1940), and G. R. Flemming House (200 King George Terrace, 1940). 

Post-World War II

As Canada emerged victorious from her second major war and servicemen returned home from Europe seeking educations, jobs, and homes, the country entered a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, social stability, and cultural renewal. Following the stagnation of the depression and war years, a major construction boom erupted which spawned housing tracts, modern office buildings, and a trans-continental highway. 

In the years after the War, International Modernism arose as the primary architectural style in North America. Born in post-WWI Germany as an outgrowth of an emergent radical-leftist, anti-historical Zeitgeist, the International Style sought to eliminate ties to traditional architecture and provide a universal answer to the question of function. The style’s defining characteristics included ubiquitous curtain walls, rectilinear plans, and an almost total absence of ornamentation. The International Style arrived in North America in the early 1930s via Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s 1932 MOMA exhibition Modern Architecture: International Exhibition and the 1932 PSFS Building in Philadelphia. Following their rise to power in 1933, the Nazi Party launched an aggressive neoclassical building campaign and suppressed the country’s preeminent modernist art school, the Bauhaus. Consequently, two of the country’s foremost International Style architects, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, left for the United States, the former in 1934 and latter in 1937. Gropius took a teaching position at Harvard in Boston and Mies at the Armour Institute in Chicago, and both men worked to disseminate the modern doctrine to a generation of young architects. In California, another German ex-patriate, Richard Neutra (who had left in 1923), proliferated modernism in the expansive and largely untouched state. (See John Wade’s biography for connection to Neutra.)

BC Electric Company Building (Blanshard and Pandora)

By the early 1950s the International Style was hegemonic in North American architectural firms and schools. In Toronto, the firms of John B. ParkinGordon Adamson, and Peter Dickinson lined the city’s downtown core with modern glass towers. In Winnipeg Green Blankstein and Russell, and in Alberta Rule Wynn and Rule developed the style with a unique prairie aesthetic. The Canadian city that embraced modernism to the greatest extent was possibly Vancouver, with its soaring BC Electric Company Building (Sharp and Thompson, Berwick Pratt, 1955) and its array of houses by the likes of Ron Thom, Arthur Erickson, and Robert McKee. Although small in size and limited in business activity, Victoria none the less embraced the rise of modernism in Canada after the War. Architects such as those featured in this exhibit – as well as others including Robert Siddall, Alan Hodgson, and David Hambleton – helped to usher in the new era with a succession of small modernist projects. Vancouver firms also played a significant role in Victoria's architectural development in the 1950s. One of Victoria's earliest large-scale modernist projects was its own BC Electric Company Building (1515 Blanshard, 1954) designed by Vancouver's Sharp and Thompson, Berwick Pratt. The Victoria Heritage Foundation aptly describes the city's modernist landscape, saying, "Although a good number of very interesting modern houses are evident throughout Greater Victoria, the City of Victoria proper, largely built up by the 1940s, has only a handful of distinctive post-war houses. These are all the more valuable for their rarity" (1).

The mid-century architectural period in Canada is roughly defined as the end of World War II in 1945 to the Canadian Centennial in 1967. However, many buildings from the early post-War years were aesthetically of the 1930s, and by the mid-1960s the light, spacious, calming style of the mid-century period mostly receded and was replaced by the darker, harsher Brutalist style, with its emphasis on exposed concrete, non-right angles, and narrow windows. Therefore, a stricter definition would call the mid-century a “long 1950s,” allowing two or three years on either end.

2. Biographies >