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What can we learn from Canada?
Opinions of a Portuguese architect about this huge land

What can we learn from Canada?



I spent some years in Canada, and I believe it is my duty to share with you what I learned about the land and the people.

Before diving into Canada I have to tell you that this is the first post on my blog. I planned it to be a way to think about architecture, with a special focus on my latest passion: wood construction. It happens that although I made some efforts to be a specialist (I love engineering) I kept stuck to my discipline principles. According to them, talking about architecture is talking about life, people, books and obviously about spaces, buildings, and cities. Thus, it makes sense to put on paper my reflections about Canada, a country that welcomed me and made me feel at home.

The things I will say are the result of my stay in Winnipeg for three years, plus some additional time living in Toronto, and some extraordinary weeks crossing Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Please note that this is the experience of an architect. Probably I will show you a biased perspective because architects tend to use a kind of a magic filter when looking at reality. Sometimes they look at places and what they see is not what it is there, but what might, should or could be there.

Let’s finish this introduction, let’s go to Canada.

Green Lake, Whistler, Canada. Photo Luis Morgado.

What is a Canadian?

This is probably one of the most difficult points: “identity”. Canadians came from everywhere. There are more than 250 ethnic origins. We know that, after first nations, Canadian original identity was established mainly by French and British settlers, but nowadays, the panorama is different. Asian, Central and South American and also African people are growing in numbers, bringing and keeping their traditions, language, and habits. Canada proudly defends multiculturalism and this is one of the most interesting aspects of the country’s DNA. Anyway, it is true that Canadians pay this with the supposed lack of national identity.

There is not a real Canadian food, but good thing is that we can find the whole world (including foods) inside Canada. I would say that a Canadian is someone who came from far and wide and that, at some point, accepted to live with neighbors from anywhere, in a kind of a multicultural-peaceful-northern-utopia.

How are Canadians?

Well, they are known as “nice guys”. I know, this is a stereotype, but it is a correct one. One day I was in a shop and while chatting with the owner, when I told him I was an immigrant, he immediately corrected me: “no, you are not an immigrant, you are a new Canadian”. Canadians present themselves as picking up the good things of the USA, and the good things of Europe and rejecting the bad stuff of both. They have a universal health system, as in Europe and they are pragmatic like only the Americans are. They are natural entrepreneurs and they care about vulnerable people. Although they are very good in many fields, they are very low-profile guys. Arrogance is not for sure one of the things they cultivate.

I spent most part of my Canadian time in Manitoba. In this province, the license plates are printed with a subtitle: “Friendly Manitoba”, and that is right, these People are really friendly. This is something, probably, related to their need of living with very different neighbors and with different cultures, so they try to be as pleasant as possible. Anyway, for someone from southern Europe, like me, they are sometimes a bit cold. It means that they keep the distance between them and strangers, and you will be a stranger, and feel like one, for a long time. They respect the others but they tend not to get too much involved.

My younger “new canadian” fellows, usually complained that it is very difficult to make friends outside the immigrant circles. One of them told me that sometimes he felt like being in a kind of a “good-apartheid”.

What is Canada?

Canada is the second world’s largest country. It is about 100 times Portugal. A great country full of resources: immense forests, agricultural fields, huge masses of water, fishing, mining, electricity, and so on. That’s why they need more people.

This is also a land with a young and good-looking prime minister. He can present himself at the international scene as the friendly face of the West (well… some people don’t like him). Canada is known for welcoming refugees as no other country does. Canadian system and institutions they really care about people in need. It is a place where we can find good universities and schools, attracting young students from everywhere.

Sports and nature are also strong points: we can think of tourism and the Olympics as being naturally associated with Canada (29 medals won during the PyeongChang games. Wow!). I am not forgetting the cold, yes, it is true, this is a country with tough weather. In Winnipeg, I experienced for the first time minus 40 Celsius, but I also witnessed the way they are prepared to live well with it. During these years in Canada, despite the cold, the wind and the snow, I never needed a doctor. There must be something very good there that kept me so healthy. I always felt very comfortable, inside buildings as well as outdoors. And after all, spring, summer, and autumn are really easy seasons.

I could write about many other things and give you accurate data and numbers, but I will just close this by saying that this is a country where natural beauty is overwhelming. The Rockies (“mountain range spans the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta”) are superb, divine, and sublime! Some cities are also wonderful: If you visit Canada don’t miss Québec City, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. And yes, the “northern lights” are something out of this world.

A proud Canadian in Jasper National Park, Canada. Photo Luis Morgado.

What are the best things in Canada?

I’ll try to be as brief as possible with this one because I already mentioned Canada’s powerful nature and landscape and how Canadians are polite and respectful. The organization of the State makes things work, and occasionally we wonder how they do it, but it is difficult to get the recipe. Canada is a welfare state. The access to public services and the support to immigrant people are very good. Public aid is available if you really need it. People in Canada, they donate and volunteer, in a natural way, because they want to share their wealth and skills.

You don’t have to call people by their titles: my boss Tom is Tom, and that’s all. Canadians are not pretentious, they prefer to enjoy their weekend in the cabin with family than showing themselves in public events. They like good cars, not because of status or show-off but because it is a matter of dealing with the climate. When they can, they bike. Canadians face the mistakes of others with a positive attitude. They criticize without being rude: they have the “hamburger system”, that every immigrant knows. To call your attention to something you did wrong they say first a positive thing, than they criticize you, and finally, they end with a positive sentence, and sometimes with a smile. Anyway, the goal is to avoid mistakes.

Although networking is important in work and business environments they avoid nepotism. They also avoid, as much as possible – and I am not sure this is always good – confrontation and arguments: they reserve “violence” for the sacred rinks of “ice hockey”, naturally the national sport (I should say “the national thing”). Another good aspect is the standardized system for labeling the supermarket products. This allows you to compare items and brands with almost mathematical precision. Oh, I was almost going to forget this very important one: Canada has one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, flags of the world.

What are the not so good things about Canada?

My former boss and friend Tom told me once that “Canada is not Utopia”. They have sometimes terrible weather, crime, bad and rude people, etc. And yes they have unsolved questions with aboriginal people. This is one of the biggest problems of the country. People outside Canada usually do not notice it: my sister asked me if I was talking about Australia when I mention “aboriginal people”. In connection with this, Canadians are constantly feeling guilty because of the bad things that were done in the past to “first nations”. Sometimes I feel this attitude doesn’t help to solve the issue at all, contributing more to keep them stigmatized instead of opening them to a new future.

I mentioned people are sometimes, closed, cold and superficial. One face of this is that there is not a real integration of different cultures. Although multiculturalism is bragged, white people are dominant in leading positions. They are polite, that’s true, but sometimes they look as just being a bit hypocritical. Very often, because they are afraid of offending others, they tend to censor almost everything. They censor the bad things, they censor language, “offensive” historical characters, “offensive” names of streets, Christmas, the national anthem “wrong words”, and they end up by censoring themselves every day. Sometimes I think that because they didn’t have a dictatorship in their History they don’t value liberty of expression, like we do in Portugal.

Finally, they are car-dependent and some of their cities, even the important ones, lack a sense of the good old European urbanity. At last, besides calling soccer to football, one thing I didn’t get used to at all: the prices are marked without including taxes.

Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada. Photo Luis Morgado.

What did I learn as an Architect in Canada?

Once I entered Canada I lost my title. I could not use it anymore, and to do it I would need to run a long process. That didn’t forbid me to work on architecture with licensed architects. Architecture is a valued profession, first of all by architects and then by society in general. Canada, a country with 35 million people has only 15000 architects. In Portugal, there are about 24000 architects for 10 million people. The average salary for an employee-Architect in Canada starts at 25000 Euros and can go to around 57000 Euros. In Portugal Architect’s average salary was, according to Architect’s Council of Europe, a shameful 13400 Euros.

I was surprised that Architecture as a profession, in terms of education and principles, is very similar to what it is in the Portuguese context. We read the same books, we love and hate the same old masters and we have a similar passion for all the things that are architecturally concerned. Anyway, I noticed some differences. The architect is appreciated as professional, even in a province like Manitoba, in which architects don’t have the monopoly of architecture. People hire architects for difficult or challenging tasks, not only because they need the approvals, but because “architects solve problems”.

The other big difference is the way architects face architecture as a business. They are not afraid of being called “commercial architects”, they assume that architectural work has to be paid. I have the feeling that in Portugal Architects don’t care about money because they (we) think that money is a bad thing. Offices in Canada pay with justice, they give you benefits, they care about your well-being as an employee, and generally, you don’t have to ask, and this is a very big difference in relation to Portuguese offices.

Canadian architects have a culture of assessment. People and tasks are frequently evaluated, not in the Portuguese way, or in order to put people down, but with the aim of improving things. Another aspect that is dissimilar (not always) is the more balanced relation between work and personal life. There is less work pressure than in Portugal, probably because of the “North American” pragmatic way of doing things.

From the point of view of construction methods, they use wood as a natural choice for current small works and fortunately they are well positioned to win the trend of wood innovation for the medium and large scales. The codes, concerning building physics, are much more demanding. Otherwise, in terms of functional codes, they are much more relaxed than in Portugal.

The way they work has some peculiarities: in opposition to the Portuguese approach to innovation and artistical uniqueness, they start a project by stating their precedents… although everyone in Portugal does the same thing, it is done “secretly” because this is the kind of thing that culturally is considered a “sin”. Another “blasphemy” Canadian Architects accept, that I observed in Toronto, is a design control system with judging committees, composed by other architects. These design committees (or review panels) can recommend formal and stylistic revisions to the projects submitted to the city. This, in Portugal, would be rejected as unacceptable.

I can not find many bad things in Canadian Architecture. Maybe the one thing that I found really annoying, is the need to deal with the metric and the imperial systems at the same time… it looks really nonsense. But even that is not so bad at all because they become more flexible, it is like being bilingual. To sum up, I think Canadian architects are very good and at the same time very efficient.

I could also mention the excellent landscape architects Canada has, but that would be another story.

Museu de Arte Audain em Whistler

Audain Art Museum, Whistler, Canada. Photo Luis Morgado.

Is there a Canadian Architecture?

While I was in Canada I thought a lot about this question. I concluded that it is not possible to talk about a specific Canadian Architecture. I am not thinking about vernacular architecture, where we can find some very unique and interesting aspects (in wood!). If we are looking for a distinctive character we have to start to recognize that identities can be explained by natural and cultural reasons. Climate and land conditions can be influential to forge a character. Identity can also be set when we have to react and fight against a strong neighbor. On the one hand, Canada has a real tough climate, but it is similar to some parts of the USA, or analogous to the Scandinavian countries of Europe. On the other hand, the USA, although a powerful neighbor, is more like a twin brother, in many aspects, including architecture. In my opinion, the best architecture of Canada is very similar to the best architecture made in the north of the USA, or in Scandinavia.

Because of the weather, there is a great importance given to construction codes and construction quality. That’s a matter of survival, but that doesn’t make the difference. The one condition I think is crucial to Canadian Architects is multiculturalism.  Because of multiculturalism, architectural solutions must follow a minimum common denominator, capable of satisfying all different cultures and sensibilities. As a result, Canadians build well, and they care about people, especially people with disabilities. I’d say that there is not a Canadian architecture, but there is, for sure, a Canadian way of looking for a “correct architecture”.

At last, I would say that Canadian architects, in general, prefer to be good than to show off their achievements.

I want to finish this first post by saying that Canada taught me good things. Canadians know that to live and to survive you have to trust your neighbors and you have to help vulnerable people, because one day you, your family, or your friends, could become unprotected as well. Canadians also know that in order to live on this planet you have, not only to understand nature but also to respect it.

Luis Morgado
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