Book Review: The Architecture of Saskatchewan: A Visual Journey by Bernard Flaman

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Review by Kari A. Ronning

Title: The Architecture of Saskatchewan: A Visual Journey
Author: Bernard Flaman
Publisher: CPRC Press

Book Review: The Architecture of Saskatchewan: A Visual Journey by Bernard FlamanOrdinarily we think of the landscape of the Great Plains as the natural landscape—the rolling plains, the streams, the grass, and the cottonwoods. But for those who live in towns, large and small, the built landscape is the one we actually are most familiar with because we live in it. Bernard Flaman, the author of the winner of this year’s Great Plains Book Prize, The Architecture of Saskatchewan, makes the familiar built landscape of the Great Plains seem unfamiliar by giving it the deeper dimension of history and context.

This is a beautiful book. The cover image shows a dramatic triangular building at twilight; the light from within highlights the slim vertical supports spaced regularly across the front; only midway through the volume do we learn that this striking building is a heating and cooling plant. But by then we already know that Flaman is not just interested in the usual suspects of architectural histories—the grand government and business buildings, the churches, and the homes of the wealthy. This book shows us a wide variety of buildings, many of which we might not have associated with “Architecture” as an art. Flaman includes gas stations, radio transmitter buildings, Quonset huts, parking garages, and utility buildings (including at least one public restroom), mass-produced wartime housing, park buildings, and information kiosks, and shows us the beauty, or at least the reasons for their forms.

The hundreds of photographs, both in color and black-and-white, show buildings in a variety of lights and seasons; all are clear, and many of them are beautiful in themselves: In addition to the cover image, I was particularly drawn to one of the Wanuskewin Heritage Park Interpretive Centre (1992) in winter, with ice coating the prairie grasses and shrubs. But Flaman is not making just a pretty picture book. He includes archival photos to show the original context of a building, or to show demolished buildings, as well as architects’ drawings to show the original vision; he often goes on to show interiors, the details of materials, or decorative elements from sculpture to air vents.

The quality of the images is such that it wasn’t until I got around to reading the fine print of the copyright page that I learned that the entire book had been printed and bound in Canada, on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, with vegetable-based inks. Not just a pretty picture book.

The text really illuminates the images and places them in their contexts. A brief introduction gives an overview of architectural trends from the early twentieth century to the present; the book takes 1930 as a starting point because an earlier volume, Historic Architecture of Saskatchewan (1986) had traced the province’s architectural history to that date. However, earlier buildings are shown to give the context out of which the Modernist and Streamlined Moderne (particularly recognizable by its rounded corners) styles arose.

The five chapters of the book, each covering one or two decades, begin with brief overviews of the historical context of each period—not just the architectural, although the influences of revivalist styles, art deco, the Bauhaus school, and modernists are discussed, and the ways in which the architects of Saskatchewan adapted them. Flaman also shows the cultural, economic, and political influences that affect the buildings—from the early reliance on the traditional styles of the culturally dominant eastern part of the country to his period’s conscious decision to develop a style that would reflect the needs and aspirations of the people of the prairie. He traces the influence of politics as one administration undertakes ambitious building projects and another cuts back, and yet another undertakes preservation of the built heritage. (Flaman has worked with UNESCO’s World Heritage site committee to develop policies to preserve modernist buildings.)

Moreover, Flaman’s captions are consistently helpful; they don’t just identify the building and architect, they highlight the building’s notable features, history, or influences, showing what is distinctive as well as what is typical of the style of each. Flaman’s sense of humor surfaces too: He notes that the distinctive profile of the Moose Jaw Civic Center, “possibly the only hockey arena to receive a Massey Award for Architecture … earned it the nickname ‘the crushed can.’” (You must look at the picture to see why.) Unusual engineering details are included too: the ninety-foot double-curving roof of a Saskatoon church, which looks like a flying wing, has no internal supports, and “is supported at two points that are reinforced by a post-tensioned tie beam that runs below the floor.” Even a nonengineer like me can recognize that that is unusual—and the pictures are amazing. Flaman also notes how some buildings are using sustainable technologies

Although many of the structures, such as the hockey arena and the Saskatoon church, are unique to Saskatchewan, most of them share styles and features with buildings throughout the Great Plains and beyond. Flaman’s text enables those of us living in the region to look at the buildings around us with a new understanding. We will recognize the same styles and trends, as we have all been shaped by similar landscapes and cultural influences, influences which we will understand better after reading and looking at this book. Our understanding of our own built landscapes will be deeper as a result.

We can learn even more: Flaman will be speaking not only about the production of the book but about the future of architecture on the Great Plains in a lecture on October 22, 2014, at 3:30 at the Great Plains Center, 1155 Q Street, in Lincoln. The talk is free and open to the public, and promises to be a fine opportunity to take our new understanding of the history of our environment even further, into the future.

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