Former OAA president calls for national architecture objectives and Canadian priority selection policy

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Toon Dressen
Toon Dressen

Ottawa Construction News staff writer

Toon Dreessen, an Ottawa architect who led the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) as its president from 2014 to 2016, has called for the federal government to set architectural goals for the entire country.

Dreessen, president of Dreessen Cardinal Architects, spoke to CBC Radio in early January following a report that Quebec’s order of architects is pushing for a provincial architecture policy. He said in an interview this should in fact be a national objective.

“It’s not so much just about ugly buildings, but really about what does the built environment say about us as a people?” Dreessen told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning.

Dreessen cited, as an example, the acrimonious debate about the site of the Ottawa Hospital’s new Civic campus.

“A national architecture policy that creates a framework for siting, for design, might have made that process much shorter,” he said. “We’d have policy objectives that we could test our designs against.”

Dreessen also said that the policy would result in better buildings, because government decisions about new public buildings are too driven by price.

“We never really debate the cost of something like the National Arts Centre, or Parliament buildings, or some of our greatest architectural monuments,” Dreessen said. “Is anyone debating the cost of the (Canadian) War Museum? No, it’s an absolutely spectacular piece of Canadian architecture … so I think that that is something that has had a lasting impact. And every dollar spent is worth it.”

Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama designed that museum. Dreessen suggested there should be a national policy that gives preference to Canadian architects for major public projects. As an example, he observed that Adoine Predock, who designed Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum For Human Rights, comes from the United States.

“I absolutely love his work, but why did we go to a New Mexico architect to design the Canadian Museum of Human Rights?” Dreessen asked. He suggested that support for Canadian architects is as crucial to culture as support for Canadian musicians or theatre artists.

In an article contributed to the Globe & Mail, Dreessen wrote:

“In Europe, a majority of countries have an architecture policy. We often look to these countries for statistical comparisons on health care, quality of life and taxation, so why not also seek inspiration on the cultural policies that shape the built environment?”

“We have a small population and if we’re not careful to nurture our homegrown architecture talent, we’ll soon find that all the buildings in Canada, not just the once-in-a-lifetime ones such as museums and libraries, are being designed by others. There are only about 12,000 architects in all of Canada. We struggle with the challenges of being small businesses, in a small market, trying to compete on national or global stages.”

Dreessen wrote that “we should have this desire to support, nurture and protect Canadian architecture in a global context.”

“While Canada shares many similarities with other countries, our architecture needs the support of a national policy in the same way we support our arts and culture, and our businesses, through federal cultural policies. Without that support, the profession of architecture may well find itself marginalized, misunderstood and undervalued for its contribution to culture and economy.”

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