Lisa Rochon. Up North: Where Canada's Architecture Meets the Land. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2005. 304 pp. $40.00 cloth.
Lisa Rochon has been architecture critic for the Globe and Mail for only five years, yet as this collection of her essays richly reveals, she has already established herself as a magisterial voice in Canadian architectural criticism. In fact, there are few architecture critics anywhere who so carefully balance deep erudition with such charged emotional energy, clear-headed appreciation of urban design with a naturist's eye for nuances of landscape. As this book's title suggests, Rochon thinks that what often makes Canadian architecture so unique lies precisely in the interstices between architecture and Canadian landscape. In this sumptuously produced work filled with high-quality photographs, Rochon dedicates half of the book to how the natural world shines through the structures of contemporary Canadian structures. Yet the other half of the book, which delightfully strays from this thematic focus, is just as captivating.
What this book's tide doesn't really tell you is how much of Rochon's writing is a highly intelligent form of boosterism for an architecture she believes deserves more attention internationally. Consider this. If this book's subtitle had not been included, I would be very willing to wager that countless readers of architectural literature would assume the book to be about Finnish architecture, a more globally recognized example of building "up north." This might explain why Rochon begins her book with "Canadian Architecture: A Manifesto." Unfortunately, it is the worst written chapter replete with just the kind of unabashed romantic jingoism that I'm certain many Canadian readers despise in some quarters of American arts criticism. I assume some of Rochon's First Nations and Franco-Canadian readers would not agree that "[o]urs is a tolerant society" (34). And what this massive generalization has to do with the core of her architectural analysis seems unclear. One can be a grossly violent nation, as she seems to assume the U.S. to be, and still have a national architecture marked with sensitivity to the natural world.
In fact, one's pleasure in this book can be greatly enhanced by skipping the flag-waving manifesto and the subsequent essay that repeats for the nth time in architectural journalism "the harsh reality of the suburbs" (38), and plunge into a completely dazzling interview with Frank Gehry. Some U.S. readers might never have given a thought to Gehry's youth in Canada, so cemented is his long identification with California. But Rochon gets Gehry talking about his roots in Jewish Toronto, and interesting insights follow. For example, we learn how Gehry's high school shop teacher taught him how to do the sheet-metal work that proved a foreshadowing of Gehry's architectural vision (89). Much of Gehry's architecture has only a tangential connection to the focal center of Rochon's book, but this revealing interview with a contemporary giant of architecture alone makes this book essential reading.
After getting her manifesto and suburban denouement out of her system, and doing this world-class interview with Frank Gehry, Rochon really gets centered and consistent in developing her theme about what makes Canadian architecture remarkable. …