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Canadian cliches and anomalies

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Canadian Practice: The Work of Sixteen Architects Inaugurated at Canada House on 26 May and now at the riba, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 6 July

'Canadian culture' sounds even more of an oxymoron than 'conservative intellectual', or 'literate architect'. Everyone has heard of Karsh, but so international are his sitters that to dwell on his nationality is almost as superfluous as his first name. Apart from that there is Robertson Davies, Anne of Green Gables which graced so many early Sunday evenings in the 1970s, the late night kookiness of Northern Exposure, and . . . er . . . that's about it. Not much to build a culture around.

It's a country that seems more intent on coming with alarming regularity to the brink of tearing itself apart - indigenous people and European settlers, anglophone and francophone; there are several permutations - but backing down when it sees the enormity of such a step. And that's another point: the country is enormous, and coming to terms with that enormity is the most consistent thread in this exhibition, organised by the Canadian High Commission and Canada uk Architecture Group.

Indeed, it forms part of a small cultural festival which the high commission has organised to celebrate the restoration of Canada House in Trafalgar Square. This includes, inevitably but welcomely, some of Karsh's portraits and a few panels on Canada House itself, both at that venue.

Work by 16 youngish practices is on display at the riba. There are buildings neatly integrated into dramatic sites: long, low spreading structures which do not detract from the mountains, such as Acton Johnson Ostry's low-slung school, where the roof is definitely not a fifth facade. There are liberal helpings of slightly crude timber detailing of which plant's is the most consummate. But the vastness of nature and puniness of man is most neatly addressed in LeMoyne Lapointe Magne's steel-frame observation platform, which overlooks the La Forge dam: a structure which must be robust but simulates frailty.

There are also cliches and anomalies. Examples of the former are Rooyakkers + Carroll's 'urban infills': facades treated as more or less complex patterns of different real and virtual planes, the sort of thing French architects do falling off a baguette, but with rather more virtuosity. And there are traces of Thomas Herzog in Saucier + Perrotte's glass wall and, less distinctly, of Henri Ciriani in the way Briere + Drolet + Noel wrap their business park-like building in a detached facade. These certainly have their merit in spatial effects, but arguably do little to advance the notion of a Canadian architecture. As the French names imply, both firms come from Montreal in French-speaking Quebec province: perhaps they have more reason to look consciously at European precedents that their anglophone counterparts in the extreme west, beyond those infinite wheat-or-snow covered prairies.

Anomalies, though, are always more interesting than cliches - even when stupid, as in Atelier Big City's work. Maybe I missed the irony, but big cities do imply to me something other than low buildings on greenfield sites. De Hoog + D'Ambrosio, however, raises the potentially interesting area of how touchy-feely, comfortable, generous detailing might meet the aesthetic of a business park-type building, while Marosi + Troy infuses a lumpenness much evident in its library and performing arts centre into a shingle-style, lakeside house (with the enviable budget of C$1.4 million).

Most thought-provoking among the anomalies, though, are LeMoyne Lapointe Magne's Museum of Canadian History and Pierre Thibault's Musee de la Nation. The first reworks an Edwardian public building, and the second seems to be an ordinary suburban house. Canada obviously has an interesting history dating from long before it was called Canada, but what price national identity?

And lurking in a few of the (ridiculously) small, crowded boards that comprise the exhibition are some images of buildings which invite further thought. Saia et Barbarese's little Residence Labelle has a very nice plan, Marshall Fisher shows a high degree of skill in several models for aboriginal sports centres and suburban houses, while Pechet + Robb's overloaded panel repays closer inspection. With budgets of C$7000 and 15,000, this practice is making architecture out of almost nothing.

When the easternmost exhibitor Filum, a friendly looking couple from Halifax whose projects include ephemera for the Gay Games, is probably closer to London than they are to the westernmost exhibitors in Vancouver (themselves nearer to Japan), this exhibition is inevitably a superficial romp through a country of conscious and deep diversities. It would be unfair to infer that young Canadian architects have little more to offer than cliches and anomalies in addressing their vast country and its identity. At least, I hope so.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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