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The decades between 1955 and 1975 are often considered a golden age for Canadian architecture. Synthesizing global design influences with local geography, climate, and culture, Canadian architects drew upon the crisp lines of the International Style, the organic curves of Frank Lloyd Wright, the raw, muscular concrete of Brutalism, and even the fanciful classicism of New Formalism, creating exciting new buildings for a young and dynamic nation emerging from its largely conservative and colonial past.

Habitat 67, Montreal, designed by Moshe Safdie (1967).

Parallel to this Canadian cultural flowering was the heyday of the postcard. For the first time, full-colour photography could be cost-effectively reproduced on a mass scale, and these postcards — Kodachromes, or “chromes” — became a universal medium, widely published and disseminated across Canada and around the world. 

750 Burrard, Vancouver, formerly the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library, designed by Harold Semmens and Douglas Simpson (1957).

With their vivid, saturated colours, Kodachrome cards were more than just an ostensibly objective representation of reality. The intensely rich blues, lush greens, and brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows embodied a sense of the hyper-real, and combined with careful composition, favourable lighting, and clever darkroom techniques, produced an idealized simulacrum perfectly suited to selling progress itself — the postwar modern world and its promise of social, economic, and material transformations for the benefit of everyone. 

BC Electric Building, Vancouver, by Charles Edward Pratt (1957).

In hundreds of different cards, published across Canada, Modernist buildings were showcased and celebrated. Amplified and enhanced through photographic reproduction, the new architecture was positioned as a symbol of modernity as well as a transformative agent, a necessary condition to further advance the humanistic brave new world that seemed tantalizingly within reach. 

Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, by Arthur Erickson (1965).

And the buildings created by the leading architects of the day communicated these messages with veracity. City halls, public libraries, and performing-arts centres emphasized openness and accessibility, their sheltering entrance canopies and walls of transparent glass inviting citizens inside to partake in a democratic culture and civil society.

Gander International Airport Departures Lounge, Gander, Mural by Kenneth Lochhead (1959).

University buildings eschewed the stone-walled arches and classical columns of an elite past in favour of pragmatic Brutalist concrete. The sleekly angular glass towers of corporate Canada radiated a reassuring optimism and data-driven rationality, while long, low manufacturing plants confirmed both industrial might and a wealth of available material goods. Gleaming new international airports and candy-coloured motor hotels with swimming pool terraces spoke to individual mobility, increased leisure time, and new-found access to travel.

Ontario Place architecture postcards
Ontario Place, Toronto, by Eberhard Zeidler (1971).

Today, it’s easy to look at these cards with a mixture of second-hand nostalgia and present-day cynicism. Some buildings, such as Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, John Andrews’ Scarborough College, Eb Zeidler’s Ontario Place, Ron Thom’s Trent University, and Arthur Erickson’s Simon Fraser University, have stood the test of time as truly outstanding examples of Canadian architecture. Some were acknowledged failures at their high-minded goals, while others succeeded at more prosaic purposes. Many have been demolished or altered beyond recognition. And the context of these buildings necessitates critical reflection: while the Canada of the time was more socially and economically democratic than ever before, many people were excluded from opportunities enjoyed by others.

Ontario Science Centre, Toronto, by Raymond Moriyama (1969).

Nevertheless, these postcards survive as artifacts of a particular time and place, documents not only of Canadian architecture but of Canadian culture and its varied expressions and aspirations across a vast land. In their reduction of a physical building to a glamourized two-dimensional image for mass consumption, they are precursors to today’s image-driven social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. They are often-idealized visions of a collective past that in some ways never was, but that reality makes their imagery no less compelling to our eyes today.

Four Seasons Motor Hotel, Toronto, by Peter Dickinson (1961).

Robert Moffatt is a Toronto-based marketer of architecture and design firms, and a longtime aficionado of postwar Modernist architecture. He is the author of the Instagram account Canada Modern Postcards

Selling a Modern Nation: Canadian Architecture’s Postcard Canon

As Canadian design flourished in the decades following WWII, the nascent technology of mass reproduction helped enshrine a new architectural canon.

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