Northern Reflections: the Blueprints and Architexts of Archibald Lampman

by D.M.R. Bentley


[N]ational intellect receives a prevailing tone from the peculiar scenery that abounds [in a country].... In old Greece, the lovely climate had just vicissitudes enough to impress a happy variety of experience and coinage on the mind .... But England, and the kindred regions of Germany, have in their less favoured climates a depth of gloom which is known to characterize the northern spirit, in which external nature is admirably harmonious with the intellectual structure, by its influence thereupon eliciting the noblest efforts.

E.L. Magoon, “Scenery and Mind,” The Home Book of the Picturesque; or American Scenery, Art and Literature (1852) (34)

Before 1900, the electrically-lit city and electrically-powered street transport had arrived all across Canada.... Tall office buildings, pounding factories, complex road, water and sewage systems, many-sided municipal governments, were all hallmarks of abundant urban life. So were the concentrated social ills of blighted housing, over-crowding, crime, and alcohol.

J.M.S. Careless, The Rise of Cities in Canada before 1914 (1978) (25-26)

[I]t is marvelous that we as a people, with so much wide area at the nation’s disposal, should herd in stifling purlieus of half-civilized American cities, where our humanity is stunted and degenerated to the demands of a modern commercial and money-hungered helotism.

William Wilfred Campbell, The Beauty, History, Romance and Mystery of the Canadian Lake Region (1910) (28-29)


The eighteen eighties and ’nineties were a time of intense national feeling in Canada and intense theoretical interest in the relationship between and among Canada’s natural environment, national character, and artistic productions. Would the country’s new nationhood result in the emergence of a national culture or was the existence of a national culture crucial to the emergence of full nationhood? Was national character determined by race, geography, climate or a combination of all three? What were or might be the distinguishing characteristics of a Canadian work of art? Variations of these and related questions were the staple of pronouncements and speculations about the state of the nation and its culture in the decades following confederation, for above and around them hung what Goldwin Smith called Canada and the Canada Question (1891): did Canada’s future lie in complete national independence, continued dependence on Britain, or eventual annexation to the United States?1 It was within this political triad that practitioners and observers of Canadian architecture and literature in the last two decades of the nineteenth century formulated their arguments for and against the presence or promise of a distinctively Canadian style or form of building and writing.

     In preparing the way for his argument that commercial union with the United States is Canada’s best option, Smith reminds readers of Canada and the Canada Question that “Canada is a political expression,” a confederation of geographically and culturally disparate regions, and suggests that “[t]o expect a national literature is therefore unfair” (47). “Let it be remembered also,” he adds, “that it is difficult for the sapling of Colonial literature to grow beneath the mighty shadow of the parent tree” (48). Nevertheless, Smith concedes the existence of a “literature ... fully as large and as high in quality as could be reasonably looked for, and of a character thoroughly healthy” (though not, note, distinctively Canadian) (47).2 On the subject of architecture in Canada, he is much less generous:

To suit the climate a Canadian house ought to be simple in form, so as to be easily warmed, with broad eaves to shed the snow, and a deep verandah as a summer room; and what is suitable is also fair to the eye. But servile imitation produces gables, mansard roofs, and towers, just as fashion clothes Canadian women in Parisian dresses. Canadians are often told by those who wish to flatter them that as a northern race they must have some great destiny before them.3 But stove heat is not less enervating than the heat of the sun. (44)

To Smith’s mind the absence of distinctiveness and originality that is everywhere evident in Canada bespeaks the futility of resisting the “economic, intellectual, and social fusion” with the United States that is “daily becoming more complete” even in Quebec and especially in Ontario (56, and see 23).

     As amply attested by the comments assembled by Kelly Crossman in Architecture in Transition: from Art to Practice, 1885-1906 (1987), Canadian architects and writers on architecture in the eighteen eighties and ’nineties shared Smith’s view that the Canadian climate should affect building forms and styles but differed about whether it had or would. “We certainly have not a Canadian style of architecture,” wrote the Ottawa architect G.F. Stalker (1841-95) in “Climatic Influences on Architecture” (1891)4; “one cannot fail to be struck with the want of consideration that has been shown to ... climate.... [T]he only thing for us to do ... is not to ignore our climate ... but to give it in our architecture that consideration and study which is due and which shall give a certain amount at least, of national character to our building” (105; qtd. in Crossman 115). Four years later, an anonymous writer in the Winnipeg Tribune of December 21, 1895 disagreed, and in doing so may well have been targeting Smith’s argument:

In Canada we have scarcely developed a type as yet, but certain marked lines are already observable. The habitant lives in the same kind of a house that sheltered his forefathers when Quebec was besieged by Wolfe, but in the other provinces once the fierce struggle with nature is over, the settlers have aspired to something ampler. The people could not well borrow designs, because the conditions of temperature here are different from those of every other land. And most resembling Russia in climate, we cannot copy her, because our mode of life, our civilization is different. Out of these conditions then has been evolved or is being evolved, the Canadian house. It is compact approaching the square or the thick oblong. It has solid walls, with protecting air spaces to keep out the cold, and ample verandahs to keep off the blaze of the summer sun. In the matter of heating, Canadian houses are probably the best equipped in the world, and in the United States several of the best systems and furnaces bear the name of Canadian firms.5 (qtd. in Crossman 118)

In 1888, the Hamilton architect James Balfour used the first issue of the inherently nationalistic Canadian Architect and Builder to urge members of his profession to avoid the “servile imitation” that Smith would condemn by “drawing no line that does not express a purpose” and thus producing “a new and perfectly suitable style ... a Canadian nineteenth-century style” (3; qtd. in Crossman 110). In the century’s final year, the Toronto architect George Siddall (1861-1941) used the pages of the same magazine to express doubt that such a style had developed: “much that has been produced here is either positively bad or absolutely uninteresting,” he wrote in “The Advancement of Public Taste in Architecture” (1899): the majority of Canadian “buildings ... are offensively bad ... from sheer ignorance or contempt for the recognized rules of art ... [or] dull and stupid ... from the mere mechanical repetition of stock forms and stale ideas which do duty for thought and save trouble of invention” (28; qtd. in Crossman 109-10). Not until several years into the twentieth century would the nationalistic impetus of the eighteen eighties and ’nineties result in anything like a national style based, as Crossman observes, on “local materials, deference to climate, ... the design of ornament based on Canadian themes,” and “the self-conscious use of traditional Quebec styles and manners of building” (137).6

     Each of the four elements thus identified by Crossman as components of the national style of Canadian architecture that took shape between 1885 and 1906 can find ready equivalents in the theories and practices of writers who were attempting to give Canada a national literature in the decades following Confederation. Fully subscribing to the tenets of Romantic nationalism as a result of his youthful involvement with the Young Ireland movement,7 Thomas Darcy McGee (1825-68) regarded poetry, particularly popular poetry on local themes and figures, to be crucial to the development of national sentiment and identity. “Every country, every nationality, every people, must create and foster a National Literature, if it is their wish to preserve a distinct individuality from other nations,” he argued within months after moving from the United States to Montreal in 1857, adding:

There is a glorious field upon which to work for the formation of ... [a Canadian] National Literature. It must assume the gorgeous coloring and the gloomy grandeur of the forest. It must partake of the grave mysticism of the Red Man, and the wild vivacity of the hunter of [the] western prairies. Its lyrics must possess the ringing cadence of the waterfall, and its epics be as solemn and beautiful as our great rivers. We have the materials [and] our position is favorable [for] northern latitudes like ours have ever been famed for the strength, variety and beauty of their literature. ([2])

Less than a year later, in December 1858, McGee published Canadian Ballads, a volume whose contents – poems such as “Jacques Cartier,” “The Arctic Indian’s Faith,” “Our Lady of the Snow” – not only fulfil his own requirements for a Canadian “National Literature,” but also correspond to all but one of the elements identified by Crossman as the components of Canadian architectural style, the exception being “the self-conscious use of traditional Quebec styles and manners of building” (though not “materials” or “themes”). The very titles of most of the sections into which William Douw Lighthall (1857-1954) divided his oft-reprinted Songs of the Great Dominion (1884) – “The Indian,” “The Voyageur and Habitant,” “Settlement Life,” “Sports and Free Life,” “The Spirit of Canadian History,” “Places,” and “Seasons” – provide a further indication of the close parallels that existed between the quests for a national architecture and a national literature in late nineteenth-century Canada. That the first two sections of Songs of the Great Dominion are entitled “The Imperial Spirit” and “The New Nationality” reflects Lighthall’s position on the question of Canada’s relationship with Britain and the United States: a staunch believer in “Canadianism,”8 he regarded a strengthening of the country’s ties with Britain as the best way to nurture its national identity and to prevent its annexation to the United States.

     When Canada’s finest nineteenth-century poet, Archibald Lampman (1861-99), delivered a lecture on the history of English literary style at a meeting of the St. Patrick’s Literary Association of Ottawa on January 20, 1891,9 he made scant reference to Canadian literature and no reference to Canadian architecture, but he did argue for the existence of parallels between the two arts:

... in every age of the world’s life that peculiarity of thought or feeling which is uppermost in its aggregate of mind lends to the product of all its artists a broadly perceptible general character upon which the work of each individual is only a variation.... In architecture as the art which expresses the mind of each age on the vastest scale, one most easily realizes the great distinctions of style.... When we pass to literature we find the style of ... the Parthenon translated into the verse of the Oedipus Coloneus [sic] and the prose of Plato – the verse of the Song of Roland.... (Essays and Reviews 75)

The lineage of these remarks stretches back, of course, to the Hegelian notion that every aspect of an age or epoch bears the imprint of its Zeitgeist. Among their more proximate sources, however, are works by Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater,10 and, especially, Hippolyte Adolphus Taine, who argues in his History of English Literature (1863; trans. 1871), Lectures on Art (1867; trans. 1871-75), and elsewhere that the stylistic parallels that he observed in the architecture and literature of a civilization such as that of Ancient Greece arose from racial and environmental as well as epochal influences.11 In fact, it was to environmentally determined racial traits that Lampman would turn a month later when he speculated on the characteristics of a future Canadian literature in the lecture entitled “Two Canadian Poets” that he delivered to the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society:

We know that climatic and scenic conditions have much to do with the moulding of national character. In the climate of this country we have the pitiless severity of the climate of Sweden with the sunshine and the sky of the north of Italy, a combination not found in the same degree anywhere else in the world. The northern winters of Europe are seasons of terror and gloom; our winters are seasons of glittering splendour and incomparable richness of colour. At the same time we have the utmost diversity of scenery, a country exhibiting every variety of beauty and grandeur. A Canadian race, we imagine, might combine the energy, the seriousness, the perseverence of the Scandinavians with something of the gayety, the elasticity, the quickness of spirit of the south. If these qualities could be untied in a literature, the result would indeed be something novel and wonderful.12 (Essays and Reviews 93)

The thrust of Lampman’s remarks is clear: if only in “degree” Canada has a distinctive enough environment to produce a distinctive “race” and, hence, a distinctive literature (and, presumably, architecture), but this has not yet happened, and might never.

     Although the deterministic assumptions underlying Lampman’s remarks make them difficult to take seriously today, they are worth a second look for their analysis of the environmental factors that might occasion certain types of psychological and aesthetic responses and, in doing so, encourage and validate certain styles of building as well as writing. In the summer of 1884, Lampman told a friend that he had “been endeavouring to think up some plan for a strictly Canadian poem, local in its incident and spirit, but cosmopolitan in form and manner” (qtd. in Connor). The contemplated poem would “accord ... with the quiet toilsome life” of the “Niagara district” and be sober and realistic ... in the metre of [Longfellow’s] Evangeline but more like [Goethe’s] Hermann and Dorothea, or, nearer still, to the translations from ... [the] Swedish poet [Johan Ludwig] Runeberg, who wrote lovely things about the peasants of Finland” (qtd. in Connor 78). In other words, he had selected his “local materials ... and ... themes,” and was casting about for the appropriate poetic form in which to express them – that is, the form with the right associations.13 With this in mind, he considers then discards an American long poem on a Canadian subject, moves closer to his goal with a German “idyllic epic” (Norman 33), and finally settles on poetry that is Scandinavian in authorship and subject-matter and, as much to the point, praised by Edmund Gosse in Studies in the Literature of Northern Europe (1879) for its “rich severity of style” as well as for its realism (108, 105). The fact that the poem to which these cogitations gave rise nearly a decade later (The Story of an Affinity) is “a small novel in blank verse” (Lampman, Annotated Correspondence 120) that locates itself firmly in the English Romantic-Victorian tradition is arguably both an index of Lampman’s orientation at the time of its writing and manifestation of a Canadian “aggregate of mind”: in the early ’eighties, he had been an advocate of full independence from Britain but by the early ’nineties had come to fear that “blatant patriotism” was furthering the cause of annexation by curtailing wise thought and action (Essays and Reviews 91-92).

     To the very extent that Lampman did not execute his “strictly Canadian poem” as planned and could only “imagine” the “novel and wonderful” literature that would result if “energy, ... seriousness, ... [and] the perseverance of the Scandinavians” were “united” with “something of the gaiety, the elasticity, the quickness of spirit of the south,” his remarks in 1884 and 1891 can be read as manifestos or blueprints in Rem Koolhaas’s sense of “descr[iptions] [of] an ideal state that can only be approximated,” “compromised,” or “imperfect[ly] realiz[ed]” (11). In Lampman’s published collections of poetry – Among the Millet, and Other Poems (1888), Lyrics of Earth (1895/6), and Alcyone (1900) – his blueprints are partially realized in several ways: each volume contains several poems that treat of the “severity,” “sunshine” and “colour” of the seasons, and Lyrics of Earth is organized around the seasonal cycle; Among the Millet, Alcyone, and to a lesser extent Lyrics of Earth adhere to an aesthetic of thematic and formal variety that “accord[s]” with the “diversity,” “variety,” and “elasticity” that he discerned in Canadian scenery and the Italian character;14 and all three volumes display the seriousness and realism that he valued in the Scandinavian character and in the poetry of Goethe and Runeberg – so much so, in fact, that his oeuvre as a whole answers perfectly to the definition of Canadian literature that Smith puts into the mouth of “a kind critic”: “it still retains something of the old English sobriety of style, and is comparatively free from the straining for effect which is the bane of the best literature of the United States” (47-48).

     Nor do Lampman’s blueprints lack approximations and accordances in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Canadian architecture. By the eighteen nineties, the “pitiless severity” of winter and the intense “sunshine” of summer had long since given rise to the “broad eaves,” “deep verandah[s],” and “simple,” “easily warmed” forms whose absence Smith laments and the writer in the Winnipeg Tribune celebrates. Two decades earlier, under the leadership of the then governor general, Lord Dufferin, the sublimity and picturesqueness that lie behind Lampman’s comments on the “grandeur” and “variety” of Canadian scenery had inspired the “neo-medieval designs” for Quebec City by William Lynn (1829-1915), including a design for a new Chateau St. Louis that Dufferin likened to a “‘Chateau en Espagne’” rather than a “Chateau en France” (or, as Lampman might have preferred, a “Chateau en Italie”) (Crossman 111-12). By the end of the century “the neo-medieval, picturesque mode” pioneered by Lynn had yielded buildings in the same style by Eugène-Etienne Taché (1836-1912) and Bruce Price (1845-1903), most notably the latter’s Chateau Frontenac (see also: i) (1892-94), a colossal response to the sublimity, picturesqueness, and historical ambiance of the site that, as Crossman observes, suggests “the special resonance in Quebec” of “medieval and early Renaissance” architectural forms (114). If Lampman’s suggestion that the Canadian climate combines Swedish “severity” with northern Italian “sunshine” were to be read as a “retroactive manifesto” (Koolhaas 9) it would find support in such buildings as Bellevue (circa 1841), the Tuscan-style villa in Kingston whose “picturesque asymmetry” and unconventional ground-floor plan constitute a very “thoughtful” response to its northern environment: in addition to a substantial verandah, the house features a “morning-room ... oriented towards the eastern sun,” “a drawing-room ... [that] faces south,” and a “dining-room, generally used in the evening, [that] has little natural light” (Kalman 2: 608-09).15 If his blueprint were to be read forward to the middle of the twentieth century and beyond, it would find fulfilment in the accordance between Modernism and the scenery and climate of the West Coast and in the resonances between the Modernism of the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and the afforested regions of Canada.

     Whether read retroactively or proactively, Lampman’s blueprints accept a characteristic of Canadian architecture that Smith condemns as “servile imitation” and the writer in the Winnipeg Tribune recognizes as a process of importation and adaptation whose components are an informed and sensitive selection of (architectural, literary) models and their modification in response to local conditions are requirements. The “strictly Canadian poem” that Lampman wanted to write in 1884 would “accord ... with the quiet toilsome life” of the “Niagara district” and it would be “cosmopolitan in form and manner.” It would use an appropriate structural and stylistic model as a vehicle for local materials. It would honour its Canadian content and its Canadian readers in a work adapted from the best available. Above all, it would have no truck with the insular nationalism that makes for uncritical regionalism, stagnant provincialism, and, in all but the rarest cases, bad art. The recognition by Lampman and the other members of the Confederation group of poets that it is possible – their mentor, Joseph Edmund Collins (1855-92), argued essential16 – to be both “Canadian” and “cosmopolitan” gave Canada some of its most accomplished and appealing poetry. The same recognition by such architects as Taché, Francis Mawson Rattenbury (1867-1935), Arthur Erickson (1924- ), Ron Thom (1923- ), and Douglas Cardinal (1934- ) has given the country its best architecture.