Ex Industria Modernitas: Progressive, Problem-Solving Culture Propels Local Architecture

The region is set for another wave of design excellence with increasing density and fresh investment providing an opportunity for whole neighbourhoods to be remade when our industrial giants are given new life.

Patrick Simmons
December 17, 2020

Looking around the downtowns of Waterloo Region, you’ll notice something about the most vibrant urban streets, eye-catching buildings, and walkable neighbourhoods. Many of them are anchored by a historic, industrial-age building. Whether you’re looking at the revitalization of the Gaslight District in Cambridge, the old Seagrams building in Waterloo, or the trendy factory-turned-condos in downtown Kitchener, the hallmarks of early twentieth century architecture are everywhere.

That reuse and reinvention of this period’s design landmarks is not surprising given the region was a vital engine for a global movement in industrial architecture. This pared down, unadorned aesthetic evolved naturally from the region’s distinctive culture that valued progress and practicality.

This early style matured in the post-WWII era, with the Region boasting some of the purest examples of modernist architecture in the province. And today, the region is set for another wave of design excellence with increasing density and fresh investment providing an opportunity for new ideas and looks.

Industrial Giants

The Dominion Tire Factory, Kitchener
The Dominion Tire Factory, Kitchener

Eric Haldenby, Professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, has extensively researched regional architectural innovation. His deeper examination of local design revealed that in the early twentieth century, Waterloo Region was a global design leader with a collective eye to the future.

Waterloo Region developed from a hinterland rich in products from field and forest. Early mills developed into factories producing household name goods in food, furniture, clothing, and later, rubber and auto parts. The world took notice, and from 1895 until WWI, successful enterprises attracted investment from across Canada, the United States, and Europe. From a previously small-town atmosphere, new world factories rose at an astonishing rate. The nature of technology defined building design - tall because it is easier to transfer energy vertically when using manufacturing belts; narrow to make use of daylight in an era of minimal artificial lighting. These buildings were simple in form, but well crafted, and certainly as evidenced by their reuse today – built to last. Images of this new era of design made its way from Waterloo Region to other communities - even (as Haldenby found in his research) travelling to Europe to inspire the design of their own industrial renaissance.

These practical designs broke free from the elaborate details of Victorian design and were abstract and forward-looking. The lack of Victorian ostentation made its way into residential design as well. Leaders of industry may have had large well-crafted homes but they did not vary much from the homes of their workers in terms of style or design flourishes.

“The conventional thinking was that Kitchener-Waterloo didn’t have a lot of architectural interest, but then I had my eyes opened. I realized there’s something going on here in terms of modern architecture.”

Eric Haldenby

A Modern Reinvention

Eastwood Collegiate, Kitchener
Eastwood Collegiate, Kitchener

After WWII, industrial leaders of Waterloo Region determined that a new direction was needed to stimulate economic development. They decided that education was the missing link between the industrial past and future success. Waterloo Region had no post-secondary institution mid-century, but soon boasted two universities and a community college. Similarly, in the 1950s, there was just one high school in Kitchener-Waterloo. By 1970, there were eight.

Civic pride is always expressed in brick and mortar, and Waterloo Region is no different. This growth in civic, educational, and residential buildings ushered in a new wave of community pride and architectural innovation in the form of universal modernism.

This movement posited that form followed function, resulting in industrial-inspired and utilitarian design. This global phenomenon fit neatly within the region’s design niche, drawing inspiration from factory design with its lack of ornamentation and commitment to practical materials and form.

“Our particular local spirit is ‘build everything again’, start all over. Everything we’ve created from transportation to educational infrastructure is, in kind and degree, more ambitious than almost any other community of this size in Canada.”

Eric Haldenby

The local iteration of the modernism movement was made possible by three factors:

  1. the founding of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture
  2. the boom in local companies that created locally made building products
  3. the emergence of seven progressive architectural firms between 1946 and 1972

One of those firms was Barnett & Rieder - a predecessor of MartinSimmons Architects - which designed six out of the seven new high schools. Between its founding and today, the firm has contributed the design for over 1,500 projects to the region.

Reimagining Community Landmarks

Breithaupt Block, Building, Google Building, Kitchener	under construction
Google Building, Kitchener

The region’s commitment to its industrial past has not waned, as evidenced by the latest landmarks created in this century. Many of the most admired designs were reuses of industrial buildings - such as the Google office and Breithaupt Block and the CIGI facility in the old Seagram building. Whole neighbourhoods are remade when these industrial giants are given new life.

With the goal of being the Creative Capital of Canada, the region’s leaders are once again coming together to foster “problem solving, collaboration, and resilience.” The pace of regional development is increasing exponentially, and this growth provides an opportunity for owners and designers to make a mark. With more density – encouraged by the new transportation infrastructure (in the LRT) – there will again be a changing local horizon.

Today’s local architects are poised to, once again, make a design mark on the international stage. With inspiration from the past, but with a strong commitment to the community’s contemporary needs and progressive ideas, the opportunities are endless.

“I hope as a community, we continue to think positively and progressively. We should recognize we have one of the best architecture schools in Canada and champion our local architecture firms to develop our own contemporary design culture.”

Eric Haldenby

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