Cardinal: an original vision
Cardinal, in a remarkable and sometimes turbulent career, has pursued
a unique vision of architecture with courage and a determined integrity
of spirit. His buildings, characterized and known nationally and internationally
by their undulating curves and sculpted forms, exhibit the innovative
approach that has been called an indigenous Canadian style of architecture.
He has undertaken a large variety of architectural and master planning
projects throughout his career that include the award-winning St.
Mary's Church in Red Deer, the Grande Prairie Regional College, the
Edmonton Space & Science Centre, the Ponoka Provincial Building,
a number of reserve schools and other institutions, and the spectacular
Canadian Museum of Civilization.
The many awards and honours that he has received are testimony to
outstanding achievements in a career in which he has sought consistently
to bring both creative vision and programmatic responsibility to his
clients and their projects. In a country where conservatism frequently
prevails, his success in bringing so many of his radical ideas to
fruition has been a remarkable achievement.
Cardinal has developed an approach to architecture that is overtly
sensual, even emotional in its interpretation of program, its requirements,
and the social and natural implications of the project landscape.
His idea of building reflects the classical definition of architecture
as the product of art and technique; the embodiment of a poetic interpretation
of function and desire. His work reminds us that architecture is indeed
one of the visual arts. The primary response to his extraordinary
forms of landscape and interior space and light is visceral, the architectural
intentions a celebration of life.
Architecture, unlike the fine arts, is formed according to external
directives, notably the building brief, the manner in which it is
to be inhabited, and how much it is to cost. Like the fine arts however,
outstanding works of architecture must convey a spirit or reveal an
essence that takes the viewer beyond the basic subject matter. Cardinal's
artistic and technical inspiration comes from many sources and, in
the development of his uncommon sensibilities, influences may be seen
from artists and architects who themselves have developed a personal
and culture-specific approach to their work, rather than following
conventional ideologies or style. The free-flowing organicism of his
buildings exhibits affinities to German expressionism, the rebellious
curves of the Spanish architect Gaudi, the geometries and spirit of
the classical Baroque, as well as the brilliant American innovators,
Bruce Gough and Frank Lloyd Wright. He is one of the few Canadian
architects to have worked with the organic geometries of landscape
that so characterized the modern movement of architecture and design
in that other Nordic country of lakes and forests, Finland.
His Canadian' sensibilities come, in a very Canadian way
perhaps, from an unlikely variety of sources. As a youth growing up
in Alberta, the son of a man whose own career ranged from forest ranger
to the construction and running of a motel, the young Cardinal had
a hands-on introduction both to the natural order of things and to
human making. He was perpetually involved in building and sketching
things from nature. At the same time, his Jesuit schooling and the
rituals, buildings and
accoutrements of the Church instilled in him a love of the symbolism
and beauty of ritual. These factors, together with the cultural background
of his parents - Blackfoot and Metis blood mingled with European stock
- undoubtedly contributed to his views of the conventions of the time.
His first major commission, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Red
Deer, Alberta, brought national attention to this hitherto unknown
architect and to the startling, unorthodox organicism that he deployed
in the interpretation of the program of the Church, contemporary ecumenical
culture and its relationship with the landscape. In the development
of this dramatic building, he worked closely with a visionary young
Oblate, the German-born Father Werner Merx, and the members of the
parish. It was a relationship of research, design and patient client
consultation on which Cardinal prides himself. Highly sculptural in
plan and in massing, it is easy to see the spirit of the Baroque and
various forms of expressionism in the drama of St. Mary's spaces
and forms. It is a building however designed for a prairie town, boldly
rising from a flat site. The building, however, notwithstanding its
envelopment by suburban bungalows, evokes something of the primal
character of the western grain silo. It is simple, yet rich; the great
mass of the body itself is inflected with the enfolded geometries
of the baptistry and the expressed intimate scale of the confessionals.
The voluptuous sweep of exterior and interior walls is enriched by
both the intuitive artistry of the form and the unexpected richness
of its brick texture.
St. Mary's set the scene for Cardinal's future design process, cogently
demonstrating his painstaking attention to all the complex issues
of building and his determination to fulfill his vision. The unorthodoxy
of his intuitively-conceived geometries presented numerous challenges,
particularly in terms of structural calculations, eventual construction
and budget constraints. Cardinal's structural instincts proved, however,
to be reasonably based, and with the help of structural advisors,
he found creative, even brilliant solutions to the construction and
cost implications of the various elements. Perhaps an even greater
achievement was his success in resisting the objections of conservative
forces in the community and bringing the project to completion.
Following St. Mary's, Cardinal was commissioned to do a number of
retail and institutional projects in Alberta (liquor store, warehouse,
hospital), building a reputation for high quality of design. These
projects, his personal integrity, and the spectacular beauty of St.
Mary's earned the enthusiastic support of the provincial government,
which commissioned him to do the multi-million dollar Grande Prairie
Regional College in Grande Prairie, Alberta. In the highly complex
program for the Grande Prairie project, Cardinal developed an intimate
approach to interior planning and spatial interpretation. The elements
of the program were considered as spatial entities, the form of the
building growing organically as each space was wrapped as Cardinal
deemed appropriate to its requirements. The flowing magnificence of
the interior spaces is a demonstration of Cardinal's belief that in
our hostile winter climate the interior environment of a building
should provide an alternative landscape of spatial pleasure. As in
St. Mary's, this much larger building's exuberant sculptural form
emerges from its inner needs. In the structural resolution of his
radical geometries, Grande Prairie represented a major step forward
as Cardinal moved innovatively to the use of the computer, becoming
a pioneer and world leader in the application of electronic technologies
At this time he became interested in native rights. This began a relationship
with native groups that was to bring him both benefits and problems.
In spite of a sometimes hostile public reaction, it is clear that
his own sense of the spiritual was deeply enhanced by his experiences
with the native community. Undoubtedly too, his continuing association
with the sweat lodge and his respect for the system of elders lent
a unique sense of nationalism to the spectacular quality of his work.
This was undoubtedly a consideration in his selection in 1983 as the
architect for Canada's new Canadian Museum of Civilization (Moshe
Safdie was selected as the architect for the National Gallery of Canada
at the same time). There was a strong determination at the time to
have two outstanding works of architecture from this once in a lifetime
opportunity to mark Canada's cultural identity and maturity.
Cardinal's poetic proposals for the project, together with the originality
and lyricism of his western work, transcended the other architectural
proposals. Amidst structural, political and economic challenges, the
Museum of Civilization was completed, a unique response to the layers
of symbolism imbued in the site and its surroundings. The Museum's
sculpted forms reinvent the industrial landscape on which it sits.
From the plaza of the two arms of the building, the viewer is held
in the curving embrace of the complex and is one with Parliament Hill
on the opposite side of the Ottawa River. The neo-Gothic Parliament
Buildings are framed by a non-traditional architectural invention.
Inside the spectacular Great Hall of the Museum, the views of landscape,
river and Parliament are filtered through the giant curving glazed
wall. The Museum, like Cardinal's other buildings such as Grande
Prairie, is exceptionally popular with tourists and locals alike.
Its imaginative forms paradoxically inspire both awe and sensuous
pleasure. It is beloved and accessible. It is a uniquely Canadian
The Museum is emblematic of Cardinal's life-long search for the inherent
drama in a given site and any given program as a key to its architectural
interpretation. It demonstrates also the courage of the non-conformist,
the integrity of spirit and the sensibilities that have made him an
internationally known architect. As his practice expands to planning
and social development projects in Canada and abroad,
Cardinal continues to exercise his belief in the importance of contextualism,
the particularities of culture and the pursuit of exuberance.
Nan Griffiths taught architecture and urban history at Carleton
University. She has worked on architectural projects, carried out
major studies in urban design and participated in international design
studies and award-winning architectural competitions.
T. Boddy, The Architecture of Douglas Cardinal, NeWest Press,
H. Kalman, A History of Canadian Architecture, Oxford University
Douglas Cardinal's trademark curvilinear, organic buildings,
sensitively placed into the landscape like sculptures, have been called
an indigenous Canadian style of architecture. Over 36 years, Cardinal
has undertaken a wide variety of projects, ranging from homes to government
and institutional buildings, most notably the spectacular Canadian
Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, the award-winning St. Mary's
Church in Red Deer, Alberta, the Grande Prairie Regional College and
the Ponoka Provincial Building. Douglas Cardinal has also pioneered
the use of computer-aided drafting and design (CADD) systems for architecture
in North America. The Governor General's Award recognizes Douglas
Cardinal's outstanding contribution to Canadian and international
CP Picture archive (Bruno Schlumberger, Ottawa Citizen)