Interview: In conversation with Joseph Clarke

For the inaugural interview in our Canada Constructed Interview Series, we spoke with Joseph L. Clarke, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto. We asked him about the acoustics of architecture, opportunities for students at U of T, why studying Canadian architecture is important, and even his youthful professional musical aspirations.

Check out the excerpts in the video below, and scroll down to read the full interview!

“I would argue that you have to study [Brutalism] in Canada, where it took root and flourished in a unique way.”

—Joseph L. Clarke

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I’m a historian of modern architecture. I was trained as an architect in the United States, and spent a couple years in New York working first for Peter Eisenman and then for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Now I’m part of the art history faculty at the University of Toronto, where I teach courses on modern architecture in a worldwide context, but with a focus on Western Europe. In my scholarly research, I’m especially interested architecture and media. My new book Echo’s Chambers, is about how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architects conceptualized sound and brought it into the ambit of design thinking. For a newer project, I’m studying how twentieth-century offices were designed around the elusive goal of improving communication among workers.

How did you become interested in these topics?

Growing up, I secretly wanted to be a professional musician, but I didn’t have the talent for it. Then I discovered architecture, which combined art and math in a way that activated the same part of my brain. But I was perplexed at the overwhelmingly visual orientation of architectural design and architectural history. And the relatively few designers and writers who did talk about the non-visual senses had an approach that struck me as too fuzzy and emotional and generally lacking in rigour. So I started exploring the history of architectural acoustics: how, beginning in the Enlightenment, some European architects worked to develop systematic techniques for representing sound in the design process, so their buildings would mediate the propagation of sound in deliberate ways. I would argue that their work profoundly shaped how we think about sound and space today.

How do your research concerns intersect with the built environment in Canada?

The Canadian environment has inspired a particularly rich discourse on communication and media, which has been pivotal for my work on the sound of architecture. In the 1950s and 60s, the philosopher Marshall McLuhan—who was born in Edmonton and taught here at the University of Toronto—argued that electronic technologies, such as radio and TV, were leading humans to experience the world less as “visual space” and more as “acoustic space.” He predicted that this transition would have momentous social consequences, including a general decline of linear thinking and literacy, a growing appetite for interactive media, and a rise in political tribalism. He thought architecture was profoundly implicated in this transition, too, because he understood media technologies as forming a kind of “environment” that we all live in. By his definition, architecture is one of the most important and pervasive forms of media.

“…architecture is one of the most important and pervasive forms of media.”

—Joseph L. Clarke

We can quibble with some of McLuhan’s ideas, but surely it’s not coincidental that Canada has produced some of the most important and provocative theories of communication technology. Canada has a larger land mass and a lower population density than almost any country in the world. Great distances are a fact of life in Canada. Technologies for long-distance transportation and communication have been especially pivotal in Canadian history—just think of the centrality of the railroad or the CBC to the story of modern Canada. And I would argue that Canadian architecture has been especially shaped by this imperative to conquer or at least mitigate the effects of distance. I’m particularly interested in how this conjunction of architecture and media technology is frequently expressed in sonic form: for instance, in Glenn Gould’s radio documentary The Idea of North, a sonic portrayal of what it’s like to live in the Canadian northlands, the rhythm of the railroad is ever present and gives the work much of its musicality. 

Why do you think it is important to examine or consider the built environment in Canada?

That’s a good question, because Canadian architecture tends to be studied by Canadians but outside Canada, tragically, ignored. I would argue that deserves to be a much more substantial part of a global architectural history curriculum. McLuhan once described Canada as a “counter-environment,” a place where it’s possible to observe patterns that go unnoticed elsewhere. As someone who moved here from the United States, I think I understand what he was talking about. Canadian architectural culture has been shaped by so many foreign influences—French, British, American—and refracts those influences in a very distinctive way. This refraction is subtle, but once you are attuned to it, you start to discern aspects of those architectural traditions that were invisible in their original contexts. Someone once said that if you really want to understand Georgian architecture—a quintessentially English style—you have to go to Dublin, which is home to some of the finest classical buildings of the eighteenth century. Something similar could be said for Canada. If you really want to understand brutalism, for example—a way of building that was invented in Britain and elaborated in the United States—I would argue that you have to study it in Canada, where it took root and flourished in a unique way.

“Canadian architectural culture has been shaped by so many foreign influences—French, British, American—and refracts those influences in a very distinctive way.”

—Joseph L. CLarke

For students interested in this topic, what are some courses and/or opportunities that they might pursue at the University of Toronto?  

This is one reason why my art history colleague Professor Christy Anderson and I founded the Canada Constructed project. Currently, the two of us are co-teaching a new undergraduate lecture course, a thematic overview covering 15,000 years of Canadian architectural history. The idea is to introduce students to the many different kinds of work that Canadian architectural historians and preservationists are engaged in, and to bring in insights from related disciplines such as geography and urban policy. This course will be taught every other year. Our department has also started offering both introductory and upper-level undergraduate seminars on Canadian architecture, many of which take the city of Toronto as a test case for new kinds of historical inquiry.

Are you working on anything new?

At the moment I’m studying the new approaches to open-plan office design that were developed in the 1950s and 60s in West Germany and North America. The look of a large corporate office interior is quite familiar to most people and the midcentury office in particular, with its proto-cubicles, has become an iconic cultural reference point. But historians have been too fixated on the visual appearance of these spaces. I’m interested in how designers and corporate managers tried to derive office layouts from patterns of verbal communication. What interests me is the idea that a large open space could be structured by acoustics as much as—or more than—by visible, tangible design elements. The aspiration to organize the workspace sonically was connected with a belief in the emergence of a new “information society,” in which economic value would be created not by manufacturing material things but through acts of communication. This idea has become so pervasive today that I think it’s important to understand how, in the postwar period, it was elaborated in large part through architecture—and architectural acoustics in particular.

What is your favourite building in Canada and why?

New College under construction in 1968. Courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives.

I’m fortunate to work near New College, a wonderful modernist building complex at the University of Toronto, designed in the 60s by Fairfield & DuBois. Like so much of Toronto’s important architecture, it is easy to overlook because of its understated exterior. As soon as you enter the serpentine courtyard, though, you discover Macy DuBois’s homage to the humanistic modernism of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, designed in a way that is very sensitive to scale and to the particularities of the site.

Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal. (From left to right) 1: Photograph by Jeangagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons, 2: Photograph by Joanne Lévesque, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

But thinking about Canada more broadly, It would be hard to top the Pointe-à-Callière Museum in Montreal. Architectural postmodernism didn’t flourish in Canada to the extent it did in the United States, but the brilliant Romanian-born architect Dan Hanganu is a very significant exception. In a lot of postmodern architecture, the ambition to “mine” the past for architectural motifs is just a metaphor, but in this museum it is quite literal, as it is built over an archaeological excavation at Montreal’s historic Place Royale. You can discover numerous layers of urban history, including artifacts of Indigenous inhabitation as well as the spot where the Jesuit Barthélemy Vimont celebrated Mass in 1642 to mark the founding of the city. Hanganu also incorporated a sense of these layers into the form of the museum itself, which he crafted with a genuine urbanistic sensibility. The project has done a lot to raise Montreal’s architectural and urban self-awareness.

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