Interview: In conversation with Michelangelo Sabatino

This fall, we sat down (via Zoom!) with art and architectural historian Professor Michelangelo Sabatino, Director of the Ph.D. Program in Architecture in the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Although Prof. Sabatino is based in Chicago, he was awarded his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, and has published extensively on episodes of 19th– and 20th–century modernity in the Americas and Canada. We covered many different topics, and, in this first instalment, Prof. Sabatino discusses his training, how he began to rethink the built environment of Canada, and why he prefers the term “architecture in Canada” to “Canadian architecture”…

Check out the video or the text below!

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in the field of architecture and architectural history

I speak from Chicago, where I am currently a professor and director of the Ph.D. program at the Illinois Institute of Technology, College of Architecture. I served for a couple years as the interim dean and now I’m back doing what I know how to do best, research.

I am Canadian, born in Toronto. I think the hospital building is still standing, St Joseph’s along the lake shore. I went high school in Canada, and after that, I decided that I would go to architecture school in Italy, in Venice. The school’s acronym was IUAV—the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia. I started school there in the late 80s-early 90s, and that was just the time when the presence of the past, with the Venice biennial, had really sort of shifted a lot of interest to Italian architects and their ability to negotiate both a sort of modernity and the of the historical city, as well as issues of urban design. It was a kind of a corrective of the excesses or the shortcomings of the modernist project. I was very intrigued by that.  

I was still a very timid high school student and I decided that I would walk into the Italian consulate… In a heartbeat, I found myself going to Venice…

—Michelangelo Sabatino on his architecture schooling

How I decided to go there is a funny story. I was still a very timid high school student and I decided that I would walk into the Italian consulate, which was at Dundas and Beverly, in a Victorian-era house, and the person who oversaw universities decided that I should go to Venice and she unearthed what was supposed to be my Italian citizenship. In a heartbeat, I found myself going to Venice, frankly, with less knowledge about the challenges that I would have encountered than I care to think about. I think if I knew too much about what the challenges lay ahead like from doing you know statics and math-related subjects in Italian, I think I would have balked. But, you know, ignorance is bliss. And so, I got on a plane and I was on my way to Venice.

I was well rewarded by this act of courage. I met life-changing professors and mentors there. Most important was, of course, Manfredo Tafuri, an architectural historian whose work sort of floored me, at least the little that I could understand in my initial years. Nonetheless, the kind of passion and the political commitment to architecture was really transformational, especially for someone coming from Canada where politics you know, don’t dominate life as much as they dominate Italian life, at least, it seemed to me. In Venice, I studied architecture with the mentorship of Manfredo Tafuri and others, and also significant players in the scene Francesco Dal Co, who had been published in English.

What got you interested in the architecture of Canada?

I began to sort of really be awoken to the European architecture scene, but also, paradoxically, [to architecture in Canada]. As my awareness of the built environment and architecture became more fine-tuned thanks to the training I was receiving in Italy, I would come back to Canada, during whether it was Christmas or the summer, and I would notice things with totally fresh eyes. For example, an urban issue: at the time, my parents lived in Mississauga and so I would routinely take the Gardiner Expressway into downtown Toronto. As we know, that’s a late 50s, early 60s kind of infrastructure project. But what it did basically was interrupt what would have been a much more scenic drive along the lake front, and I would routinely take this shortcut without actually having realized what a detriment that was to my experience of coming into the city. I remember that moment where I decided that I would, in a way, see, at least the city that I thought I knew best, Toronto, with new eyes, and the example of [the Gardiner Expressway] is one of them.

The Gardiner Expressway, Toronto, ON

The other kind of significant sort of event that really changed my view of Canadian architecture was the competition surrounding Mississauga City Hall. That was a transformational moment for Mississauga which, at the time, was basically a sort of rather generic bedroom community without a very strong civic or architectural presence. I remember the site construction was just adjacent to what was called then Square One Shopping Mall, this very generic, automobile-centric shopping mall, and then you know, this City Hall that tried to engage both mythical and real realities of urban and rather urban and rural Ontario. It was a real eye opener. […] I had a very generic kind of experience living in the suburbs of Mississauga even before the Mississauga City Hall, and it kick-started my interest in how you could combine modern architecture and urban design with certain layers of meaning and identity as they related to the specific population with considerable amount of invention or inventing tradition, as it were.

Mississauga City Hall

It took me years to unpack or identify what it was that I was feeling through an architectural lens. My experience visiting the Moriyama wing of the University of Toronto, Mississauga campus, which was located on a site adjacent to the Credit River. I was a very ambitious high school student that wanted to access books that the high school library didn’t always have. I would occasionally make my way to what seemed like a very adult place, the university campus. At the time, it was still a fledgling campus. One of the main buildings there was the Moriyama. It was a multifunctional building – I believe it was a combination of student union, library, and classrooms. What intrigued me was, or what I felt welcoming about that space, was that it made no overt association to the two European-based founding traditions and languages commonly seen in Canada: on the one hand, of course, the Anglo tradition seen in some of the Georgian architecture and some of the French classicism and Beaux Arts both seen, for example, at the University of Toronto campus downtown, or elsewhere in Toronto, for that matter.

New College, University of Toronto Mississauga Campus, Raymond Moriyama

And so, to enter this building, which was a low-hung, reinforced concrete, poured-in-place building that had views onto the ravine, there was something welcoming and not foreboding about that space. I unpack that to understand that there was something special in the Moriyama building because there weren’t explicit references to the architectural traditions that I didn’t really identify with in other buildings in Canada, because of my parents’ Italian immigrant heritage. I later understood this building to be somewhere in its connection with the land that belongs to everyone in Canada, and foremost, belongs to the Indigenous peoples.  

I think those are the three most formative moments where I both embraced architecture and I embraced architecture in Canada.

I think those are the three most formative moments where I both embraced architecture and I embraced architecture in Canada.

—Michelangelo Sabatino

You’ve used the term “architecture in Canada” and not “Canadian architecture” … can you expand on that?

Now I like to just to be clear, I think it’s a very slippery slope to use [the term] “Canadian architecture.” I like to think that it’s a more open-ended way of referring to buildings in Canada. I like to say there is not so much a “Canadian architecture,” but “architecture in Canada,” because I think that the relationship with the political and cultural construct that is Canada means that there is often not a linear relationship between that and the buildings there. Many of the professional Canadian architects of the 50s, 60s, and 70s were emigres. They were initially from England or Scotland and later, there were more European emigres—think of Moshe Safdie, who immigrated to Canada via Israel to Montreal.

There are so many European architects as well that focused on [British] immigration. For example, I curated a small exhibition on Eric Arthur, who was an important proponent of all things Canadian, an architect, an educator, and a preservationist. Eric Arthur was originally from Australia, and he had been trained at Liverpool, with Riley, and then he made his way to Toronto. This whole Commonwealth moment is very significant to architecture in Canada during the early part of the 20th century, and then that kind of began to shift, I would say, toward much more a European moment. We begin to witness through the examples of Van Ginkel, or Safdie, or Eberhard Zeidler from Germany, a lot of immigration from Europe and that also changes that kind of profile of architecture in Canada. The one example I like to make is of ARCOP, which was a group of folks whose backgrounds included Greek, French, and Polish origins, among others. So again, it’s always difficult to [just] use “Canadian architecture” as a term.  

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