By Peter Richardson, Douglas Richardson, Firefly Books, 2007 Reviewed by Stephen Rowe.
One can appreciate Peter and Douglas Richardson’s sumptuously illustrated (with 400 photographs by John De Visser) Canadian Churches: An Architectural History and see this as another beautiful coffee table book that has arrived just in time for the holiday gift giving season that can rest comfortably next to “Boat Houses of Muskoka” or the latest product by Robert Bateman, but this would be to sell the book seriously short. The Richardson brothers provide us not only with a comprehensive geographical and chronological survey of Canada’s Christian sacred buildings but also place these monuments to faith in both a theological and sociological context. One of the book’s strengths is the authors willingness tell not only the story of the Anglican Churches journey from austere neo-classicism to the romantic medievalism of the Arts and Crafts movement or the seemly inevitable triumph of the Baroque in Roman Catholic Quebec but also to include the history of the Orthodox Church on the Prairies that begins with modest wood framed onion domed missions and ends with some of the most spectacular modern Churches to be found anywhere in Canada. The book recognizes the importance of the humble parish church as well as the cathedral, in fact the book presents us with a dazzling variety of modest wood frame buildings ranging from nonconformist meeting houses to extravagant Victorian carpenter gothic. We are also treated to a chapter on the Byzantium revival in Ontario and the role the group of seven played in the decoration of Saint Anne’s in Toronto.Space is also found for spectacular eccentric structures like the famous “Round Church” St. George’s in Halifax or Ontario’s majestic Sharon Temple that sit well outside our Palladian or gothic main stream. The Richardsons do not limit themselves only to Churches (they include a lovely photo essay on Manitoba’s remarkable collection of Eastern Rite bell towers). Howeverone does wish that the authors might have broadened their scope further to have also include a section on the remarkable monastic buildings of 18th century Quebec and although they define the concept of church broadly enough to include a fabulous prairie style Mormon temple in Alberta they include only synagogues that have been converted into Churches and as a result miss one of Canada’s finest sacred building Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. Although architects and historians will appreciate the book’s comprehensive survey of mid-century modernism (in both it expressionist concrete, rustic brick and woodenmanifestations) the casual reader would probably have preferred to see more work by contemporary architects. Scholars and practitioners may have wished for detailed plans and sections for many of the buildings. However these are mere quibbles, the Richardson’s have produced a remarkable document that deserves the widest possible audience.- Stephen Rowe – is a Toronto architect with Stanford Downey Architect Inc.