Perusing the van Ginkel Associates archive may lead to one of two conclusions. Either H.P.D. van Ginkel and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel—Dutchman and Canadian, husband and wife, architects and city planners, influential pedagogues and informal policymakers, early adherents of the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM) and instigators of its splinter faction Team 10—cared little about architecture qua architecture or they radically (if unknowingly) redefined what it meant to design in the mid-twentieth century. In each case, the act of building ceded first to planning and then to writing. The van Ginkels’ archive contains little evidence of techniques inherent to their discipline. As opposed to sketches and models, one discovers reams of paper—and plenty of it: technical cut sheets, engineering reports, aerial surveys, and government documents guiding countless and largely unexecuted studies. Save for a few magazine pieces and a handful of schemes in the early 1960s, the van Ginkels rarely suggested what exactly a building or a town should look like. They tended to prescribe only preconditions: economic viability, sociological content, geotechnical formation. Words replaced drawings.
This substitution of techniques complicates interpretation. What gave the van Ginkels aesthetic pleasure? It is difficult to know. What inspired them? It remains at times hard to tell. This is an archive almost devoid of lively correspondence (except business letters), photographs, and even sketches. It feels oddly impersonal. Parts are undoubtedly missing. Perhaps the architects refused to keep the whole lot. Possibly they refrained from donating every last bit. Nevertheless one thing is certain: from what is available—and it is a lot—a portrait emerges of how architects, in this case a duo that once circulated among the avant-garde, proposed to totally transform the Canadian landscape during the immediate postwar decades. Theirs would be a project of marrying visionary urban thought to statist dictate. The results were breathtaking in ambition, mind-numbing in detail, and puzzling in the absence of artistic intent. What follows is a stab at making sense of architects without architecture.
The van Ginkels established an office in Montreal in the late 1950s. Initially they kept pace with the norms and forms of North American urban design. This partly stemmed from Lemco van Ginkel’s teaching appointments at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, beachheads of CIAM doctrine in America. Subsequent schemes such as Central Area Circulation and Man in the City (an original proposal for Expo 67) relied on typical instruments, not least arts acropolises, of “urban renewal” (euphemism for slum clearance). Little was realized (though they saved Mount Royal from development and Old Montreal from demolition). Arguably their most radical statement on the city appeared in reflections on the automobile compiled by Lemco van Ginkel for a special issue of Canadian Art in January 1962. With a tour-de-force juxtaposition of photographs, graphics, and abstract art, the issue emphasized a kinetic and kinaesthetic ordering of the world by speed and motion. It echoed influential efforts such as the painter Gyorgy Kepes’s The New Landscape of Art and Science (1956) and the planner Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City (1960) that advocated “pattern seeing,” an act of aligning works of art and natural phenomena on a shared plane of formal inquiry and aesthetic wonder. Resulting gestalt, the discovered clarity between parts and wholes, granted the means to navigate the information overload of contemporary life.
The van Ginkels never again advanced the impressions collected in Canadian Art. Yet they soon proved themselves to be skilled purveyors of information. Design ceased to be the delineation of three-dimensional space for human occupation. Design became an unwavering commitment to facts, figures, and process. Consider an airport study prepared in 1966. Their goal was twofold: to anticipate the enlargement of Montreal’s airport and to imagine an entirely new airfield far outside the city. In an era marked by the celebrated TWA terminal and the romance of intercontinental travel, the van Ginkels showed little interest in heroic architectures of flight. They looked quite simply at the turning radii of jetliners. Analysis after analysis generated by compass and protractor effectively reduced airplanes to efficiently packed objects that produced the perfected profile of a terminal wing or jet bridge (never drawn in volume but always in silhouette). Form rarely mattered; economies of scale did. How much? How many? How fast? It might have seemed peculiar (if not dispiriting) that an entire airport could be reduced to a baggage handling circuit. The goal was abundantly clear: eliminate lingering friction to facilitate seamless movement. Without using the term “entropy,” the van Ginkels’ diagrams and descriptions betray an enthusiasm for systems theory rife in the postwar human sciences. Systems thinking—a view of organization that applies principles of biological self-regulation (feedback) to machines and society—was upheld by many as crucial to a successful welfare state. Only scientific method (non-ideological and above political partisanship) could ensure the proper statist management of resources on the way to a conflict-free nation. Tradition was thus replaced by technocrats.
The van Ginkels were part and parcel of such thinking. Their patrons were governments and at times corporations. Their approach was one of measurement, quantification, and contingency. Enumerate. Calculate. Tabulate. Equate. Solve. Throughout the 1960s the van Ginkels relinquished conventions of architectural representation for words and numbers. Tables. Charts. Ledgers. Matrices. Diagrams. Statistical veracity would convince civil servants or politicians empowered to change to things at the stroke of pen. The feasibility study replaced the design charrette. The typewriter triumphed over the blueprint. The van Ginkels began to conceive the world at eight-and-a-half by eleven inches.
Upon opening their Winnipeg office around 1965, the van Ginkels became enmeshed in the Canadian resource economy. Projects assumed infinite scope. Things began to reach far beyond the city or the landscape to the size of the country itself. The outlook kept faith with Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s “Roads to Resources” program initiated some years earlier (and nurtured over the ensuing long Liberal reign coinciding with the van Ginkels’ professional life). “As far as the Arctic is concerned, how many of you here knew the pioneers in Western Canada,” Diefenbaker had asked during his 1958 election campaign.
I saw the early days here. Here in Winnipeg in 1903, when the vast movement was taking place into the Western plains, they had imagination. There is a new imagination now. The Arctic. We intend to carry out the legislative programme of Arctic research, to develop Arctic routes, to develop those vast hidden resources the last few years have revealed. Plans to improve the St Lawrence and the Hudson Bay route. Plans to increase self-government in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. We can see one or two provinces there.
The van Ginkels turned their attention northward. Potash extraction in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. Pipelines along the Mackenzie River valley. Nuclear-powered submarines ferrying oil via circumpolar routes. Their studies provided powers-that-be with promises of national rejuvenation.
In 1966 the van Ginkels addressed the relocation of communities in South Indian Lake, Manitoba, facing the damming of the Churchill River. Change was afoot, and skilled jobs would become plentiful. Even as they sympathised with “Indians” destined to lose traditional ways of life, the van Ginkels saw the abandoning of trap lines for industrial trades as intrinsic to modernization (in meeting minutes, they recognized but rarely lamented the relocation of children to residential schools). A decade later, when studying northern settlements, the van Ginkels may have undergone a change a heart. Rather than new towns, they recommended a continuous airlift of people and material. Fly teachers to Inuit communities, the van Ginkels reasoned, instead of sending children to southern schools. For an instant a network of commerce and infrastructure offered a potentially humane solution to crises of forcible assimilation and cultural impoverishment. The moment passed. The needs of Inuit, First Nations, and Métis (all earning, the van Ginkels noted, fractions of the income earned by “Whites”) mattered little in the great game of development. The van Ginkels, like so many architects and bureaucrats (good modernists all) understood the North not as terra incognita, unknown and unmapped, but as terra nullius, a realm where Indigenous Peoples existed but without title or sovereignty.
Were the van Ginkels imperialist agents? Assuredly not. Did they contribute to neocolonialist expansion? However unwittingly, yes. When the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a Crown corporation overseeing housing programs, invited the van Ginkels in 1958 to organize a never-executed traveling exhibition on design goods, they responded by drafting a lengthy free verse poem. Line after line conjured visions of progress:
This is Canada
Power from an abundance of water
Energy in coal and oil
Harbours on two great oceans
Wheat, timber and cattle
Iron, zinc, and lead, gold and uranium
The land is rich
Up the rivers we built a thousand towns
A thousand more followed the railway across the great plains
....and north now on the air routes, ....
Mechanization took command
New technology bore newer technology
Goods of all kinds for all people
Medical magic lengthens the life-span
More people, more goods, more productivity, more leisure
Stanzas on industry, science, and progress turned on CIAM secretary-general Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, an “anonymous history” of technology published in 1948. The ode to Canada revealed a profound belief in the transformative effect of mobilizing the land. This was not just an extension of van Ginkel’s Dutch disposition (having come from a country reclaimed from the sea). This was hardly Lemco van Ginkel’s veneration of expressways, flyovers, and cloverleaves (penned right before the country completed its transcontinental highway). The idea felt altogether bigger. Sometime in the late 1950s, upon departing Europe and settling in Montreal, H.P.D. van Ginkel exchanged letters with contacts at the University of Pennsylvania on the subject of “The Child in the City.” Otherwise describing the sensorial ambit of children and reminiscing about his Montessori education, van Ginkel appeared to be grappling with something entirely different. An unshakeable hunch, a manifesto of sorts, remained buried deep in a private diary:
As architects who have been working in the Congress Int. de l’Arch. Mod. we feel that what has been the dream for several decades can be brought to reality in Northern Canada—not in fantasy but out of strict requirements….
Housing, work, recreation, circulation: of the four abiding CIAM edicts only the last, now made to convey the incessant movement of peoples and things at truly terrestrial dimensions, could feed an appetite for reshaping territories thousands of kilometres long. Planes, trains, and automobiles belonged to the past. Pipelines, airlifts, and submarines brought the future. The van Ginkels no longer perceived things in ways common to architects. Orthographic precision and perspectival vastness surrendered to an Archimedean point. Instead of plans and sections, the van Ginkels drew maps. They came to see the world at 1:100,000.
Is there a lesson here? It may be too easy to say that the van Ginkels practiced “data mining” avant la lettre. Still there is something to this. They were after all genuine synthesizers of white papers, industrial data, and census figures. Yet the ambition mercifully never concluded in weird alchemical transmutations of digits into design. As such the steadfast dedication to planning gives pause. In a way van Ginkel Associates Architects and Town Planners embody something rather au courante—namely the trend to call an architecture firm an agency, a lab, a research office, or a think tank. The unfortunate rebranding, also rife in schools today, unhesitatingly borrows vernaculars of a postwar military-industrial complex in supposedly benign attempts at lending scientific authority to, well, competition entries. When the van Ginkels insisted—as they did in a 1972 prospectus for the Ginkelvan, an ill-fated shuttlebus to relieve urban congestion with a working prototype funded by the issue of stock—that their office comprised not simply architects and urbanists but also agronomists, economists, and sociologists, they meant it (even if exaggerated for promotion). They hoped in the end to become experts in the aid of country and culture. They never aimed at being fashionable.
Inderbir Singh Riar was in residence at CCA in May 2018 as part of Find and Tell, a program that promotes new readings that highlight the intellectual relevance of particular aspects of our collection today.
Projects in this essay
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