Few architects have enriched the country with such distinctive exuberance as Dan Hanganu. The Romanian-born, Montreal-based architect, who died on Oct. 5 at the age of 78, led the life of the proverbial successful immigrant, seizing Canadian opportunities and adopting the country's essential values while letting the culture of his homeland inform his work. His landmark projects are almost all in Quebec, but they have generated strong international acclaim.
Deeply influenced by his early life and training in Romania, Mr. Hanganu sought a counterpoint to what he saw as the formulaic rigidity of conventional modern architecture. This ethos would drive the design of his 1992 breakout project, Montreal's Pointe-à-Callière archeology museum, designed in consortium with Provencher Roy. A limestone-clad triangular building with a jogged cylindrical prow, it literally reveals the city's history by showcasing actual archeological remnants embedded in the lower floor, with exhibition and educational spaces on the upper floors.
Dan Sergiu Hanganu was born in Iasi, Romania, on Jan. 27, 1939. He studied architecture at the University of Bucharest, which was heavily focused on Classicism and Russian Socialist Realism at the time. In a 2010 interview with this reporter, Mr. Hanganu recalled that the history and tenets of Modernism, which Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had launched in the Bauhaus in the 1920s and which had spread throughout the Western world, was completely left out of the university curriculum in Romania. "My education was run by the communists – and for the communists, history stopped at the Russian Revolution 1917 and started again with the Second World War," he said. "But for what I should be forever grateful is that they gave us a very strong classical base." His education included three years spent studying Greek and Roman architecture, whose influence would permeate much of his work as conceptual versions of base, shaft and cornice.
After receiving his diploma in 1961, Mr. Hanganu remained several years in Bucharest to work and teach architecture at the school. He worked for one of Romania's most important architects, Nicolae Porumbescu. Mr. Hanganu credited Mr. Porumbescu with teaching him the composition of negative space – the voids, recessed openings and breezeways of his work that help make it so visually distinctive.
He met his future wife, Anca, while she was a student at the University of Bucharest while he was teaching there. In the 2010 interviews, Mr. Hanganu recounted the complex and sometimes emotional process of the couple's departure from their native Romania for better opportunities, while still carrying with them those early values from their native culture. They lived in Paris for almost a year, where Mr. Hanganu worked for a local firm, but he soon found himself itching to settle in North America, which was still seen as an idealized "New World."
In 1970, the couple married and immigrated to Canada, landing in Toronto. Mr. Hanganu's first view of the city was dominated by the sight of Mies van der Rohe's sleekly minimalist new Toronto-Dominion Centre, whose black towers then dominated the downtown vista. While much of the world was swooning over what they saw as the apogee of high modernism, Mr. Hanganu found it regressive rather than progressive. "I arrived at 6 o'clock in the morning in [Union] Station, and then I saw what looked like electrical wooden posts, all black, soaring into heaven, and I thought: '… That's so 15th century!'"
Mr. Hanganu spent a year in Toronto working for Bregman and Hamann Architects, but he bemoaned both the predictable orthogonal bulkiness of the firm's work and, even more, what he saw as the homogeneously dull culture of Toronto itself. The couple resettled in Montreal, where Mr. Hanganu worked for the architect Victor Prus, while Anca Hanganu worked for Arcop Architects. They loved Montreal's vibrant culture and eclectic urban fabric – plus, everyone spoke French: "Music to my ears," he said.
Within a decade of moving to Montreal, Mr. Hanganu honed his reputation with a series of elegant low-rise residential projects, notably the 1980-81 brick terrace housing project on Nuns' Island in Montreal, and the Parc Quesnel, built in the city two years later. In the new book Dan Hanganu: Works 1981-2015 (to which this reporter contributed an essay), renowned architectural historian Kenneth Frampton praised Mr. Hanganu's skill in using voids and recessed openings to create a dramatic visual effect in this early work. "After more than three decades," concluded Mr. Frampton, "these low-rise, high-density housing schemes remain among the most exemplary residential developments built in North America."
Mr. Hanganu also taught at the architecture schools of McGill University and the University of Montreal, inspiring a new generation of free-thinking architects. As his firm grew, he took on progressively more ambitious and larger-scale projects, many of them in the cultural sector, always inflecting the work with his uniquely exuberant design approach.
Among Mr. Hanganu's Montreal landmarks are the HEC Montreal business school (with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte Architects, 1996); the Cirque du Soleil headquarters (1997); the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec (2000, with Provencher Roy); and the Marc-Favreau Library (2013). Elsewhere, he and his team designed the Abbey Church of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (1994); and, in Quebec City, the Pavillon Espace 400e and the Monique-Corriveau Library (2008 and 2013 respectively, both with Côté Leahy Caras Architects). More recently, the firm has begun working in China, India, Georgia and his native Romania.
Mr. Hanganu received dozens of honours and awards for his work, including Governor-General's Medals for Pointe-à-Callière, Saint-Benoît-du-Lac and the Quebec archives. He received the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas in 1992 and the RAIC/Architecture Canada Gold Medal in 2008. He was named an officer of the Ordre national du Québec in 2005 and a member of the Order of Canada in 2009. The monograph Dan Hanganu: Works 1981-2015 was recently published by Dalhousie Architectural Press and is expected to further raise the profile of his life and work.
To many, Mr. Hanganu remains most closely associated with visually unusual architecture, such as HEC Montreal. Distinguished by conventionally beautiful elements, such as a curvilinear four-storey-high glass wall looking out onto a copse of towering trees, HEC is also noteworthy for its unconventional colonnade of free-standing steel columns that stop before they reach the ceiling of the portico above them. Some rigid modernists bristle at metal columns that support nothing, but the columns are secretly functional in that they contain the building's exhaust pipes for the building.
As always, Mr. Hanganu was unapologetic about breaking convention. "I set up the rules and then I take a great pleasure in ignoring them, in making a joke," he said, "But I want you to know that I know the rules."
He leaves his wife, Anca; his daughters, Simona and Karina; and two grandsons.