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the architourist

Filmmaker Ron Chapman tells the story of Canadian architects who had to save their money in order to design their buildings.Chapman Productions

Of the handful of memories I have of builder/philanthropist Abraham (Al) Green, one stands out: while leading a Sculptors Society of Canada walking tour of sculptures placed around Mr. Green’s high rises in the Yonge-Davisville area - by Sorel Etrog, Maryon Kantaroff and Al Green himself - a 12- or 15-year-old Cadillac pulled up. Dressed in rumpled sweater and squinting in the sunlight, Mr. Green quietly joined our tour group.

But, rather than offer insight (or correct me), he simply listened with interest as I parroted things he’d told me the year before. After a few stops, and feeling increasing intimidated by his presence, I introduced him to the crowd of 40 or 50 people and said: “Of course he can explain this better than I can.”

To that, Mr. Green simply shook his head and answered: “Oh no, you’re doing a great job; I’m just here to listen.”

In the 15 or so years since then and with dozens of interviews with other developers under my belt, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mr. Green’s humility is commonplace. Filmmaker Ron Chapman agrees.

“It was one of the big moments for me in the film,” he says of Shelter, which opened the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on June 3 and will run on Omni Television this month. “Mendel Tenenbaum [co-founder of the Tenen Group in 1956] did not want to be interviewed – I pursued him and pursued him – [but] he had no interest.” It was only after his daughter, Sally Tenenbaum, gave an interview that Mr. Tanenbaum, then in his 90s, acquiesced. But, even as the film opens and the screen is still black, he can be heard saying, “So who cares?” about his story.

That many of us will care is something Mr. Chapman is banking on. And one big reason is that no matter the builder – Sam Brown or Jack Weinbaum or Jack Buchman – the stories are strikingly similar: “You go from them living in comfort in some place over in Europe with a huge family … how they got through the war, how they didn’t get through the war … to landing here with nothing, and then rebuilding family, rebuilding community, and helping build the city,” says Mr. Chapman. “It’s staggering,”

Indeed, before Mr. Chapman tells of one brick being laid in Canada, he spends the first 47 minutes of the documentary painting a very frightening picture of loss. When the viewer is finally brought into the 1950s, we learn that many of Toronto’s future builders began as sewing machine repair-people, amateur house-flippers, or furriers-turned-housepainters. Saving, scrimping and pooling their resources, it was off to the banks to get loans.

“The banks were sympathetic to hard-working immigrants,” says Edwin Merkur in the film.

Soon, entire farms are being purchased and companies such as Cadillac Construction Associates are being founded (through re-enactments, we see Eph Diamond and Joseph Berman admiring Jack Kamin’s Cadillac to find inspiration for the name).

“To me, community was a key word throughout this,” explains Mr. Chapman. “It wasn’t the story of one builder, it was about what they did as a community.”

And speaking of community, another film of Mr. Chapman’s, From Earth to Sky, will premiere on TVO on National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, 2021. Unfortunately, this community is much, much smaller.

Brian Porter of Two Row Architect, says there aren't enough Indigenous architects in the industry.Chapman Productions

“You’d have a spare thumb and maybe a spare finger” if you counted Ontario’s Indigenous architects using both hands, says architect Brian Porter, 60, of Two Row Architect, which is based in Ohsweken, Ont. “There are a few that have graduated, there are a few that are interning, so there will be more in the next few years. But two hands would do right now.”

So, with little choice, Mr. Chapman beings this film by introducing us to “The Elder,” Douglas Cardinal, Canada’s first Indigenous architect, who describes how his mother, a non-Indigenous woman, was told by a priest that if she brought her children up as Catholic maybe “it would absolve her from her sinful life of being married to a savage.”

Mr. Cardinal also tells of attending a residential school, but quickly moves on to when he was accepted at the University of British Columbia, who then told him he’d never become an architect (Mr. Cardinal would go on to design the Canadian Museum of History across from Parliament Hill). Sadly, it’s a common occurrence expressed by other interviewees, such as Vancouver-based Patrick Stewart, who tells of how he loved buildings as early as kindergarten but was told “I wasn’t smart enough, I wouldn’t succeed” and, further, how an administrator at Simon Fraser University said admitting him must’ve been a mistake.

The Canadian Museum of History, designed by Douglas Cardinal.Chapman Productions

“I was told no in high school,” says Mr. Porter during our interview. “I was told to go into engineering or fine arts.” It doesn’t help, Mr. Porter says in the film, that “there were no role models … it wasn’t like you could go on Google and type in ‘Indigenous architect’ and see what would come up.”

Of course, these days, we can call Indigenous architecture at will, but the images likely won’t look as good as those framed by Mr. Chapman’s camera. From the contemporary long house built for Puyallup Nation by Seattle architect Daniel Glenn, or the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, B. C. – which combines the ideas of a First Nations winter house and a longhouse by architect Alfred Waugh – the camera caresses overall forms via drone shots, then tantalizes viewers with detail shots so crisp and textured they want to reach out and touch their screen.

Architect Alfred Waugh designed the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, B. C.Chapman Productions

And all of that while haunting music weaves in and out like an additional character (the spirits of the elders, perhaps?). “I think it’s used very well to punctuate certain things,” agrees Mr. Porter of the soundtrack. “I think that ties a lot of it together … so even though we’re coming from these distinct geographic regions, I think it’s impossible not to see connections and overlap.”

There’s overlap between the two films, also, finishes the director, Mr. Chapman: “People in the Shelter film, they lost everything, families were killed … they barely got through alive, and with our Indigenous people, it’s the same thing, they lost their families, they had their culture taken away.

“And yet, both of them, resilient populations … [found] a way to give back to this planet, to build community.”

Shelter will be available beginning June 17 on Rogers on Demand.

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