Designing the Banff School of Fine Arts: Where Nature and Culture Meet
PearlAnn Reichwein and Karen Wall explore the Banff School of Fine Arts campus as a postwar manifestation of an international modernist cultural landscape within a broader cultural landscape of a famous national park. They argue the construction of the campus reflects the intersections of capitalism and processes of spatialization in modernist Canada. By engaging Henri Lefebvre’s concepts about space as a cultural production from social relations and Jody Berland’s ideas of postwar Canadian modernism, Reichwein and Wall situate the Banff School of Fine Arts as a “significant space and cultural institution within a national park” that “mapped postwar international modernism onto Banff’s place identity and urban heritage.”
The Banff School grew out of the imagination of David Cameron, the director of the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension. He envisioned a “Salzburg of America,” that would combine the aesthetics of a mountain park with artistic capital to create a symbolic and cultural landscape. The school would function as a place of learning while being essential for Banff tourism on a national scale.
Initially, the University operated summer sessions in a public auditorium and shared space that belonged to the local school board. By the mid-1940s, summer enrolments had increased and the University of Alberta’s president, Robert Newton, sought to expand the school to capitalize on the scenic beauty of Banff. Cameron discovered a perfect site within a six-minute walk from Banff Ave that had “the finest view in Banff.” The St. Julien site was seen as a prestigious tourist amenity that would contribute to national development. The federal government would provide the land through a leasehold of one dollar per year. Reichwein and Wall believe the site reflected postwar national development discourse as school and federal officials constructed the urban landscape of Banff National Park.
In 1947 and 1953, the Banff School’s first buildings opened in an international-modernist style that incorporated flat roofs and large windows. Initial architectural drawings had portrayed traditionalist concepts, but art instructors had objected to these designs, arguing for more modern buildings. Others favoured the traditionalist designs, believing they were more suitable for a mountain environment. Reichwein and Wall question the international-modernist designs and wonder if they reflect an emphasis on universalism over unique local identities. Further, they ponder if the Salzburg dream assimilated into globalizing trends.
Reichwein and Wall argue the Banff School’s modernist construction found a place within the nostalgic traditional and rustic designs more commonly found in Canadian national parks. The campus’s “forward look” blended art and design into the mountain landscape and “showcased an urbanized cultural landscape as mountain beauty.” Art was considered essential to cultural capital and cultural landscape constructions in the Canadian Rockies and created complex spatial and social interactions. Within Banff, the school acted as space where “nature and culture met.”
Incorporating Lefebvre’s dialectics of space, Reichwein and Wall believe the Banff School can be understood as a process of power shaped by territory, imagination, and daily life. Art was seen as a way of knowing and nature was institutionalized within the campus landscape that blended Salzburg with ideas of cosmopolitan design. This urbanized campus acts as “a reminder of the politics of educational space.” Reichwein and Wall conclude by acknowledging the recent construction of the Kinnear Centre for Creativity in 2010 and demolition of Donald Cameron Hall in 2011. These developments reflect federal policies for neoliberal development and represent ideas of capitalist spatialization in Canada’s mountains. They believe the campus’s origins assist in defining arts and education as capital that enriches and diversifies economies through public spaces “of late modernity in the contemporary West.”
This is a summary article written by Michelle Murphy. For more information, please access the full document:
Reichwein, P. and Karen Wall. “Mountain Capitalists, Space, and Modernity at the Banff School of Fine Arts.” In Finding Directions West: Readings that Locate and Dislocate Western Canada’s Past, edited by George Colpitts and Heather Devine, 203-231. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017.