Modern Savoir-Faire: Ernest Cormier, “Architect and Engineer-Constructor,” and Architecture’s Representational Constructions

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Modern Savoir-Faire: Ernest Cormier, “Architect and Engineer-Constructor,” and Architecture’s Representational Constructions

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Title: Modern Savoir-Faire: Ernest Cormier, “Architect and Engineer-Constructor,” and Architecture’s Representational Constructions
Author: Economides, Aliki
Citation: Economides, Aliki. 2015. Modern Savoir-Faire: Ernest Cormier, “Architect and Engineer-Constructor,” and Architecture’s Representational Constructions. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: This dissertation is a historical study of the life and work of French-Canadian architect and engineer, Ernest Cormier (1885-1980), who is considered to be among the most important Canadian architects of his generation, yet about whom relatively few scholarly studies exist. In light of the range of issues raised by Cormier’s work and their degree of importance to an understanding of Canadian culture at large during the first half of the twentieth century, this dissertation argues that no other architect operating in Canada during the interwar period made a contribution that touched on so many salient issues as Cormier did.
A cosmopolitan figure who tapped into everything available to him, Cormier’s multidisciplinary practice spanned over five decades in his native city of Montréal, and reflects his synthesis of diverse influences, his role as an agent of cultural transfer, and his remarkable degree of savoir-faire in everything he undertook. Entrusted with important commissions at local, national and international levels, Cormier’s contribution merits further study both as a milestone in the development of architecture in Canada, and for what it reveals about the charged sociocultural dynamics of Montréal at that time, which was then the cultural and economic capital of the country.
Cormier was particularly active during the interwar period, which was an important time in the advent of cultural modernity in the province of Québec, and in the development of a national consciousness among French Canadians. Focused primarily on the close study of two very different yet interrelated projects by Cormier that date from this period, this dissertation contends that the house he designed for himself (1930-31) and the main pavilion of the Université de Montréal (1924-43) are his most important works, both for what they reveal about his sustained commitments as well as for the innovative ways in which they address the conditions of modernity, and thus, critically illuminate the opportunities and constraints of their time and place.
Heavily reliant on the study of archival materials alongside empirical analyses of the buildings, and readings from a range of interdisciplinary sources in order to take account of the work’s meaning and significance within and beyond architecture culture, a central leitmotif of this study is the theme of ‘construction’ construed both as a preoccupation internal to Cormier’s oeuvre and as a theoretical orientation driving my analysis of his work. In the first instance, the figure of the constructeur [constructor] is incorporated into Cormier’s professional title to better align himself with French architecture and engineering culture, particularly with the work of Auguste Perret, whom he greatly admired. As well, for Cormier, construction in the sense of building things, is inseparable from design, and finds sustained expression in his deep curiosity for how things are made, his investment in making at all scales across diverse métiers and media, and his exacting standards for all of his work to be well executed. Finally, keenly attendant to architecture’s communicative function, this dissertation examines the profound representational role played by the Cormier residence and the Université de Montréal in the construction of identity at the respective scales of the individual and that of a collective.
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