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The Philosophy of Etienne Gaboury

The empty vastness of the prairies is evoked in Etienne Gaboury's emphasis on the void as the central core of architecture and space as the fundamental basis of all architectural philosophy: "space structured to serve man and to move him," [1] he defines his art. The structural system devised by the architect, the building materials employed, and the orchestration of light are to be used not to fill space but to shape and order it and to redefine it through the massing and joining of forms. Gaboury insists that the art of building is an inherently philosophical endeavour, an act of creation which must be certain of its own reason for being before it may be allowed to alter the space in which it will dwell. Invoking Le Corbusier, Gaboury states that "the true creative process" is "a patient search, the search for meaningful form - the search for the ultimate or inner reality of things." [2] Once this inner reality has been determined, it is the task of the architect to make that intrinsic form extrinsic, to introduce human initiative into nature's vacuum and forge a union which dignifies them both; edifices which simultaneously pay honour to the spaces they inhabit while intimating new potentials for human existence within those spaces.

In the design and building process, Gaboury insists on following nature's lead. "A course in fundamentals of design would seem to me quite adequate if it was based solely on analysis in depth of the structure, growth and inner functions of a tree, and on how nature has expressed these various aspects, how nature has solved some of her problems," he writes. "We would then perhaps be less confused in trying to understand what is meant by design, what is the basis for beauty." [3] For Gaboury, beauty is an innate aspect of necessity. The arrangement of parts within a hierarchy of functions provides balance in nature, and so should it provide balance in architecture. To conceal a building's essential functions is to tamper with the natural harmony which is its model, and consequently to debase its natural beauty. Likening the mechanical system of a building to the body's inner systems, Gaboury reminds us that "exposed and expressed [in the human body] are those parts which link the internal system to the exterior. The nose, as the aperture to the respiratory system, is fully expressed and has a form completely consistent with its requirements. The nose is such an important and integral part of the face that, without this protuberance, a face is less beautiful." [4] The most utilitarian no less than the most expressive considerations of a building are inherent in its intrinsic form, and should thus be incorporated into the extrinsic.

This fidelity to the functional and aesthetic harmonies of nature is the impetus behind Gaboury's demand for a regionalism of design and style. "How many wonderful opportunities have been lost to directly express in architectural forms the forces of nature on our buildings?" writes Gaboury. "Why not let them be a source of inspiration? Why not let them be expressed directly and imaginatively rather than trying to compensate with technical 'fixes'?" [5] (One can hear an echo of Frank Lloyd Wright's impassioned lament against the modern world's "blind infatuation with the Expedient - this deadly, grinding spoliation of the Beautiful."[6]) To artificially insulate ourselves from the effects of nature is to repress and deny the very "reality of things" [7] which architecture should express: the honest relationship between nature and humanity.

Regionalism in architecture is not merely an issue of practicality in dealing with the elements, it is an expression of culture, of human character. Reviewing a series of buildings designed for native reservations by the Hodne/Stageberg Partners, Gaboury takes issue with some of their design concepts but concludes that "Criticisms notwithstanding, there is a momentum to the whole experience that reaches beyond functional preoccupations or architectural details. These projects have become symbolic beacons, rallying points for a people in search of direction, identity and, perhaps most of all, pride. . . in their search for symbolic and spiritual value, [they have] a significance that carries far beyond the confines of the reservation." [8] As Gaboury attests, these values are essential if architecture is to retain its inner humanity in the face of a rapidly changing world: "A man who inhabits a space for thirty years will emerge deeply affected by that space. If it is a work of art he should emerge enriched by it, a more enlightened and sensitive human being." [9] It is to this end that Gaboury directs his own strikingly distinctive designs, searching out and defining in wood, steel and concrete "the spiritual content of architecture - which is finally the only true measure of architecture." [10]


  1. Etienne Gaboury, "Towards a Prairie Architecture", Prairie Forum (Vol.5, No.2, Fall 1980), p.237.
  2. "Towards a Prairie Architecture", p.240.
  3. Gaboury, "Wood: Design Considerations", Canadian Architect (Vol.10, No.11, November 1965), p.39.
  4. "Towards a Prairie Architecture", p.245.
  5. "Towards a Prairie Architecture", p.246.
  6. Frank Lloyd Wright, "Louis Henry Sullivan: Beloved Master", Prairie School Architecture: Studies from 'The Western Architect' (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1975), p.303.
  7. "Towards a Prairie Architecture", p.245.
  8. Gaboury, "Amerindian Identity", Architectural Review Vol.167, No.1002, August 1980), p.83.
  9. "Towards a Prairie Architecture", p.237.
  10. "Amerindian Identity", p.83.

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