Canadian Identity

An interesting fact about our little niche is the number of Canadians working in it. So how to explain why in a concise way. The middle of this essay does a great job explaining some elements of the Canadian relationship to “identity.” It is by Canadian Designer Bruce Mau’s and begins on page 285 of his book Life Style about his design firm’s work for 15 years from 1985-2000. (I wrote and asked for permission to publish it on my blog and they said yes so here it is.)

The United States of Switzerland

I should have known.
There was something about the tone of the letter. The Swiss organizers want this architecture conference to be as important as the World Economic Summit in Davos. Some things are better left unsaid. Our hosts have asked three important architects, Rem Koolhaas, Jaques Hertzog, and Norman Foster, to invite guests for one of three days of events. My reason for being here is an invitation from Rem.

He has also invited Mark Leonard – the brains behind Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” branding campaign. In a hastily arranged conference call a few days earlier, Rem had explained that we should each address the issue of identity form our various perspectives – a British politician, a Dutch architected and a Canadian designer.

The day begins with a musical composition inspired by the work of the invited architects. Fortunately, I sleep a little late this morning. However, I arrive in time for Marc Leonard to take the stage. He is brilliant. A classic motivational speaker. He roams the stage asking rhetorical questions about who the British think they are and how the rest of the world sees Britain; he then proceeds to answer these questions with flashes of statistical insight. He winds up his performance with several “scenarios.”

Rem presents his research on African urbanism. (To see images of Nigerian squalor in a conference center in Pontrasina in profoundly incongruous.) My presentation address the mechanisms and metaphors with which identity is produced. I announce that we will be running and identity workshop using the scenarios methods we have evolved in the studio in order to redesign the identity of Switzerland.
Tough crowd, the Swiss.

For Canadians, the subject of identity is one of endless fascination. On the one hand we define ourselves by doubt as to who we are, and not on the other by certainly who we are not. We are not the United States. In the part of Canada known as The Rest of Canada – not Quebec – most of our free energy is spent not promoting or celebrating who we are, but rather in trying in vain to discover or invent ourselves.

Former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau once said, “Living next to the United States is in some way like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” This is the principle fact of Canadian identity. We live next door to the source of global culture. Our two nations share:
The world’s longest undefended border
The world’s highest dollar value of bilateral trade
One telephone country code – a stroke of genius on our part
And with NAFTA greater and greater access to each other’s markets.

We supply the United States with a disproportionate share of their cultural commentators and comedians, from Marshall McLuhan and John Kenneth Galbraith to Mike Myers and Jim Carrey. It is precisely this volatile mix of doubt and certainty that gives rise to such figures in Canada. In an unpublished article about Toronto filmmaker David Cronenburg, Jonathan Crary describes the relationship of Cronenburg to Hollywood (i.e., of Canadians to the United States) as that of the termite to the log. The termite can eat the log, he can ingest it, regurgitate it, crawl on its surface or burrow through it, but he cannot become the log. As Canadians, we are not the United Sates.

The other fact of Canadian identity is the Quebec question – we even express certainties as questions. Once the cultural, business and intellectual center of Canada, Quebec is now a province governed by ethnic nationalists. Quebec has been in decline for more then twenty years, with no bottom in sight. An atlas from the 1960’s, before the Quiet Revolution (what other country could produce such a term?), shows the population of Montreal twice that of Toronto. Today the situation is reversed, with much of the intellectual and economic capital having been transferred west to Toronto.

These nationalist identities rise and reassert themselves as a kind of tribalism just as they are being erased by new seemingly unstoppable forces that perforate the nation-state. Operating the largest possible scale, massively complex and widely distributed corporate entities are emerging that challenge the ability of the nation-state to control and regulate them. At work practices, which are mobile and impalpable, to challenge even the state’s capacity to monitor its smallest unit, the individual citizen. The times like this, masses retreat into mythologies.

Now for Switzerland.
I present seven scenarios – metaphors or models for rethinking the Swiss identity. It’s meant as an exercise, a way of thinking freely that allows us to focus on a problem with almost cartoon-like clarity. What if Switzerland is:

An entertaining new product in the market?
A center of high culture?
An inclusive, nurturing, liberal institution?
The bastion of the old and new establishment?
An entrepreneur?
An archive?
A Leading-edge think tank?

During a short break, our hosts insist that we conduct our workshop in the forest. The entire assembly begins a slow procession down through the town and into the forest. This is Switzerland. Crisp clear mountain air, neatly manicured nature, a system of pathways – with signage – and, deep in the forest, a rustic amphitheater surrounding by towering pines. The stage in somehow already set: two chairs at a long table with a pristine white tablecloth and candelabras.

Rem and I take the stage and define the rules of the game” each participant is to choose one of the seven scenarios and form a group with likeminded individuals. Each group is to brainstorm a new Swiss identity based on their chosen metaphor. Rem and I move from group to group in an effort to assist the process. In every group we encounter one stubborn player struck on what for them was a fundamental fact.

Angry Swiss architect: “Switzerland hand a perfectly good identity. I don’t see why we have to make a new identity for Switzerland.”
Koolhaas: “Cuckoo clocks and chocolate?”

Mau: “Look, it’s an exercise; we’re not really going to change your identity.” What is surprising is the ferocious intensity of the discussion. The group working on Switzerland and an archive nearly comes to blows as the young participants try in vain to get out from under the weight of Swiss dogma and history. What is evident is that identity, though constantly negotiated, is not negotiable. It’s not something the citizen is willing to trade. It consists of a complex set of equations that define a place in the world, and any action or event that disrupts or alters those equations can set off uncontrollable forces.

In one of the groups someone suggests that through a simple process of naming we could express a new sensibility for Switzerland. Rem immediately takes hold of this thread and weaves into an idea. Moving from group to group we prod and cajole new names from each metaphor. Rem’s talent for making a silk purse has never been more clearly evident. Finally we take the stage and announce the success of each group in tackling their challenge.

From group one: “Swissland” (in bold italic lettering), an entertaining new product in the market.

From group three: “Switzerlands” (like The Netherlands), an inclusive, nurturing, liberal institution.

And finally, from group seven: a nation defined as a leading-edge think tank – “The United States of Switzerland.”