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The Biography of Etienne Gaboury

The youngest of a family of eleven children, Etienne Gaboury was born on April 24, 1930 to Napoléon Gaboury and Valentine Lafrenière, a farming couple from Swan Lake, Manitoba. The family boasted a long history of Canadian settlement in its ancestry: the first Gaboury, Antoine, had arrived in Pointes-aux-Trembles, Quebec, from La Rochelle, France in 1690. Among his descendants was Marie-Anne Gaboury, who with her husband Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière was one of the first 'white couples' in Western Canada. Their grandson, the mixed-blood Louis Riel, would later lead the Métis rebellion against the British government.

This legacy was to exert an inevitable, and ultimately fruitful, influence upon Etienne's life and work. The regionalist philosophy which would become the hallmark of Gaboury's architectural approach had its roots in his identity as a Franco-Manitoban. "The Latin influence [of my cultural background] is perhaps more emotional, perhaps gives rise to a certain type of sensitivity," he muses. "In a minority situation, you become very sensitive to the environment in which you work, and also to the importance of culture in your environment, because you're always confronted with that reality. All languages are a vehicle for the expression of certain values, and thus the emotional and expressive dimensions of a Franco-Manitoban are different from those of an English Manitoban, or a German Manitoban."

This cultural heritage, powerfully linked to the Roman Catholic tradition, would have a strong effect upon Gaboury's formative years living and working on his parents' farm and attending the local one-room schoolhouse, St. Gerard. Gaboury continued his education at the Roman Catholic convent of Bruxelles from 1943-44, and then at the Jesuit-run college of St. Boniface in 1944. After his father's death in 1947, he stayed at home for a year to help his mother and eldest brother, Gerard, on the farm. He returned to his studies in 1949 at the University of Manitoba, graduating in 1953 with a Bachelor of Arts in Latin Philosophy.

At this point, Gaboury's interests were primarily technical, sparked by both the practicalities of everyday existence on a farm ("the reality of things you have to cope with,") and by an innate fascination with the laws of mechanics. "I was always fascinated with mathematics and geometry. . . all aspects of technology are of particular interest to me: functionalism, the aspects of machinery, how things work," he relates. This inclination, and his strong academic performance in math and physics, initially led him towards a career in engineering, with the mechanical and aeronautical fields exerting a particularly strong pull. However, a new possibility was introduced to Gaboury by his spiritual and career advisor, Father Lucien Hardy. Noting Gaboury's aptitude for the arts, Hardy suggested that he might combine these talents with his technical abilities in the study of architecture.

While Gaboury had never embarked on any formal artistic study, he shared his family's passionate interest in music and had also demonstrated an innate skill in various drawings, paintings and woodcrafts during his grade school and college years. Encouraging the development of this nascent artistic sense, Hardy arranged a meeting between Gaboury and an architectural graduate from the University, Louis Gauthier, following which Gaboury decided to apply to the School of Architecture at the University of Manitoba. Having won several design awards and prizes during his studies, Gaboury graduated with a B.A. in 1958, and was subsequently awarded a Government of France bursary to attend the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

The radical contrast between Gaboury's North American and French studies would have a profound effect upon his ideas, and would return him to his home province with the primary motifs of his unique architectural philosophy already taking shape. In keeping with the mainstream of architectural study in North America, Gaboury's instruction at the University of Manitoba was primarily influenced by the strict functionalism of the Bauhaus movement. When he commenced his studies in Paris, however, Gaboury was exposed to "the exact opposite to what I'd learned [in North America]: a much freer, more fanciful approach, beyond materialistic - very open, much more conducive to spontaneity and exuberance." The "vehemence, the strength of expression" of this rich European tradition dovetailed with Gaboury's long-standing interest in the work of Le Corbusier, whom Gaboury admired not only for his flamboyance of expression but also for his emphasis on the spiritual and emotional content of architecture. Gaboury adopted Le Corbusier's maxim of "indescribable space", "the way of talking about the spirituality of space, the space you cannot contain, you cannot describe"; the necessary freedom of space as harnessed and expressed by the architect, as well as the intrinsic emotionalism of his designs. "If you don't have emotion in architecture," says Gaboury, "then it is not architecture. And not just emotion of the heart, but intellectual emotion as well. When a design is infused with these qualities, only then does it enter the realm of architecture; only then does it enter the realm of art."

These oft-neglected qualities of the art of building were to be of vital importance to Gaboury's evolution as an architect and an artist. Moving away from the restrictive functionalism of the Bauhaus, Gaboury began to shape his personal philosophy to a more metaphysical functionalism. "In architecture, we're constructing space for human beings," he says, "and when we speak of human beings, we must take into account the distinction between human beings and the other animal forms: consciousness, intellectual capacity, awareness and emotion (though emotion is not restricted to human beings). The polarity between those qualities and the space being constructed is where you work, and when you talk about functionalism, you have to consider that dimension. In fact, that dimension is the most important dimension of architecture. If you look at prehistoric architecture, it was of spirituality and of expression. Was Stonehenge, for instance, a utilitarian structure or a spiritual structure? I think the answer is fairly clear."

Gaboury completed his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1959. Upon his return to Manitoba, he was hired as a design architect by Libling Michener Architects in Winnipeg. He worked for the firm for two years before departing to open his own office, accompanied by his brother Adrien who joined him as a draftsman and manager, a position he retained until 1987. In a very short time, Gaboury established a reputation as a prairie architect with a strong regionalist approach to design, "a philosophy sensitive to the environment: sun, moon, wind, extreme cold, heat. Functionalist principles were vital, but spirituality and emotional content were paramount, thus decreeing that all aspects of functionalism were to be considered: the spiritual and emotional as well as the physical. Architecture must house both the body and the soul."

The spiritual orientation of Gaboury's architectural philosophy fit in well with the fervent religious renewal of the 1960s. Beginning with St. Claude Church, Gaboury received several religious commissions, and his initially controversial but eventually lauded designs for such edifices as the Precious Blood and the Messiah Lutheran Church, as well as his participation on the Architectural Advisory Committee for Expo '67, cemented his reputation as an innovative designer and a unique interpreter of religious tradition, regional expression, and the environment's impact on the organization of human life. Buoyed by these tremendous outbursts of spiritual feeling and national pride, Gaboury's artistic evolution and business success accelerated apace into the 1970s. The boom years culminated in his acclaimed design for the Royal Winnipeg Mint in 1975.

Troubles lay ahead, however. Government cutbacks and a subsequent building slump severely affected Gaboury's business, and although two major projects - the Canadian Chancery in Mexico City and Abidjan's Lycée de Formation Professionelle on Africa's Ivory Coast - kept the firm afloat, Gaboury was forced to impose a drastic reduction of personnel. The decline in the building market was paralleled by a depleted spirit of artistic adventure, as private developers often proved unwilling to take a chance on Gaboury's designs. This downturn threatened not only Gaboury's financial fortunes but that very sense of identity which is such a crucial aspect of his art. The looming possibility of relocation from Manitoba, from the inspiration of the Prairies and the precarious balance of his identity as a bilingual Franco-Manitoban, would have had inevitable repercussions for an artist so attuned to the particularities of region and culture.

Fortunately, Gaboury was able to maintain his tenuous position through the lean years. Institutional and governmental commissions gradually increased, leading to such projects as the long-delayed PsycHealth unit at Manitoba's Health Sciences Centre, and the Provincial Remand Centre in Winnipeg. In 1998, Gaboury merged his firm into a new partnership with Guy Préfontaine and David Perry to become Gaboury Préfontaine Perry Architects. Under this new imprimatur, Gaboury's most recent projects have included the Norway House School, the St. Boniface University College Student Centre, the Provencher Bridge and the Riel Esplanade.

The numerous prizes and plaudits awarded to Gaboury over nearly a half-century pay tribute not only to individual designs, but to an overarching idea of architecture's role in shaping the world. Fusing mechanical knowledge and aesthetic sense, Gaboury has learned from and adapted to stylistic shifts and technical advancements without ever losing sight of the humanistic dimension so vital to architecture's continued evolution, and to that of the world itself. Rather than following the dictates and ravages of a "capitalism gone askew", Gaboury emphasizes the need for architecture to lead the way in effecting change, renewing awareness of both the natural and the social environment and bringing socialistic and humanistic values back to the centre of consciousness. "Architects should be the ultimate socialists," he states. Concurrently, the ever-increasing technological capacity of modern industrialized society must be infused with these values. It must be utilized for the great benefits it can offer without the inherently dehumanizing effects of rapid, unthinking progress. The philosophy and works of Etienne Gaboury - equal parts classicism and modernity, tradition and evolution, human imagination and environmental reality - indicates a hopeful course for architecture in the 21st century: a reconciliation of the material and the spiritual, the technologically innovative and the ineffably human.

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Gaboury Family Photo, circa 1940

Gaboury Family Photo, circa 1940

Gaboury's parents on their wedding day, Napoléon Gaboury and Valentine Lafrenière

Gaboury's parents on their wedding day, Napoléon Gaboury and Valentine Lafrenière

Formal graduation photo of Etienne Gaboury, in gown

Formal graduation photo of Etienne Gaboury, in gown

Gaboury in front of the Basilica, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Gaboury in front of the Basilica, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Gaboury, age 6, in suit with brother

Gaboury, age 6, in suit with brother

Gaboury as a young man, in suit and tie, sitting on porch railing

Gaboury as a young man, in suit and tie, sitting on porch railing

Gaboury as a child with his sisters

Gaboury as a child with his sisters

Gaboury with his hockey team, circa 1945

Gaboury with his hockey team, circa 1945

Gaboury in front of Basilica, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1977

Gaboury in front of Basilica, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1977

Gaboury walking with Queen Elizabeth, Winnipeg, 1967

Gaboury walking with Queen Elizabeth, Winnipeg, 1967

Gaboury and Wife, Claire, Present Day, 2004

Gaboury and Wife, Claire, Present Day, 2004

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