Non-Fiction

The Big Chill

The hockey arena has fairly humble and perhaps predictable origins. Sheds erected over naturally occurring ice surfaces provided shelter and comfort for recreational skating and other amusements, eventually evolving into more robust (though largely nondescript) buildings. Initially it may seem difficult to get excited by the subject. But Howard Shubert’s book Architecture on Ice: A History of the Hockey Arena is beautifully illustrated with a carefully curated selection of paintings, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings – no surprise given Shubert’s background as an appraiser and curator of architectural print material.

This, however, is no coffee-table book. Shubert weaves a fascinating narrative in which architectural history, cultural landscape studies, the history of sport, and political, social, and cultural histories coalesce. The lacklustre appearance of hockey arenas might explain why this is the first book to address their history, but Shubert argues that these buildings are at the crux of a larger story about memory and culture. They are containers for collective experience, historic moments, and strong emotions. The cultural significance attached to hockey arenas is really what makes the buildings what Shubert argues they are – transformative spaces for sport, entertainment, and cultural activity.

Architecture on Ice
A History of the Hockey Arena

Howard Shubert

McGill-Queen’s University Press
$49.95
cloth
328pp
9780773548138

Hockey arenas lack the opulence of opera houses, the solidity of civic architecture, or the marvel of skyscrapers. Yet Shubert argues that they may be North America’s most important overlooked cultural buildings. This is an interesting claim to reconcile from the perspective of architectural history, which typically focuses on emerging architectural styles, cutting-edge design, innovative developments, and architects with vision. Shubert sees something quite different in the development of the professional hockey arena, and this is what separates his study from others that fall more easily within the traditional concerns of architectural history. As Shubert reiterates at various points throughout the book, he does not believe that the hockey arena ever truly existed as a unique and fully defined building type. Instead of form following function, the building itself determined spectator interaction, user experience, and the overall consumption of ice sports. Uniquely, Shubert shows the trajectory of a sport through architecture and in doing so turns the standard script for architectural history on its head.

If you’re looking for a history of the community arena or hockey rink, this is not the book for you. Shubert is upfront about limiting the scope of this book to the spaces that showcase professional hockey and ice sports and not the community arenas and rinks many of us recall fondly. It is the transformation from naturally occurring ice surface to postmodern multi-complex that captures Shubert’s attention. An important piece of this story is his focus on hockey arenas as “flexible containers for undefined mass spectacle.” Shubert effectively highlights the place of the arena as the lines between the worlds of sports and entertainment became increasingly blurred.

Starting with hockey’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s, through the rise of pop culture and arena rock from the 1960s to the 1980s, to the massive corporate entertainment complexes that now host professional hockey, among other mass entertainments, the humble hockey arena is the nexus for the meeting of sport, commerce, and culture. That Shubert’s narrative encompasses such a range of factors will make this book a compelling read for multiple audiences, whether scholars of the built environment, historians, or sports enthusiasts feeling nostalgic for the Golden Age of hockey. mRb

Valerie Minnett holds a Master of Architecture from McGill University and has published several scholarly articles on architecture and the history of health in Montreal.

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