2002 Governor General’s Medals for Architecture: Modest Excellence

Three years ago, we reported on a series of changes to the Governor General’s Medals for Architecture that had been incorporated into the 1999 edition of the awards program (see CA May 1999). One change was the proposed elimination of a two-tier system that divided the awards into five Medals for Excellence and 15 Awards of Merit. The latter were to be eliminated altogether, with the number of Medals for Excellence expanding to a maximum of 12.

In practice, however, the 1999 jury could agree to grant Medals for Excellence to only five projects, and selected an additional five to receive Awards of Merit. Sensitive to charges of having changed the terms of the program in midstream, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) and the Canada Council for the Arts–jointly responsible for administering the Governor General’s Medals for Architecture–awarded medals to all 10 projects, but distinguished between Medals for Excellence and Medals for Merit.

Another significant change involved the introduction of a two-stage adjudication process. The jury established a short list of 20 projects on the basis of submissions, subsequently visited each project and reconvened to determine the final list of winners. Intended to address the criticism that selections were being made solely from drawings and photographs, the visits afforded jury members the opportunity to examine issues of contextual response, client satisfaction and technical proficiency along with other criteria that could not be easily determined from photographs.

Conducting these visits in a country the size of Canada resulted in predictable logistical problems, and the exercise introduced a new opportunity for subjectivity: some projects were visited by three jurors, some by two, some by one, and some by none. As a result, the jury, while endorsing the idea of site visits in principle, recommended that this new component be reviewed before the next Governor General’s awards program.

RAIC Executive Director Jon Hobbs acknowledges that the logistical complications and budgetary burden of the site visits led to their elimination from the adjudication process. Donald McKay, who served as this year’s Jury Chair, bemoans the fact that without the site visits, “what you judge is a book, not a building.” However, the architect, who lives in Toronto and teaches at the University of Waterloo, acknowledges the logistical complexity of the visits, noting that “even trying to see the projects in Toronto and Montreal was daunting”–something he undertook to do on his own following the judging.

In addition to McKay, this year’s jury consisted of George Baird, Eric Gauthier, Toshiko Mori and Peter Pran. The Jury Chair credits his colleagues with having taken their responsibilities very seriously. “The process was very professional, not doctrinaire, discursive right to the end.” He characterizes the projects selected by the jury as “responsible, modest, market-based buildings,” noting the “absence of preciousness, extravagance, and virtuoso detailing. The jury gravitated to feasible models that could be built within their markets virtually anywhere in the country. They are projects that excel within the constraints of their circumstances.”

McKay maintains that while the jury was sensitive to the issue of the award winners being relevant to architectural practice at large, this didn’t result from an explicit agenda. “There was no manifesto on the part of the jury; it just emerged as a tendency among the various jury members.” Working over a two-day period, the judges spent the first day looking at all 148 entries individually, eliminating only those projects that received no jury support. According to McKay, this reduced the number to about 80, which was then cut down to 50, then 30, then 20 before the final 12 winners were selected.

McKay dismisses rumours that the jury made an overt decision to ensure that no firm received more than one award. “Firms did submit multiple entries, which in some cases represented very strong bodies of work, but we were very catholic in our tastes and ended up selecting a broad range of projects by different architects. We weren’t working with a formal system or a stylistic agenda; each of these buildings is a complex particular response to specific conditions. The one important common thread is that each of the winning architects are building buildings–not building theories.”

McKay adds that “it’s safe to say that all the buildings we did select were flawed in some particular way. I’m not saying this to be critical, but more in relation to an attractive point that [John] Ruskin makes: if you aspire to do really good work, there will be flaws. You’re trying to do more than what a particular set of circumstances allows, pushing as hard as you can and harder, which can lead to some problems, but which also reflects a sense of experimentation and life. We don’t make perfect buildings that last forever.”

In keeping with the intent of the single-tier awards introduced in 1999, this year’s jury awarded 12 Medals for Excellence and no Awards of Merit. In contrast to the 1999 jury’s decision to revert to two tiers, “we had no trouble coming up with 12 medalists,” says McKay. “If anything, the problem was reducing the list from 20 down to 12. Some very good buildings didn’t make the cut. But we didn’t feel it was the jury’s place to argue with the format, so we stuck with the maximum of 12 Medals for Excellence. You could say that we behaved like the projects we liked: responsible to the larger context.”

RAIC President Diarmuid Nash, who had an opportunity to see the entries after the judging took place, agrees that “there was some very nice work that didn’t make it onto the final list. It may make sense to introduce more flexibility and allow the jury to award as many medals as it sees fit, rather than limit it to 12, especially in a bumper year like this one. We have to ask ourselves whether we should allow excellent work to fall through the cracks. Some years are stronger than others and it’s unfortunate to see good work go unrecognized.”

Nash’s comments suggest that the RAIC and Canada Council will continue to tinker with the GGs in their ongoing effort to refine the program and ensure its relevance amid the shifting sands of architectural practice. Whatever the future direction of the awards, an important innovation this year is that the Medals–traditionally handed out at a ceremony forming part of the RAIC’s annual Festival of Architecture–are being bestowed at the Governor General’s official Ottawa residence, Rideau Hall. This brings them in line with other GG awards, such as those for literature and the visual and performing arts. By displacing them from the context of a professional conference to one with a wider profile, the RAIC hopes that the awards will attract greater media and public attention and help enhance the perception of architecture as an important cultural activity.