2020 Governor General’s Medals in Architecture

A sculpted wood ceiling graces Shim-Sutcliffe’s Lake Kawagama Retreat, one of this year’s award-winning projects. Photo by Scott Norsworthy

The 2020 Governor General’s Medals in Architecture winners show the value of investing time and resources in quality place-making. A monumental, billowing temple that watches over Santiago, Chile, like a spaceship from the movie Arrival is joined on the podium by a bustling aquatic centre on the University of British Columbia campus. Likewise, a punctilious cottage that glows lakeside in rural Ontario joins a figurative building made to house small boats on the shores of English Bay. Together, these twelve distinguished projects reflect what recent writers have identified as the hallmarks of unpretentious architectural excellence in Canada: hybridity, modesty, modernity.

A renewed willingness to insist on good design among the Canadian polities that commission buildings animates this year’s list. The jury applauds the efforts of both designers and clients to promote well-detailed, thoughtful, beautiful architecture in suburban, exurban and small-city locations. In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the box-on-box forms associated with downtown Toronto coalesce into a grandiloquent sculpture high above the South Saskatchewan River. Expanded metal screens contrast with a cross-laminated timber canopy to frame a civil civic space in St. Jérôme, Quebec.

Kudos to Edmonton in this regard. Spurred on by a program of competitions and the guidance of a city architect, good architecture is on the rise in Alberta. A welcoming community swimming pool might be an obvious setting for good architecture. But Edmonton also commissioned architects to design a piece of utilitarian city infrastructure, transforming a wastewater control plant into an urban event—especially at night, when its glass walls light up. The awards for these buildings recognize that half the battle for making good architecture is putting in place a process for achieving it.

Underscoring this campaign for architectural excellence is the ongoing relevance of the library as a node for community development. For several years now, municipalities have promoted skilled place-making in new branch libraries. In Drummondville, Quebec, one such library reorganizes citizens’ cognitive maps of a small city’s central recreational zone. The skating rink and fields become part of an extended promenade architecturale that symbolically accommodates the trajectories of cyclists, hockey players and automobiles. In Brampton, Ontario, a new library-as-civic-hub pushes structure and form to delight and surprise visitors. It includes a deft, spectacular array of devices to modulate natural light, carving out civitas in what once was unmarked suburbia.

Indeed, several winners showed the power of designing for the quality of available light. A small remembrance centre near Edmonton includes a skylight-topped tower; photographs set the charcoal-toned architecture in sparkling snow. And the shiny, jagged envelope of an art gallery on the shoreline of North Vancouver reflects and refracts mercurial waters and cloud-strewn skies.

Some of these buildings are so good that it is tempting to cite them as evidence of the quality of architectural practice in Canada. Yet because the awards program relies on self-nomination, it is tough to generalize from this list of winners. For instance, given the laudable efforts of the RAIC and provincial architectural organizations to promote energy efficiency in building, the jury was surprised that this year’s submissions mostly elide concerns over carbon-hungry practices. The jury also saw little evidence of dynamic housing design in any of its forms: market condominiums, social housing, or even the evergreen prizewinner, the well-detailed secondary home. Likewise, it would be wonderful to see more Medals awarded to projects in the north and east of the country. Perhaps the criteria should be changed to encourage other kinds of submissions—and perhaps Canadians need to invest time, training and resources in commissioning excellence across areas outside of the country’s major cities and their suburbs.

In short, there is no lack of challenges facing Canadian architects. Nonetheless, the projects premiated here—representing a diverse range of ambitious responses to a diverse range of design problems—should give us hope that Canadians recognize the deep value of architectural excellence.

David Theodore was a juror for the 2020 Governor General’s Medals in Architecture. The jury also included Alison Brooks, Johanna Hurme, Renée Mailhot and Isay Weinfeld.