Awards of Excellence 2002: Creative Tension

Arthur Erickson received his degree in architecture from McGill University in Montreal and worked with the Vancouver firm of Sharp and Thompson, Berwick Pratt before establishing Erickson/Massey Architects with Geoff Massey 1953. In 1963, the firm won its first major commission–Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. As Arthur Erickson Architects, the firm designed the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Robson Square in downtown Vancouver, the Bank of Canada building in Ottawa (in association with Marani Rounthwaite and Dick Architects), Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto and the Canadian Chancery in Washington, D.C. Recently, Erickson completed the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington with Nick Milkovich Architects Inc. and Thomas, Cook, Reed, Reinvald, Associated Architects (see CA November 2002). Erickson has been recognized with numerous honours and awards including Gold Medals from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the American Institute of Architects, and the Order of Canada.

Currently Dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota and co- editor of Architectural Research Quarterly, Thomas Fisher was previously editorial director at the now-defunct long-running American magazine Progressive Architecture. Dean Fisher holds a B. Arch. from Cornell University and a Master of Interdisciplinary Studies from Case Western Reserve University. He has served as the historical architect for Connecticut’s State Historic Preservation Office and as a designer and project manager for firms in Ohio and Connecticut. Fisher has written and lectured widely and recently published a book of essays entitled In the Scheme of Things: Alternative Thinking on the Practice of Architecture.

Ian MacDonald, BES, BArch, OAA established the firm of Ian MacDonald Architect Inc. in 1984. The firm has won two Ontario Association of Architects Awards, several Canadian Architect awards and the Governor General’s Medal for the House in Mulmur Hills #1. MacDonald graduated from the School of Architecture at Carleton University in 1978 and worked for the Thom Partnership both as a student and a graduate. Following an apprenticeship in which he worked on a number of residential projects with Ron Thom, he joined Joint Venture Architects (Arthur Erickson/Webb Zerafa Menks) before starting his own firm. For several years he has participated on the Architectural Advisory Board for Champlain College, Trent University.

This year’s submissions showed a conscientious consideration for site and technology, with a concern for ecological solutions to their environmental challenges. This seems to be a natural preoccupation for the northern climate of Canada, far flung as it is. One notes too, the rigours of the economic envelope to building, also characteristic of Canadian construction as compared with the materially rich characteristics of buildings south of the border. We cannot deny the appropriateness of these concerns since we stand as the Scandinavian in relation to the more Mediterranean temperament of our southern neighbours due to our Nordic climate and our thin line of population between the wilderness and the highly industrialized territory of the U.S. No matter that there is emptiness on both sides, but ours rings of certain hardships that relate our work more to Scotland and Scandinavia, two of Canada’s dominant founding nations beside the Voyageurs of New France.

Hence the welcome conservatism of our most extreme expressions in art and architecture. A typically civilized solution is visible in the University of Toronto at Mississauga Woodland Residence, the site demanding the shifting areas of its three buildings linked tenuously by the intermediate floors. What could be more polite and Scandinavian?

Therefore there is the effort in the submissions to solve real problems, at best, poetically as in the Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant site design and the Lake City Skytrain Station. Even the more urbane and sophisticated airport for Quebec City and the J.-Armand-Bombardier Pavilion show the concern for efficiency of plan and structure yet seek the higher expression of style. The Truss House finds its solution in the utter simplicity of a plywood box beam as the source of form and expression and the Messenger House revels in the nakedness of frame construction, hopefully clad, to present a dramatic counterpoint to an equally exposed site.

There remains the Sougawa Elementary School proposal, which inserts a different view that nevertheless reverts to the tenets of early modernism borne out of the Japanese aesthetic of temporarity and flexibility. The traditional classrooms are opened to expanded balconies and intermediate spaces of undefined and therefore flexible use. The playing field is on the roof of the gymnasium. Through- ventilation of classroom spaces is essential, due to the summer heat. The typology of the Japanese house is extended to the school institution with a refreshing result.

Two other schemes dealing with real issues, the Sustainability Prototype and the Connaught/West Victoria Special Study of Calgary, are both worthy projects which raise questions on the basis of livability. The Sustainability Prototype takes a temporary shelter for athletes and converts it to market housing which is very acceptable, except that the athlete’s housing lines up bedrooms such that one room seems to have outside ventilation but the other does not. The other study backs townhouses diagrammatically against high-rises, making them unmarketable since the townhouse relies on exposure to both ends for ventilation exposure and view. Otherwise both efforts are admirable: the one provides for alternate housing use without affecting the main structure and the other addresses the need to densify in a neighbourhood adjacent to a high-density area. Arthur Erickson

I was impressed by the overall quality of the work I saw and by the prevalence of sustainable design strategies, much greater than you would see in the United States, sad to say. I was also surprised and pleased to see that, in the first round of judging, without even talking to each other, we identified most of what we eventually awarded, suggesting that there exists some shared sense of what constitutes good architecture, at least among the three of us.

All of the winning projects, for example, embodied a clear idea. The ideas varied widely, ranging from the expression of speed, to our relationship with nature, to the conditions that promote sociability, to the traditions of vernacular construction. And yet, in every one of the winning projects, you could read the idea in the architecture itself, without having to wade through the text to figure it out, as happened too often. You could also see in this work how ideas should inform everything from the overall form to the slightest detail. The ideas in the best projects had a paradoxical quality as well. How can a fixed structure express speed, a treatment plant connect us to nature, a lab promote human interaction, or a landscape occupy a roof? The power of this work arose, in part, from the very tensions such paradoxes create, giving visual and spatial expression to the dilemmas we face as humans in our relationship to the world and to ourselves.

The winning projects also attended to the craft of architecture. While other projects expressed interesting ideas, they remained essentially intellectual exercises and never convinced us of their reality as buildings. The projects we awarded all had structural and material qualities that reinforced their formal concept: the boat-like structure of the maritime house, the social layer of structure of the lab, the sedimentary limestone walls of the Woodland Student Residence, the leaning steel struts of the transit station, the inhabited truss or the butterfly roof of the island houses. These projects showed how the best architects think through the process of making, and how that intelligent making, in turn, makes us think.

All of the awarded projects also accomplished a great deal with the fewe
st moves. We saw many projects that had a superficial simplicity of form, many of them harkening back to 1950s Modernism, that were then awkwardly stuffed with program. The winning work, in contrast, was refreshingly simple and straightforward, with little that seemed gratuitous. The “zero” detailing of the house in Nova Scotia, the enhanced cultural and ecological habitats of the Toronto treatment plant, the ingenious clusters of suites in the Mississauga dorm, the structural enclosure on Pender Island, the elevated garden and wall in Vancouver–all of the projects had a natural quality, as if the iterative process of design was like evolution, slowly eliminating all but what is essential to the life of the project.

This is an impressive body of work, equal to the best work being done anywhere in North America. Thomas Fisher

“There are two kinds of information. One is the information you need to know–the kind of information that produces the weather, the front page of a newspaper, self help books and bird guides, even celebrity gossip and low-brow titillation. The other kind of information is the information you didn’t know you wanted to know–the unexpected mental travelling that produces literary novels, lasting works of well-written journalism, magazines such as The New Yorker, the feature section of the newspaper, and any other piece of writing that ever took a reader where he or she never expected to go. Without the former, we can’t live our lives. Without the latter, we don’t know why they’re worth living…”

–Ian Brown, The Globe and Mail 07/06/2002

Architecture has a responsibility to transcend the boundaries of expectation, and to take people to places they didn’t know existed; the objective being to frame elements of human experience in ways that make life more interesting and meaningful. This is a tall order for a society which neither looks for these things, nor is prepared to pay for them.

Our challenge as architects is to develop meaningful and compelling ideas that are capable of being digested and adopted by the general population of the culture that we serve. This is difficult in the current North American cultural context, which seems to default in its decision making to preferences that favour symbolic gestures over well-synthesized and more complex resolutions of architecture.

Efforts to persuade clients to follow our advice, to take that necessary leap of faith in the interests of the project as we often describe it, is up against formidable resistance. Such resistance arises out of, among other things, the diverse nature of our cultural histories, and its corollary, the resultant lack of appreciation for what a coherent built world can offer. Ad to this the level of visual illiteracy that dominates our culture, and you have the essential ingredients of a society that only recognizes value in the superficial, the sound bite and the symbol. Hence the general quality of our built environment in North America.

I was struck by the experience of reviewing this year’s submissions because many good projects did not communicate their ideas in a manner that I could grasp succinctly. Recognizing the authors of some of these projects, and knowing their work, gave me an advantage in interpreting it for myself and for other jury members as we considered them together. In the end, however, the absence of clearly presented ideas prevented many fine schemes from receiving awards.

Clear ideas are essential to the making of compelling architecture. For our profession to have influence, we must find a way to persuade the public of the many virtues associated with our work. This is something most people don’t know they want to know. In order to get the message through, we must speak in a clear and direct way; something obvious I suppose, but not easily accomplished. Ian MacDonald