Awards of Excellence 2004 – A Matter of Taste

Tom Monteyne pursues dual careers as a practicing architect and educator in striving to balance architectural theory and its application. He co-founded the Winnipeg firm of Syverson Monteyne Architecture (SM-Arc) with Dean Syverson in 1994. At that time, he also began teaching at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture as an Adjunct Professor. Since 1990, Tom has participated as a critic and/or studio chair in 24 design studio courses, and has been a guest critic at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, as well as at schools in the United States and Mexico. SM-Arc’s portfolio includes residential, commercial, institutional and industrial projects of all kinds. They are currently working on a series of riverside houses, enabling them to further develop their approach to specific site typology. Recently, the availability of affordable land has prompted them to become designer-developers of quasi-urban infill buildings. The firm’s regionalist approach demands an authentic response to the unique landscapes and natural preserves that define individual communities. Ultimately, the individuals in SM-Arc desire to be responsible stewards in the global context by treading lightly on the planet, balancing the interests of clients against the long-term costs to the environment. After a decade in practice, the firm’s focus is centered on building with the goal of leaving behind useful and enduring structures of significance.

John Shnier is a Principal of Kohn Shnier Architects and an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. He was the first recipient of the Canadian Prix de Rome in Architecture. Led by Shnier and partner Martin Kohn, the office realizes work in a variety of scales and programmes for both private and public clients. Current work includes a new facility for the Claude Watson School for the Arts, an addition and renovation to the 519 Church Street Community Centre, and private residences at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba and Strathallen Woods on Lake Simcoe. In addition to winning several awards and mentions in Canada, Kohn Shnier Architects have been nominated for both the International Chrysler Design Award and the New York Architectural League Emerging Practices Award. The firm’s work has been widely exhibited in venues such as the Netherlands Architecture Institute and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and has been featured in two recent international publications–The Phaidon Atlas of World Contemporary Architecture and Taschen’s compendium Architecture Now, Vol. II.

Adam Yarinsky co-founded New York’s Architecture Research Office with Stephen Cassell in 1993. ARO is an architectural practice in which individual projects become vehicles for research into program, form, material and construction. The firm’s work includes the US Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square, a flagship store for Shiseido in New York City, and the Prada Store also in New York City, designed with Rem Koolhaas. Current projects include the Motown Center Museum in Detroit, an addition to Colorado College’s Art and Music Building in Colorado Springs, a renovation and addition to the Princeton School of Architecture, and residences in Massachusetts and New York. ARO’s work has been widely published and has received awards from the American Institute of Architects, the Architectural League of New York, the New York City Arts Commission, the Municipal Art Society, the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, and the I.D. Annual Design Review. Yarinsky has taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, Yale University, the Harvard Design School and Princeton University, and has lectured throughout the United States and Europe. Architecture Research Office, a monograph of the firm’s work, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in March 2003.

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The awarded projects in this year’s CA awards program are, for the most part, an exceptional collection of normal buildings that strive to create architecture that is beautiful, humane, cost-effective, and appropriately local. With the exception of the Bah’ Temple for South America which seems destined for that rarefied category of global landmark, this sampling of Canada’s best projects for 2004 are notable more for their serious and inspired approaches to common building programs than for revolutionary and/or avant-garde explorations along a fringe. Architectural production inevitably reflects the values of the mother culture, and Canada seems to want architects that are polite, earnest, well-meaning, and quietly talented.

An amicable but sober jury deliberated the fine distinctions among the top 30 or so projects to arrive at a short list of 10. We got along, maybe in part because all of us are teaching practitioners who know from experience the substantial challenge engaged in the making of any building, let alone a construction that is thoroughly and aesthetically designed. There was a lot of sympathy on the jury for any architect who takes on this challenge, and respect for those who can surmount the base difficulties of reluctant clients, officious officials, skeptical financiers, and an indifferent public, to produce works of real cultural importance. It is fair to say that more than 10 projects submitted for consideration achieved this lofty goal.

Of the projects not awarded, three house designs submitted by the office of Peter Cardew Architects epitomized the value of being unpretentious, logically designed for construction, and sensitive but not slavish to the nature of the site. Several other houses including the Saturna Island House by Gates_Suter Architects and the Robson Road Residence submitted by Velikov + Thn held the attention of the jury until very near the end. One of the few projects submitted from the east coast, the Pictou Landing Health Centre by Piskwepaq Design, tantalized with its innovative response to building in First Nations communities.

Ultimately, the awarded projects were those which merited discussion to the very end because their responses to context, program, and construction were just that much more compelling. While there is a legitimate need to entertain and inform the readers, architecture in a mediated form does not always travel well, and it is possible that the jury may have passed over some deserving projects because their architectural qualities resisted effective representation in drawings and models. The reality of architecture is that some projects will only ever be fully appreciated through occupation and use, limiting their impact to those in the immediate vicinity. Far from being a lament, it is comforting to think that our country is slowly being filled with well-designed buildings that will be significant to their audiences, however small and local, for the long term. – Tom Monteyne

This year’s group of submissions is consistent with the quality of projects that we have seen coming down the pipes over the last few years. In other words, Canadian architectural design would appear to be nudging the bar higher. I say nudging, because we are seeing a consistent appropriation of tendencies that are being strongly developed in other parts of the world such as the variegated faade, the application of landscape strategies in the ideation of building schema and the general embracement of tasteful modernism along with its celebration of transparency–veiled and otherwise. In so far as these tendencies have now become widely embraced by designers of all stripes and accepted by their clients, it was also true that we did not really see evidence of expressions of risk-taking, or uses of materials or processes that suggested new or genuinely original directions in design.

Having said that, and understanding the difficulty in developing pure originality, there were some accomplishments that are worth commenting on, even as the projects that represent them may not have received recognition in the form of an award.

To begin with, I would like to make a comment on the number and quality
of single-family residential projects that were submitted. Just about all of them represented work that I would be proud of if I were their author. In particular, there were three submissions by Peter Cardew that were superb, describing work that was elegant and speaks to us of an architect who is in absolute control of his craft. I have no doubt they will be beautiful when built.

A residential family compound by Velikov +Thn Building Studio is representative of a number of projects where landscape is fundamental to the idea of the design. In this example, a large-scale extended-family home is used to stake out a private territory within a larger working territory and the site of the client’s commercial landscape business. Rather than defining that sub-territory, the house sits within a reconstituted landscape–an extemporaneous showroom for the client’s work. Though Velikov and Thn designed a handsome building, the jury was disappointed that the form of the house and the landscape did not do more to work together to define the territory rather than sitting simply within it–a gesture that their skillful presentation package seemed to suggest was more the case than it actually was.

And finally, to contradict the thoughts expressed in my opening paragraph, I want to comment on Breathe Architects’ submission. Their project was clear in its mandate to achieve intelligent and sustainable architecture through truly alternative means and technologies, and in that way took risks. The jury had a lot of respect for this rigorous submission. However, at the end of the day, we felt that the building form suffered from a use of mixed metaphors. On one hand there was the potential of hay bale construction as was illustrated in their project entitled Cargo Dwelling. We felt that the house was trying too hard to overlay conventional tectonic language over its less conventional soul. The result was more fragmented and less tectonically clear than it could have been. I remind myself to cite the rammed-earth houses of architect Ric Joy, when thinking of examples of an architecture whose image is a simple, direct, and yet uplifting example of a project that is an expression of the essence of its alternative technology.

Over two days, my jury companions and I enjoyed an easygoing conversation of what is admirable and to be respected amongst the submissions. The deliberation was organic and fluid and there was almost no real disagreement and definitely no heated debate. Perhaps this is the most tell-tale evidence that there is something lacking at this moment in Canadian architecture. If anything characterizes this year’s and other recent offerings in Canadian architectural design, it is the evident abundance of “good taste.” And if this is so, then there is nothing really to argue about now, is there? Or maybe, more to my point, the lack of argument is a bit of a shame. – John Shnier

I was impressed with the competence and quality of the submissions. The winning projects go beyond being clearly presented, elegant designs–in itself a difficult goal to achieve. Regardless of scale, program or location, these projects gain significance from the larger relationships that they establish with their physical and cultural context. The selected projects are both grounded and aspirational. The fact that this work is either under construction or is going to be built adds to my appreciation of the care and effort that has gone into it.

Several winning projects are additions to existing buildings. Whether or not it is intentional, a critical stance with respect to a pre-existing context is a basic characteristic of this type of project. The additions that were recognized with awards are strategic proposals that inventively address site and program. With economy of means and directness, the New Varscona Theatre and Winnipeg Library projects transform existing buildings into the essence of their function–in both physical and social terms. The Hespeler library is a deceptively simple intervention that re-presents the existing building as a jewel-like element within a finely detailed wrapper. By proposing a completely different form of vertical surface, this project changes the perception of old and new.

A house project is always difficult to evaluate–what makes a house worthy of an award? The single-family residence in North Bend embodies the quality of its site in a magical way. Beyond a metaphorical or analogous relationship to its context, the organization of space fosters a direct and inventive connection to the site. Similarly, the house in Lac Suprieur has an intensity of form, material and experience that is remarkable. Although not selected for awards, Gates_Suter Architects’ Saturna Island House and the Village House by Peter Cardew Architects deserve mention for the expected quality of the completed result. These projects go beyond simply being competent solutions to the problem. I hope that the completed buildings are documented and published so that the elegant resolution of the spatial and constructional elements can be shared with a broader audience.

Several projects blurred the boundaries between architecture and landscape to the benefit of both. The Vaughan Civic Centre’s program is organized as a series of interrelated elements and exterior spaces that strengthens the public realm–the architecture is not simply an edifice. The new Charlesbourg Library mediates between an existing building and urban context through a hybrid of building and landscape. The Robson Road Residence, which did not receive an award, is to be acknowledged for the care with which the entire site was integrated into the design. The widening of perspective as to what constitutes a site, together with the intertwining of building and landscape, are significant and very positive developments growing in the profession. – Adam Yarinsky

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