Awards of Excellence 2008: Hope For The Future

Bing Thom is the founding principal of Vancouverbased Bing Thom Architects Inc. (1980). While studying architecture at the University of British Columbia, he began working for his instructor and mentor, Arthur Erickson. Subsequently, he completed his Master of Architecture degree at the University of California at Berkeley, where he helped pioneer one of the first academic programs in Ethnic Studies in North America. Thom distinguished himself early on in his career with groundbreaking design work for World Fair exhibitions, and helped define Expo 86 by designing its most acclaimed pavilions. Shortly thereafter, he was awarded the commission to design the Canada Pavilion for Expo 92 in Seville, Spain. Among Thom’s other successes are the master plans for the cities of Dalian and Yuxi in China, and the creation of Surrey Central City (see CA, March 2004). Other projects include the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at UBC; the Aberdeen Centre in Richmond, BC; the Pacific Canada Pavilion at the Vancouver Aquarium and Marine Science Centre; the Trinity Uptown Plan for Fort Worth, Texas; the recently completed Sunset Community Centre; and the highly anticipated Arena Stage theatre complex in Washington, DC. Thom’s talent and service has been recognized by a range of honours including the Order of Canada, the Golden Jubilee Medal, honorary degrees from Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, and an honorary professorship from Tongji University in Shanghai.

Siamak Hariri was educated at the University of Waterloo and Yale University, and is a founding partner of Hariri Pontarini Architects (1994), a firm that has since established a reputation for the creation of innovative architecture. Hariri is the partnerincharge of the Progressive Architecture Awardwinning Bah’i Temple for South America in Santiago, Chile, and also leads the University of Toronto Faculty of Law project which comprises new facilities for law students, faculty and administrators. Hariri’s internationally acclaimed projects include the McKinsey Toronto Headquarters at the University of Toronto’s Victoria University Campus, which was the youngest building to ever receive heritage designation by the City of Toronto, and which became the model for all future McKinsey & Co. offices worldwide. He is also responsible for developing the Governor General’s Awardwinning Schulich School of Business at York University. Currently, he is the partnerincharge of the Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine at the University of Waterloo and the recently completed Department of Economics–Max Gluskin House at the University of Toronto. Hariri has taught at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design as an adjunct professor, and he sits on the boards of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Institute of Contemporary Culture, the Toronto Community Foundation, and the Waterfront Design Review Panel.

Christine Macy is a professor of architectural design and history at Dalhousie University. Her research includes the representation of cultural identity in architecture, public space design, civic infrastructure, temporary urbanism and festival architecture. She holds architectural degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1990, Macy established Filum, her partnership with Sarah Bonnemaison, a firm that specializes in lightweight structures and public space design for festivals. Design projects include Gestures Pavilions, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (2005); Tower to Industry, Nova Scotia Museum (2001); Hummingbird: Millennium Flags Installation, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (2000) which received the Design Exchange Merit Award; Birchtown Interpretive Centre, Black Loyalist Heritage Society (1998); Fuji Pavilion, Botanical Garden, Montreal (1996); Women’s Monument Competition, Vancouver (1994) which received a Special Mention; and the public plazas for General Motors Place, Vancouver (19924). Before joining the faculty at Dalhousie, Macy taught at UC Berkeley and the University of British Columbia. Books she has authored include Greening the City: Ecological Wastewater Treatment in Halifax (Dalhousie Architecture, 2001); Architecture and Nature: Creating the American Landscape (Routledge, 2003) coauthored with Sarah Bonnemaison and 2005 recipient of the Alice Davis Hitchcock Award from the Society of Architectural Historians; Festival Architecture (Routledge, 2007); and Dams (Norton, forthcoming).

Without a doubt, the jury felt that it was the students who emerged as the clear winners in this year’s Awards of Excellence. Demonstrating a sophisticated awareness through the investigation of nontraditional programs, this year’s students proposed thoughtful and pertinent designs intent on healing the world, thereby imbuing a tremendous amount of optimism in the jury. Judging by the student projects, the desire to intelligently respond to many of the world’s problems–from oil sands exploration to ocean pollution, outmoded industrial areas to the plight of the manatee–certainly represents hope for a future in which the architectural profession collaborates with both clients and visionaries in evolving a more sustainable planet for future generations.

Many readers might be asking themselves why more projects were not recognized in this year’s awards selection. One answer to this might be to a question that was raised during the jury deliberations: “Where is the experimentation?” The annual Awards of Excellence program at Canadian Architect magazine has been in existence since 1968, and we have taken great pride in administering an awards program that places heavy emphasis on architectural discourse and process, rather than on the brute outcome of a finished building. While many projects were formally exquisite at the conceptual stage, they often lacked a level of uniqueness or innovation that the jury was looking for. This was particularly evident amongst the residential projects where a quality of sameness rendered them virtually indistinguishable. As for projects that were more researchoriented, the jury felt that most of them didn’t go far enough in converging research activities with progressive design.

Every year, the subject of what to include in an awards submission emerges. Readers may be surprised to learn that in most cases, less is indeed more–if in doubt, leave it out. Many submissions included drawings and renderings that severely undermined the conceptual strength of the project. Being clear and concise about design concepts is vitally important, and many project submissions failed to express key architectural ideas in a clear and convincing manner.

The following discussion illuminates some of the most salient issues preoccupying this year’s jury, and a number of noteworthy projects were isolated to illustrate the successes and shortfalls evident in the design process.

Macy: The Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto by DuToit Architects/DuToit Allsopp Hillier, Diamond + Schmitt, ERA Architects, Claude Cormier Architectes + Paysagistes, Adams + Associates, and Ferruccio Sardella–deserves to be recognized on a number of levels. At the parti level, bringing that wetland terrace and accepting the difference between a landscape move and an institutional building really opens up the blockiness of the buildings that typical terraces don’t– that move is commendable. In this climate, to create this kind of environment is a real plus. They are really making it work, and without too many empty spaces.

Hariri: The problem I have with this is that the idea of the long horizon is not that special. They didn’t take advantage of the possibilities of sculpting the landscape or the use of daylighting in the interior spaces.

Thom: It all comes back to the presentation. How do you make a judgement? When I make a judgement, it is based on the thoroughness of a presentation. When I se
e something that doesn’t look right, I get suspicious in terms of the totality of the language in the presentation.

Hariri: I want to say something about the alarmrelated ing sameness. Everybody seemed to be operating within a narrow band. For example, virtually all of the houses look the same and that makes it hard for us to pick a clear winner.

Thom: So you are asking, “Where is the experimentation?”

Hariri: If the idea of submitting something at this stage is about being able to present an unbuilt project, that means you are allowed to push the boundaries in the drawings and in the way you communicate, so why is the mode of representation the same? The second thing I want to talk about is that we seem to be missing the big projects. Where are the opera houses and the national galleries? It’s amazing that at this time of economic flourish, notwithstanding recent events, you’d expect that this round of submissions would be celebrating the greatest moments of gathering that we have in this country, and we are missing them. The most we had was a hospital. There were a few university projects, but they didn’t really grab us.

Macy: On the other hand, of the ones we selected, all four Awards of Excellence deal with landscape. Even though their sizes range from small to quite a bit bigger, they all imply a much larger relationship to the environment. In a way, there is an aspiration for them to be more inclusive and bigger, even if they are small projects. Maybe it was the search for significant projects that made us much more open to thinking about a larger picture of the buildings eventually selected. I would also like to add that people should consider the drawings more carefully. You don’t have to include all four elevations or more, along with a full range of sections and plans to communicate the idea of the building. What’s really missing in many of the submissions is the key concept or the statement about what it is that they are trying to pursue. Architects should put more energy into why or how their project is something that contributes to the profession or the discipline, as opposed to wanting to describe all the facets of their building.

Hariri: I want to applaud the Bridgepoint Health project, because of all of the submissions, this project is one of the few that deals with real problems. Architecture is not just about formal exploration but problemsolving. It’s great when the two intersect, but Bridgepoint makes us aware that this is not just about formal exploration, but also problemsolving. It considers the experience of a patient in a hospital, and the entire scheme evolves from that. Disappointingly, many projects submitted were communicated as a set of models and plans that really has very little to do with the problem at hand; architecture is not just about a piece of sculpture in the landscape.

Thom: Maybe this is a good time to bring up the submission entitled Expanding Demand for Canadian Wood Products by Urban Arts Architecture because, to us, it deals with a contemporary issue but it is not an awardwinning design submission. It is a research submission.

Hariri: Or the Evergreen Brick Works, where there is a disconnect between the noble aspirations of the client and what was actually before us.

Macy: But the Wood Products submission actually takes on the myriad of problems that we deal with on a daily basis. We appreciate that it has these aspirations and we would like to encourage this group to continue to work on the problem and develop a stronger set of prototypes that might really fulfill the promise of this particular study.

Hariri: The other thing I remember is the discussion around lowincome housing. It is a serious problem and a real problem. Of the many solutions proposed, nothing really blew us away.

Macy: For example, in the 1237 Howe Street social housing project by GBL Architects Group Inc., you are taking a group of people that are stigmatized, and then normalizing them. Because of the fine level of finishes and architectural treatment that is clearly visible and sophisticated, you begin to blur the distinction between affordable housing and any number of condos being built on Vancouver’s peninsula, which I think is a great political strategy and very admirable. Whether we are to compliment the City of Vancouver or the housing agency for adopting that strategy, or the architect who is working within a variety of constraints involved–is another matter. It is basically about people living in very tight quarters. It’s a fundamental prototype and should be taken at face value.

Thom: Evergreen, 1237 Howe Street and the Wood Products submissions are all related to social issues and real research projects, and the problems have to deal with real economics. They are all trying to solve problems but none of them takes your breath away. This probably has to do with the reality of economics, where very few architects can afford to have a research and development wing in their practices.

Hariri: But hospitals are a mundane building type as well, with all kinds of constraints, and look what they did with Bridgepoint. I think that these projects could have been simpler, and therefore stronger. If you think that you have very little money, a little bit of editing can make the project so much stronger.

Thom: If there were specific categories, I think that the judging process would be easier. The little houses or smaller projects might then have more of a chance in this kind of award program.

Hariri: But wouldn’t you say that we were looking for the little projects that simply weren’t there? We started out by saying we would tip towards larger projects, because we understand that bigger projects are inherently more complicated, but there weren’t very many of these types of projects that were submitted. With regard to youCube by 5468796 Architecture, I agree with Bing that the problem with this project is the plan, but this problem can be overcome.

Thom: youCube is obviously designed by a very young architect. There is an idea driving the submission, but you can almost see it as a student project.

Hariri: I disagree. I look at this project as a way forward. The problem with it is that they tried too hard; they have collected their intentions into one or two moves. The spaces in between–it would make for a great street.

Macy: I enjoyed the investigation that this project proposes, coming out of the problemsolving mode that we saw in the student proposals. It is a great investigation. But based on a number of design flaws such as circulation systems, it makes it impossible to give it a design award. We decided that ultimately it isn’t a successful design resolution, but we appreciate that the problem was posed and studied. The problem investigated is the dream of a relationship between indoor and outdoor space that comes with a suburban fantasy, but in a very tight urban context. Effectively it is a small, tight condo development.

Hariri: With respect to the Brooklin Library & Community Centre by Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners, the model doesn’t show enclosure. The problem with these heroic roofs is enclosure, so you wonder how the glass is going to notch around the beams. The minute you add glass to this, the power of the design is taken away.

Macy: I appreciate a place where there is something very simple in terms of the pitched roof–a classic gable roof structure. Perhaps there are a few too many drawings, and the project seems a little underdeveloped.

Hariri: Basically, I think that the students win in this year’s Awards of Excellence.

Thom: Would any of these projects be done for a client, unless it was undertaken as a research project out of an office?

Hariri: But we never do work for the client. We have to invent our client. You said it right: you said that the thesis asks, “What is the problem?” At least the students ar
e asking that question as well as reconsidering the role of architecture. They are asking the critical questions.

Thom: The most enjoyable part of my two days here was looking at these student projects. I feel much more optimistic about the world. If this is what the students are looking at, then they are on the right track. The range of questions that they are asking is fantastic. It’s about peace, war, survival and regeneration. These are universal themes of humanity. Architects are the last of the generalists, and this is the golden age for architects to take on broader issues.