Awards of Excellence: The French Selection

Marc Boutin teaches architecture and urban design studios in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at the University of Calgary. He studied environmental design (BES., 1985), architecture (B. Arch., 1990), and architectural history (M.A. 2000), complimenting these studies with sculpture studios at the Ontario College of Art and the Emily Carr College of Art and Design. Between 1994 and 1996, he continued his studies and professional work in Barcelona, investigating issues related to public space. His research and critical practice seek a density of meaning that can only be achieved through the synthesis of art, architecture, urban design, landscape architecture and exhibition design. His design firm, Marc Boutin Architect, has received numerous awards including three Prairie Design Awards, three national design competition wins, and an international competition win. The spectrum of work in the office includes single-family houses, cultural projects, and the urban design for an inner city community. He was the recipient of the 2002/2003 Prix de Rome, and is preparing a national touring exhibition of the research, entitled Texture City.

Janet Rosenberg is principal and founder of Janet Rosenberg + Associates Landscape Architects Inc. of Toronto. Since its inception in 1983, the firm has been honoured with over 60 awards for design excellence. The firm’s portfolio includes a master plan for 24 Sussex Drive, the Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery, the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory, the Franklin Children’s Garden, Toronto Islands, and Toronto’s Courthouse Square among many other projects. Recently, the firm won a competition to make up a design team for the Toronto Harbourfront Parks and Open Space System. Rosenberg has also received the Governor General’s Award, a Toronto Life Visual Arts Award for Women Who Make a Difference, and a 1998 Arts Toronto Award in Architecture and Design. She teaches at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design and was a founding board member of the Toronto Tree and Parks Foundation.

Roger Sherman teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci-Arch) and at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He is the Director of Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design in Santa Monica, California. Sherman advises on non-profit housing and is a partner of the Weingart Center Association (for the homeless). He has won numerous awards including most recently the Fresh Kills Landfill to Landscape Design Competition in 2002 and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts grant in 2000 for his work on the logic of urban property. Sherman’s publications include “Under the Influence: Negotiating the Complex Logic of Urban Property” in Things in the Making: Contemporary Architecture and the Pragmatist Imagination, (Museum of Modern Art, 2002) and (edited with Mary-Ann Ray) Dense-City: After Sprawl (Lotus International Special Document, 1999), among others. For Sherman, the contemporary city has been likened to a “hive of diverse and competing constituencies to explain its overall growth and organization.”

The decision by Canadian Architect that this year’s jury be multi-disciplinary, was, in retrospect, a critical ingredient to the participatory value and outcome of the adjudication. Each jury member necessarily questioned his or her role in the process, and by extension, the role of the jury as a whole. And so by the time we met as a group, it seems to me a consensus was quickly reached that if we assume that Canada is a contributor within the broader international culture of architecture, this awards program should recognize not only the value of each project based on its particular circumstances, but also as a vehicle to contribute to the discipline of architecture in and of itself. A line had been drawn in the sand, and design excellence was defined as a project’s ability to expand the dimensions of architecture’s role in society and as a discipline.

As we waded through the submissions, focused on this definition, various observations became apparent. It would seem that Canadian architecture’s de facto style is Comfy Modernism, and though it can be characterized as an extremely competent, formally sophisticated version of modernism, it is ultimately a soft echo of its heroic ancestry, and more closely associated with Philip Johnson and Alfred Barr’s liquidation of modern architecture through the stylistic concerns defined in their International Style.

Another trait suggested by this year’s entries was a tendency for projects to rely on an imported avant-garde, whether in the guise of an adopted formal language applied to a particular programme and site, or in the application of a radical design process seen as legitimizing new architectural forms. Although these projects caught our attention, too often the project did not develop and advance the form-making strategies of the language or process, and was diagrammatic in its interpretation. In either case, it was deemed that no real contribution was being made by these projects.

In the end, those projects that were recognized featured no particular theme such as sustainability, for example, but instead demonstrated an ability to develop form and meaning through an intense exploration of their context(s), such that they illuminated broader ideas about the potential of architecture. In this regard, I am reminded of the Cube’s strategic manipulation of an existing building in order to establish the physical infrastructure for a new social and cultural order, or the sophisticated occupation of the ground-plane of the Thtre du Vieux-Terrebonne, so that the building becomes an experiential threshold to the cultural and natural landscape of that place, or the floating shelters of the Mitis River Park, that poetically collapse the phenomenon of the tides and our related experience.

And finally, it must be mentioned that I joined my fellow jury members’ surprise to find that the eight projects that were unanimously chosen, before the addition of two others to the award- winning list, were all authored by architects from Quebec. I would suggest that the most important aspect of this is the importance of a supportive environment for the production of architecture. Similar to the social and cultural conditions that fostered the contemporary renaissance of Barcelona in the 1980s and ’90s, or closer to home, the patronage represented by the First Nations schools in British Columbia during the same period that produced such important projects as the Patkau’s Seabird Island School and Peter Cardew’s Stone Band School, Quebec architects have been the benefactors of a system that demands and facilitates architecture’s role in the expression of a particular social and cultural identity. Quebec’s architectural competition system is one example that has produced a confident group of young architects that work with an urgency unparalleled in Canada, and clearly, the results are evident. If Canadian architecture is indeed going to fulfill its potential on the world stage, we as architects must not only develop our own work, but also cultivate the context that will set the stage for this process. Marc Boutin

As a landscape architect, I appreciated the opportunity to have been part of this year’s selection committee. I was very impressed by the overall quality of the work submitted. A number of firms continue to produce extraordinary projects and amass a strong body of work. The number of projects that demonstrated sensitivity and integration into their site, landscape and environment equally inspired me. I have come out of this process excited about the future of design in Canada.

Though there were many strong submissions, the jury ultimately responded to those that were bolder and more daring in their resolution. It is clear that the winning submissions bring a new dynamic into the ever-evolving architecture and design fields.

It was interesting to note that the majority of this year’s award- winners where from Quebec. It is my hope that the award-winners wil
l inspire future clients to allow the architecture community to flourish in an environment with fewer boundaries.

Equally exciting were the award winning student projects. They embodied the energy and sense of adventure the jury was looking for.

As we look forward, there are boundless opportunities to continue to bring Canadian architecture and design to the international forefront.

For the Winnipeg Centennial Library, the glazed addition not only creates a wonderful integration of new and old, it also incorporates the plaza within the whole. The addition makes the courtyard come alive. The Tetris House is a refreshing exploration of an alternative suburban development.

Finally, a revitalization for Montreal’s St. Laurent Boulevard by NOMADE architecture is worth mentioning as well. It manages to synthesize the wants of a very large interest group with a very ambitious agenda. This scheme demonstrates that a vibrant pedestrian environment can be balanced with the vehicular needs of a community and still be good for business. Janet Rosenberg

I was struck by the high overall level of design competency of the firms that entered, particularly in the modernist idiom. If the awards submissions could be considered any type of random sampling of the work going on in Canada today, then what appears to predominate is what Marc (Boutin) referred to as a kind of “comfy modernism,” by which I mean a rather safe and polite brand of a language that once possessed an ambition to remake society. While it is questionable today whether architecture can or should ever occupy that position, I think that on the other hand it was disappointing to see that there aren’t more Canadian firms exploring new ideas and forms of practice that at least challenge and stretch the envelope of our own discipline. Therefore, I for one (and I believe the other jurors felt likewise) sought to acknowledge projects that took risks–that appeared to experiment with new formal or methodological or typological paradigms–even if at times bordering on the nave (the red ice cube is a good example). Unity 2, for instance, was not so much about the making of a handsome overall object but, rather employed a more tactical approach that posed keen observations and questions about surveillance that were very appropriate to the particular program being dealt with.

I want to mention the Winnipeg Central Library as a kind of “extreme makeover” which transforms a building with virtually no public presence into one with an abundance of it. This project merits recognition as much for its reanimation of the urban surround by providing it with a dramatic set piece/backdrop as for the building itself.

In the case of the Collge Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, I find the architects’ technique of working on the 2-dimensional surfaces of the additions to be extremely interesting and original, and most successful in the case in which the lines of the sports courts on the ground project upon the vertical surface of one of the additions, establishing a new type of link between building and ground plane. Surface decoration thereby becomes a de facto result of the interest in establishing a programmatic linkage between inside and outside.

In the Tetris House, the architects address a very important problem with an interesting strategic premise, but have a very disappointing formal result. This is not to say that the exercise does not have merit, or that it could not be more successful architecturally. To the contrary: the idea of developing an alternative method of differentiation of housing units to the stylistic tyranny of the Cape Cod vs. Normandy vs. Dutch Colonial seems worthwhile, but unfortunately the specific system developed here seems as banal as its predecessors. It produces differences without distinctions: subtle differences in unit configurations cannot overcome the fact that everything still looks more or less the same. Roger Sherman