2015 marks the 48th year of the Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence program. As the awards approach their 50th anniversary, we’re giving new polish to the program’s professional profile.This year, we presented our awards at the IIDEXCanada show in Toronto—the first time in the memory of our staff that a public awards ceremony has been held. After, we hosted the winners for a private dinner at Shim-Sutcliffe’s stunning Integral House. It was a memorable evening. We hope to build on this success in the coming years, with the ultimate goal of achieving broader recognition for our award winners.
The program’s core remains unchanged: it identifies and awards Canada’s best projects, on the boards or under construction. By doing so, it focuses on a particularly hopeful stage of design—when a project has a real program and client, but before it has fully weathered the challenges of value engineering, client committees and cost-cutting contractors.
Design excellence entails a superlative handling of program, form and materials. This year’s jury showed particular interest in projects that displayed a high degree of programmatic innovation, including several that made a virtue of unusual or unlikely sites. They identified projects whose aesthetic “comes from the programmatic requirements and things that cannot then be shaved off through the value engineering process,” says juror Johanna Hurme, MRAIC.
The entries—and several of the winning projects—included a notable number from Canadian architects working abroad, as well as from international architects working in Canada (both of which are eligible under the entry criteria). Cross-cultural teamwork can lead to intriguing results, according to juror Maxime Frappier, MIRAC. “The Asian approach is to build from the interior, to build a space contained from the centre through the exterior,” he says. “In a few projects that we saw, there is a similar intention to slowly start creating a dramatic sense of interior space, even space with a spiritual feeling.”
Achieving this quality of space in institutional work, the jurors say, is extremely challenging. “We have a limited set of tools with which to build institutional buildings,” says juror Pat Hanson, FRAIC. Adds Hurme, “How do we move away from just detailing things carefully, and have something bigger to say? How do we infuse a project with atmosphere?”In several entries, this ephemeral atmosphere was achieved inside, although the jury felt that the exterior was not developed to the same level. They were drawn to a swimming pool in Richmond, British Columbia, for instance, because of “the sensibility and the feelings evoked from that space,” says Hanson. A library in Drummondville, Quebec, was particularly notable for a spectacular staircase. “It’s part of the soul that we’re talking about to have something that is so striking and amazingly beautiful that it creates a centred masterpiece in the building,” says Frappier.
“There were many libraries in contention,” adds Hurme. “The library building is happening everywhere, regardless of predictions that books would die off. There’s a clear need for people to connect at the social level, regardless of the existence of the physical book or not. We’re creating libraries as a framework, a new sort of public living room.”
“Before, people used to go to church every Sunday,” says Frappier. “That’s where you communed with your neighbours, found jobs for your kids. And you were confronted with quality architectural space. Imagine that every week you were going into a space with soul: grandiose, light coming through the stained glass. We need to bring that back to our civic buildings.”
“The libraries we’ve selected today achieve this,” says Hanson. “They actually engage. It’s been so long since buildings positioned themselves in a way that people actually notice them, that users respond to them as something ‘other.’ That’s critical for our profession.”
The jury also saw several entries related to Toronto area transit infrastructure. “Through the next decade of transit investment, we know that Metrolinx is committed to design excellence. It’s another example of uplifting the human spirit with everyday buildings,” says Hanson.
However, balancing their hope for public buildings that raise the bar, the jury also noted that not all sites are suitable places for iconic structures. “There is a recognition that not every building has to be a signature building,” says Hurme. Equally important, she says, are “fabric buildings that act as a background.”
This is the case for dense urban contexts as well as rural areas. The jury pointed to a barn-inspired project on the main street of Canmore, Alberta, as a good example of a building that blends contextual appropriateness with contemporary design. “Architects also play a role in smaller towns and precincts, where intelligent interventions are possible and should be pursued,” says Hurme.