Broad Consensus

The dozen projects receiving a 2012 Governor General’s Medal in Architecture include a broad spectrum of building types and approaches to design. A few of the award-winning designs represent the awe-inspiring tradition of craft and meticulous detail apparent in the residences of wealthy clients, while other medal recipients demonstrate an ability to assert bold statements relating to civic design, multi-family living, and the desire to mitigate the placeless qualities of our rapidly growing suburbs. One project in particular–the Mission Kitcisakik–draws special attention to the need for architects to be involved in improving the physical living conditions in First Nations communities, thereby expanding our role beyond mere purveyors of good design and embracing our capacity to serve as advocates for better communities.

The Governor General’s Medals in Architecture are often used as a barometer to measure the state of architecture in Canada, but it is difficult for such an awards program to accurately reflect the wide diversity of building types and range of design processes to reach a singular consensus on what is top of mind for architecture firms today. Nevertheless, the award-winning projects presented here certainly provide a brief overview of the many challenges currently facing our profession.

This prestigious awards program celebrates outstanding completed buildings located anywhere in the world whose architects are ostensibly based in Canada (the lead design architects must be licensed/registered architects who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Canada). The GGs, as they are informally known, continue the tradition of the Massey Medals that were established in 1950 and which sought to celebrate–and define–Canadian architecture and the regional and cultural forces that help shape our built environment. To be eligible, this year’s submissions must have been completed between January 1, 2004 and September 1, 2011. Up to 12 medals are awarded every two years. Architecture Canada | Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), along with the RAIC College of Fellows, are responsible for the organization and administration of the competition while the Canada Council for the Arts selects and administers the peer assessment jury. The 2012 jury included Manon Asselin (founding partner of atelier TAG in Montreal and adjunct professor at the Université de Montréal School of Architecture), Joost Bakker (principal of DIALOG, Vancouver), Siamak Hariri (founding partner of Hariri Pontarini Architects, Toronto), Catherine Slessor (editor of The Architectural Review, London, UK), and Alejandro Villarreal (director of Hierve Diseñería, Mexico City and London, UK).

Of the numerous buildings emerging from a strong social mandate, only three projects have received a Governor General’s Medal over the past decade. In 2002, Shim-Sutcliffe Architects received accolades for the Moorelands Camp Dining Hall on Lake Kawagama in Ontario (a non-profit camp for underprivileged children) while in 2004, Henriquez Partners received a medal for the Lore Krill Housing Co-op in Vancouver. The third recipient is to be found amidst this year’s selected winners. The Mission Kitcisakik project in Quebec is an outstanding example of a process-intensive project with an incredible social mandate in which the architect and client were able to enlist, train, and empower the local Native community in order to provide better housing for themselves. With 50 percent of Canada’s Aboriginal population living in urban centres and many universities pursuing building projects focused on Aboriginal students and learning, the self-affirmation of First Nations architecture will continue to be recognized in the foreseeable future.

In recent years, the Governor General’s Medal in Architecture has frequently been awarded to architects who have produced exquisite object-type buildings, and this year is no exception to that trend. Three projects–Linear House, Integral House and Cliff House–were each recognized by the jury as beautiful objects in the landscape. To the dismay of some architects (cue eye-rolling over exquisite homes for the wealthy), there will always be a place for houses such as these which represent laboratories for high-level architectural experimentation. Additionally, the category of the rarefied building commission can certainly be extended to include the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat which has succeeded in raising the bar for quality of construction in Canada, making it a truly global building of the highest order.

Simpler projects with modest construction budgets can be equally influential. 5468796 Architecture’s Bloc_10, a typologically innovative multi-family project set in a suburban Winnipeg context, eschews frivolity and excess while delivering spatial complexity and unique design. The project demonstrates that innovation doesn’t have to come with a high price tag.

Of special note is the quality of work being produced in the suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area. Projects in Mississauga, Newmarket and Vaughan represent a continuing trend of substantial investment in civic, educational and industrial buildings being completed outside of Toronto’s municipal boundaries. In addition to the rigorous implementation of sustainable design strategies contained within these projects is the fact that municipalities are no longer basing their decisions solely on lowest construction cost but are instead choosing higher-quality architecture with lower operating budgets over the long term.

Appreciating high-quality construction and innovative design, understanding the merits of a project’s life-cycle costs, and applying the skills of an architect to achieve a net social benefit and positive impact on disadvantaged communities are all present in this year’s selection of Governor General’s Medals in Architecture. We should be proud of our profession, and we look forward to seeing how these facets of architecture continue to be pursued in the future. CA