Competing Interests

TEXT Odile Hnault

2006 has been a big year for competitions in Montreal, and all of it seems to have originated from a small team at the Universit de Montral. Curiously, since Quebec’s Liberal government seems to have temporarily and effectively stopped its contribution to competitions, there has been little discussion about it amongst those in the architectural profession.

The first major event to happen in 2006 was the launch of the Canadian Competitions Catalogue online, which ostensibly lists all the architectural competitions that have been organized across the country since 1945. As its main instigator, Universit de Montral professor Jean-Pierre Chupin put it very simply: “We created the box: we need people to help us fill it.” A second event was organized by Professor Denis Bilodeau, who documented 31 competitions sponsored by Quebec’s Department of Culture and Communications. It culminated in a major exhibition held in November 2006 and in a bilingual catalogue, both entitled Architectural Competitions and Territorial Imagination: Cultural Projects in Quebec 1991-2005. Finally, in April, Professor Anne Cormier–of Atelier Big City fame–launched a student competition on the theme of social housing. Entitled “Rethinking and Redefining Social Housing in the City Centre,” the two-stage competition challenged teams of architecture students “to reflect upon and redefine affordable housing in Canadian downtown cores.”

At the end of the first stage of Cormier’s competition, which attracted 35 teams of 118 students from all 10 Canadian schools, 15 teams were selected-and paid $2,000 each to go on to the second stage. A roundtable was organized for the opening of the exhibition: all six jury members were present, as were most of the participating students and even a few proud parents. Jury members included several figures from the Canadian architectural scene, one French architect and one Quebec-based sociologist.

The projects submitted by the 15 teams are representative of the current preoccupation with the environment. A number of schemes submitted by architecture schools across the country reflected this, particularly the winning entry from Dalhousie University as well as the third-place scheme from the Universit de Montral. Although no truly outstanding idea emerged from the competition, the revisiting of certain urban-design realities found in many of Canada’s downtowns was certainly noteworthy.

The roundtable itself was a memorable event. Two of the jury members, practitioners Raouf Boutros and dith Girard–generously analyzed each one of the 15 schemes for the students’ benefit and provided useful feedback. The lone dissenting voice was that of sociologist Francine Dansereau who has been studying social housing issues in Quebec for years. Her testimony demonstrated the tremendous gap which exists between schools of architecture and other faculties when it comes to the issues affecting social housing. In order to not constantly reinvent the wheel, architects may be well advised to listen to the extremely valid points of view expressed by other professionals on the city.

The Canadian Competitions Catalogue, the Cultural Projects exhibition, and projects submitted by the student teams can all be viewed online at Odile Hnault is an architectural critic based in Montreal.