December 1, 2005
by Canadian Architect
Michael Taylor co-founded Taylor Smyth Architects with Robert Smyth in 2000. The firm’s work is inspired by certain fundamental criteria to which they believe all people respond: light, texture, colour and natural materials, a sense of both openness and sheltered enclosure, access to views and a connection to nature. Their portfolio encompasses a wide range of building types, including schools, workplaces, retail, institutional and residential projects. Regardless of size, every project conveys a human scale and reveals a close attention to detail along with the creative use of exquisite materials. Taylor Smyth Architects have been widely published in magazines and newspapers, and have received awards for their work from the OAA, the National Post Design Exchange Awards and the Best of Canada Awards sponsored by Canadian Interiors. Current projects include a new restaurant that will span a bridge over Yonge Street in Toronto, a competition-winning scheme for a new 10-acre park in Markham, and an extensive addition to a community centre, also in Markham. Prior to the founding of Taylor Smyth Architects, Taylor cofounded Taylor Hariri Pontarini Architects in 1994. He received his B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1979 and his Master in Architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 1983, and began his working career at the office of Barton Myers in Toronto also in 1983. Taylor was recently a guest lecturer at the CAUSA lecture series in Calgary.
Robert Ouellette is the producer and editor of www.readingtoronto.com and www.readingmontreal.com, online communities dedicated to the design, culture, and politics that shape those cities. He is the former director of the Information Technology Design Centre at the University of Toronto. His exploration into the impact of new communications technologies on the design and use of modern cities earned a City of Toronto Urban Design Award for his John Street Media Corridor Project. A CD-ROM derived from the project has toured internationally. Rated on par with Microsoft’s Encarta, it is in the collection of major museums. Working with thinkthinkthink Inc. and founder Brian Boigon, he directed a web campaign that helped launch the careers of the Black Eyed Peas. Prior to earning a Lieutenant-Governor’s Award of Excellence and the AIA Henry Adams Medal as an architecture student, Ouellette was a senior analyst at the Boeing/de Havilland Aircraft Company. There, he used early versions of the CAD/CAM systems that have since revolutionized the practice of architecture. His interest in how design affects the economic life of cities led him to acquire an MBA from the Ivey School of Business. Ouellette’s column on Toronto architecture and design issues entitled “Toronto Unbuilt” runs in the National Post.
Claude Provencher is a founding partner of the architecture firm Provencher Roy + Associs architectes which has been active in Montreal since 1983. The design of educational, institutional and commercial buildings forms the majority of the firm’s portfolio, but the scope of work also includes urban planning, interior design, exhibition layout and graphic design. PR+AA exploit the modern tradition as the most legitimate approach to space and the city given the social and economic conditions of contemporary practice. The office thus aims for innovation, excellence, and exploration, but their process remains firmly based on pragmatic examinations of client demands, program, budget and site. Spatial richness and complexity in their buildings evolve from a rigorous deployment of simple, clear concepts within a contextually sensitive framework. Provencher has led the firm towards numerous awards and honours, and in doing so has established a national reputation for excellence. He has been invited to speak at numerous forums on architecture and urban planning in Canada and Europe. He is a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and member of the Ordre des architectes du Qubec and the Ontario Association of Architects. In 1996, Provencher became a member of the NCC’s Advisory Committee on Planning, Design and Realty, for which he accepted the position of Vice-Chair in 1999.
There are rare moments in a culture’s design history when economic, social, and technological forces align. When that happens, exceptional projects that previously were imagined but never built find opportunities for life. The following award-winning projects offer evidence that this is one of those moments for Canadian architecture. These buildings are examples of exceptional design, tectonic rigour, and mature experimentation allowed by an abundance of cheap capital.
Given such advantageous design conditions, we might rightly expect quality work from the country’s leading practitioners. However, these buildings represent more than a disparate collection of good architectural projects. A juror reviewing hundreds of projects, images and ideas discerns what may be the beginnings of a Canadian architectural style. In the case of the 2005 Awards of Excellence projects, the nascent style is not, however, one associated solely with form-making. If that were the case, it would be much easier to discern. I would suggest that here the emergent style is process and idea-driven, owing as much to environmental strategies as it does to formal ones. It is for that reason the work of Canadian architects may evolve into an antidote to media-driven architectural simulacrum.
Defining the unique qualities of this possible Canadian style is by its very nature a tentative process. That said, we can venture a cursory definition of its attributes. First among them is a formal quality I will describe as an integration of metaphor with tectonic facility; second, is an increasing mastery of heuristic-based design; third, is a visceral engagement of the Canadian landscape.
Not all the chosen schemes exhibit an equal combination of these characteristics, although I would suggest that almost all of them share a similar conceptual trajectory.
The Patkau scheme for the Centre for Music, Art and Design is a good example of the integration of metaphor with tectonic facility. Their use of collage as design metaphor generates unexpected spatial relationships that energize and animate the project. This potentially narcissistic process is constrained by tectonic and programmatic requirements related in large part to the geographical location of the building. The result is a mature, mid-scale work with a formal complexity that rivals European architecture.
Baird Sampson Neuert Architects’ Thomas L. Wells Public School is an example of our growing skill with an heuristic design method that results in process and idea-driven form-making. In this project, the architects combine two heuristic tools: one focused on educational needs, the other on environmental requirements. The resulting architecture is a multivalent, process-driven response to the client’s needs.
Busby Perkins + Will Architects’ Dockside Lands in Victoria also exhibits a similar heuristic method although on a much larger scale. Driven by a dry-sounding “triple bottom line” economic analysis, the project’s formal assemblage of elements takes shape as style at the service of economic and environmental utility. While in the past this might make for a prosaic, utilitarian design solution, this scheme uses the tight constraints as a generative stimulus for design innovation.
Ian MacDonald Architect Inc.’s House in Grey Highlands specifically, and most of the other projects here generally, embody an innate relationship with the Canadian landscape. This is, I think, beyond a normal creative response to site conditions. Think of it as being as Canadian as a Group of Seven landscape–the buildings in the landscape cannot be the product of any other time or place.
Although not given any awards, five projects are nonetheless worthy of mention. Baird Sampson Neuert’s Old Post Office Plaza was accomplish
ed, but falls short when judged by the standards set by BSN in their previous Bay Adelaide Park. Acton Ostry’s King David High School is a strong, innovative project that deserves recognition while not, for this panel at least, displacing other entries in the educational category. Its promenade along its arterial axis is a powerful learning tool and the exploded drawing used to convey it is illuminating. The Entertainment Complex by Arcop/NOMADE is a 21st- century equivalent to the Expo 67 development. This casino-based project, while formally innovative, suffers from its lack of engagement with the surrounding docklands. The design trope of using the acrobat’s contortions as a generative idea results in a beautiful if not self-conscious form. The relationship between the historic stone house and the condominium units in NOMADE’s Saint-Amable Housing Project creates a synthetic tension that, while appealing, is undermined by the upper building’s unconvincing fenestration. The design and materials of NORR’s Canadian Plaza Peace Bridge deserve attention. Where it slips is in its integration of the canopy element with the administration building. The formal weakness between the two pieces may be the result of its programmatic restrictions. Robert Ouellette
The 2005 submissions weren’t as strong as l would have initially thought, but this is likely an indicator of a sluggish Canadian architectural economy. Also, it was surprising how weak the participation was from the province of Quebec. Despite this fact, we were able to select some solid and excellent projects among more than 100 professional participants and 33 student entries. The winning entries demonstrated a very high standard of quality and consistency, and it is clear that Canadian architects are producing excellent architecture capable of competing at the international level. Finally, some of the student projects indicate a very promising future for architecture in Canada.
A number of projects generated discussion although we did not feel they met the standard of Excellence or Merit. We hesitated over Acton Ostry Architects’ King David High School in Vancouver due to the way the architects address the main street. However, all the members found it very competent and well structured. Some of us were intrigued and impressed with the boldness of Arcop/NOMADE’s Entertainment Complex in Montreal, but we felt that the project had to evolve further in its urban design approach. The project lacked a convincing sense of the space and seemed unable to cohere the main attributes of the site. We were pleased to see the interesting public space proposed by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects in Opera Urbanus–Old Post Office Plaza, as it is well composed and refined. Despite the project’s excellence, what prevented us from giving it an award was a certain ambiguity related to the resolution of the ramp and primary access through the main screen wall. Something seemed unclear and not definitive enough. Old Montreal has seen numerous housing projects in recent years, and NOMADE’s scheme for the Saint-Amable Housing Project proposed a new approach to its integration into the old urban fabric. We found the skin created for the project to be unconvincing, as the analogy of a moucharaby latticed screening device used for privacy in Arabic architecture seems inappropriate in the context of Old Montreal. And finally, the plan of NORR’s Canadian Plaza Improvements at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie conveys a dynamic form that could possibly be associated with an airport terminal, but the analogy ends there. The shape of this gateway is superb, but the overall scale is too robust, making it difficult to imagine how visitors from the United States would perceive and react to this entry to Canada. However, we do admit that this project is superior to what has been proposed for this project type in recent years. Claude Provencher
On reviewing the projects that were selected for awards this year, in retrospect I recognize that there are two underlying themes that tend to characterize almost all of them–first, a powerful response to site, whether from an urban design standpoint or a topographic one; and second, a strong approach to sustainable design strategies. These are not themes that we as members of the jury were actively seeking, but rather they were common themes that became apparent after we had made the selections.
All of the projects located in dense urban settings were as much involved in how they related to their context as they were about the design of the buildings themselves. KPMB’s Royal Conservatory of Music counterbalances the buildings of the existing facility that face onto Bloor Street, while the rear of the building reinforces Philosopher’s Walk. Cohlmeyer Architects’ Webbsite infill condominium creates a new street in a gap behind existing buildings. Both projects are respectful of their context while employing a modern language of form. Perhaps one might identify a distinctively Canadian sense of restraint here, compared with projects such as Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, just down the street from the Royal Conservatory, a building that seeks to distinguish itself from its surroundings through juxtaposition and contrast. However, this restraint is in no way lacking in creativity.
The projects situated in more rural settings all provide a strong response to their topography in the development of the building forms and the way they occupy the site–one could declare in these cases that “form follows topography.” Ian MacDonald’s House in Grey Highlands embeds itself into the land to minimize its visual impact, and the Patkau’s Little House also carves into the site. The shapes of the French River Provincial Park Visitor Centre by Baird Sampson Neuert interprets the forms of the rocky topography, while the Cistercian Abbey by Pierre Thibault reaches out into the landscape with a series of sensitive landscape interventions. Velikov + Thn’s S.W.A.M.P. House, on the other hand, hovers over the land to minimize its impact on the native ecosystem.
The projects that incorporated sustainable design technologies were not singled out just because they included them, but rather due to their creative use of these technologies. There were two types of approaches to sustainable design; one where the elements were applied, such as photovoltaic panels, green roofs and high-performance glazing, and the other where the form of the building itself was influenced and distorted as a result of a rigourous analysis of external and internal forces. The roof of Teeple’s Langara College project is “warped” by the forces of wind and water that are harnessed through wind towers to create cooling. The Dockside Lands by Busby Perkins + Will is in a category by itself–an extensive urban development incorporating multiple green strategies on a formerly polluted site–that hopefully will become a model for future developments.
The Thomas L. Wells Public School challenges the current Ontario funding formula for schools with more durable materials and energy-saving systems that cost more up front but have long-term cost-saving implications. I felt it was very important to recognize this project and the vision of the Toronto District School Board for enabling it, in light of the lack of emphasis on design among many other school boards, who appear not to consider the importance of the connection between thoughtfully designed, inspirational school environments and the quality of learning.
In general, we agreed quite easily on the projects that deserved awards. Much of our time was spent discussing projects that we felt almost deserved awards and determining why, in the end, we were unable to select them. For instance, we appreciated the attempt of NOMADE’s Saint-Amable Housing Project to create a composition of new elements juxtaposed with historic buildings in Old Montreal, but ultimately we were not convinced by the articulation of the elevations. We did agree that the new construction should have a contemporary expression, however. Similarly, we felt that
NORR’s Canada Customs and Immigration Building had a dynamic formal composition and a rich and appropriate material palette of wood and stone, but that the articulation of the building skin did not live up to its promise. The Peel Basin Entertainment Complex by Arcop/NOMADE appeared at first glance to indicate an exciting new development within the Old Port of Montreal. However, the way it addressed the bordering streets and related to the rest of the city seemed ultimately to be unresolved.
Of the student thesis work, we were disappointed to find that few projects succeeded in making the transition from a written thesis into architecture. Three projects stood out. Coincidentally, two of them were focused on youth music culture and also proposed non-traditional sites and buildings. The third project for a Dubai Desert Retreat was the most beautifully presented, proof that the ability to draw by hand is still a desirable skill.
Overall, there is no doubt that the calibre of projects submitted for awards this year was very high, an indication of the large number of talented practitioners in this country. I would like to thank Canadian Architect for the privilege of participating on the jury. Michael Taylor
Acton Ostry’s King David High School Was Unable to Convince the Jury to Accept the Peculiarities of Its Suburban Context and the Ways in Which the Landscape Component Addresses Its Lane Condition.
Despite the Sophisticated Scale and Programming of Baird Sampson Neuert’s Opera Urbanus Proposal for St. Louis, the Project Is Ambiguous in Its Resolution of the Ramp and Access Through the Screen Wall.
Below the Methodology for the Fenestration of the Saint-Amable Housing Scheme Presented by Montreal’s Nomade Was Problematic for the Jury.