Canadian Architect

Feature

Progressive Awards

September 1, 2013
by Elsa Lam

Mission Kitcisakik, an initiative to train First Nations residents of a Quebec community in the construction expertise needed to improve their off-reserve dwellings, was recognized with a 2012 Governor General's Medal in Architecture. The project subsequently received a Canada Council grant to expand to other communities. Guillaume Lvesque

Mission Kitcisakik, an initiative to train First Nations residents of a Quebec community in the construction expertise needed to improve their off-reserve dwellings, was recognized with a 2012 Governor General’s Medal in Architecture. The project subsequently received a Canada Council grant to expand to other communities. Guillaume Lvesque

Architectural awards and grant-supported public outreach projects are key to how the profession is perceived by those outside of it. Recently, two important Canadian programs–the Governor General’s Medals in Architecture and the Canada Council’s architecture grants–have undergone shifts that reflect the progressive aspirations of professionals across the country.

Since their beginnings in 1982 as a continuation of the 1950-1970 Massey Medals program, the Governor General’s Medals have predominantly honoured cultural and institutional buildings. In 2004 and again in 2010, by contrast, nearly half of the recipients were high-end residential buildings. The 2012 Medals marked a decisive turn back towards recognition of architectural works in the public sphere.

One recipient was particularly remarkable in its social aspirations. Mission Kitcisakik, an initiative led by Emergency Architects of Canada and Frontiers Foundation, trained First Nations locals in the construction skills needed to revitalize their community’s dilapidated housing stock. While Nikolaus Pevsner would certainly have grouped the resulting modest homes with his bicycle shed rather than with Lincoln Cathedral, this type of effort is emblematic of efforts within the profession–especially among its younger practitioners–to make a renewed bid for public relevance. The last time an overall initiative rather than a specific building was recognized in the program was in 1986, when an Award of Merit was given to city staffers Stephen G. McLaughlin and Ken Greenberg for their role in shaping Toronto’s downtown development–a much higher-profile endeavour than building houses in a rural Quebec community.

The recently named jurors for the 2014 Governor General’s Awards bring forward a combined experience that covers a broad range of project types in the public realm. The peer assessment committee includes Vancouver’s James K.M. Cheng, Montreal architect Maxime Frappier, PlaNYC board member Roberta Brandes Gratz, Denmark’s Dorte Mandrup, and David Miller of MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects. Their choice of award recipients will be worth waiting for–particularly with the possibility of a surprise choice like Mission Kitcisakik and its declaration of architecture’s expanded role.

Holding a lower profile but arguably no less influential place in promoting Canadian architecture, the Canada Council’s architecture grant programs have now been in place for a decade. As longstanding program officer Brigitte Desrochers and others from the agency discuss in “Grantmakers for Architecture” (page 38), the grants have supported an astonishing number and variety of projects during this time–from books and exhibitions to festivals and walking tours.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of sitting on an advisory committee charged with evaluating a new version of the program’s application guidelines. A revised set of forms is now in effect, which lifts unproductive restrictions and simplifies wording, making the program more accessible.

This fall, publishers, local architecture groups and galleries can apply for funding assistance through a program named Architecture: Grants to Organizations (formerly Assistance to the Promotion of Architecture) while professionals can apply to Architecture: Grants to Individuals and Firms (formerly Assistance to Practitioners, Critics and Curators of Architecture). Strict definitions of what qualifications applicants must possess have been replaced with more general criteria. The guidelines name many categories of projects that qualify–web-based initiatives, competitions, and architectural guidebooks among others. And while grants have been given in the past to exhibitions of work overseas, the program is now explicit in supporting projects that engage public audiences abroad.

As peer-assessed programs with fairly broad criteria, both the Governor General’s Medals and Canada Council grants are structured to be flexible, responding to changes in the profession as measured by the professional community itself. But the programs simultaneously act as drivers of change, supporting new initiatives and approaches that have the potential to advance the pertinence of architecture–both within Canada and beyond.

Elsa Lam [email protected]