December 13, 2017
by Adele Weder
While we celebrate the 50th birthday of our Canadian Architect awards, we also would like to laud another major award just announced elsewhere in the design community. This one honours a person rather than a project: the 2017 Margolese National Design for Living Prize. Organized and distributed by the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the $50,000 no-strings award is directed to an individual whose work actively contributes to improving the living environment for Canadians of all economic classes, with the prospect for still more to come in the future. Copiously endowed by the late Vancouver business magnate Leonard Herbert Margolese, the Prize itself is a scant five years old, but is one of the richest honours in the Canadian design community. In full disclosure, I had the honour and challenge of serving on this year’s jury, along with architect and Université de Montréal professor Daniel Pearl, as well as landscape architect and U.B.C. professor Moura Quayle. The list of nominated candidates formed a remarkable high-achievement club, but simple professional accomplishment is not in itself what the Margolese is about. And this year’s winner—Anne Cormier—could hardly be a more exemplary winner.
Architect, teacher, researcher, advocate, activist, humanist, the co-founder and principal of the high-voltage Montreal firm Atelier Big City, Cormier embodies what many believe is the interdisciplinary and socially minded role of the architect. This is also the embodiment of the nomination criteria. Cormier has struggled mightily—and not always successfully—with governments to induce them to support better design in the creation of public buildings and spaces and transportation systems and neighbourhoods. In a smarter world, her studio’s motto, “Architecture is a Public Policy,” would read as a tautology, so self-evident is its accuracy. But we do not live in a particularly smart world. The architectural portfolio of her firm, Atelier Big City, covers the spectrum of economic classes, from high-end to social housing. But Cormier herself reaches beyond her mandate, from her groundwork in this fall’s World Design Summit, to her beyond-the-norm mentorship of students at the Université de Montréal, to the hundreds of other small and large community projects in which she implicates herself. “It’s rare that one individual can tacitly fight for the better good, through so many varied realms within one career, and at a high level of excellence,” notes Pearl.
Yet the Margolese Prize nominees and winners are not limited to architects: they can be urban planners, engineers, public artists, policy makers, entrepreneurs, community activists or in any field that contributes to improving the living environment for Canadians. They may use their award to continue their heroics or, if they wish, take their work in entirely different direction. Last year’s winner was Idle No More co-founder Sylvia McAdams, whose fearless activism has injected hope and prompted change in the living conditions of Indigenous communities. Previous winners were landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander; McGill University professor and urban agriculture promoter Vikram Bhatt; architect Bing Thom; and University of Toronto professor and land researcher Eric Miller. From activists to architects, they are a motley group. But the common characteristic of their work is its interdisciplinary and social aspect.
The Margolese is still relatively unknown relative to its purse and prestige, but it’s quite likely that within a decade it will cart the same legendary intrigue in Canada as the McArthur “genius” grants do in the United States. “I don’t think we have enough rewards for risk-taking, experimenting and generally mobilizing knowledge, especially ones that focus on the improvement of living environments,” observes Quayle. No, we don’t, but here’s one.