Fitting In

Awarded every other year since 1982, the Governor General’s Medals recognize outstanding projects by Canadian architects. The 2014 winners, presented in the following pages, make remarkable contributions to the public realm and are notable in their handling of issues ranging from modern heritage to material innovation.

Several of this year’s winning projects have a tight relationship to heritage buildings. Some are direct conversions: Les Architectes FABG deftly resuscitated a shuttered gas station by Mies van der Rohe, reimagining it as a community centre that retains the minimalist spirit of the original design. For Toronto’s Bloor Gladstone Library, RDH Architects renovated and added to a Neoclassical library from 1912. The project included stripping away a set of renovations from the mid-1970s and reconfiguring the levels to create barrier-free access and a generous three-storey atrium. 

Other projects deftly negotiate heritage issues from different eras. KPMB Architects’ Joseph L. Rotman School of Management expansion links to both a 19th-century heritage house and a Zeidler Roberts Partnership building from 1995. Its massing strategy includes an elevated block, intended to counterbalance the Brutalist Robarts Library across the street. A second award-winner by KPMB, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, is a classically proportioned academic quad building. One side of that quad comprises a 19th-century barrel warehouse with a Postmodern addition that once housed the Seagram Museum. The Seagram Museum won a Governor General’s medal for Barton Myers Associates in 1986, and was subsequently converted to house academic facilities for CIGI.

An addition to North Vancouver City Hall by Michael Green– formerly of McFarlane Green Biggar Architecture + Design and now of MGA | Michael Green Architecture–connects a 1970s heritage building to a library-turned-office block, using a warm wood-and-glass bridging atrium. 

Two winning projects are situated on seemingly less auspicious sites, adjacent to major roadways. The Centennial College Athletic and Wellness Centre by Kongats Architects turns its visibility from Highway 401 to its advantage: its glass-column façade sets up an elegant visual rhythm, and showcases glimpses of activity inside to passing high-speed motorists. Raymond-Lévesque Public Library by Atelier TAG with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes wraps around a reading courtyard, providing a hideaway from the six-lane Boulevard Cousineau. 

Other winning projects are instructive in their material innovation. Shim-Sutcliffe’s residence for the elderly Sisters of St. Joseph presents an intriguing façade, enveloping a sinuous, narrow-plan building with fins in Corten and green powder-coated aluminum. OMS Stage by Winnipeg firm 5468796 Architecture is also accomplished as a sculptural object: situated in the city’s Exchange District, it features a flexible aluminum mesh curtain that can be pulled back for performances. 

A masterful deployment of space is requisite for any project to rise to the ranks of a Governor General’s Award. Some projects, however, take a more experimental approach to spatial and volumetric manipulation. 60 Richmond East by Teeple Architects carves an urban block into a colourful social-housing development with a two-layered set of aerial courtyards. The Faculty for Pharmaceutical Sciences and Centre for Drug Research and Development at the University of British Columbia by Saucier + Perrotte Architectes and Hughes Condon Marler Architects is (with the exception of its playful front façade) largely a straightforward box from the exterior. The interior, by contrast, opens up into an enchanting succession of linked lobbies, exhibition spaces and atriums. 

On the far West Coast, the Tula House by Patkau Architects is the only residential project to garner a Medal this year, and it’s a spectacular choice. The house daringly cantilevers over a rocky ledge towards the Pacific Ocean, and wraps around a courtyard pool. The shard-like plan is sliced through with trapezoidal skylights above and glass segments in the floor underfoot, offering dizzying views of the rocks, beach and water below. 

With the exception of the Tula House, all of this year’s Governor General’s Medals have been awarded to projects in urban and suburban contexts. Together, they showcase how architects, municipalities and institutions are increasingly invested in high-quality design for everyday spaces in Canada’s urban centres–and in so doing, set a standard to which we all can aspire. CA