Grant-Makers for Architecture

This year, the Canada Council for the Arts celebrates the 10th anniversary of its architecture programs. These funding programs have had a significant impact on an evolving culture of architecture in Canada and have made the creative talent of our architects more accessible to the public at large.

How did the Council get involved in promoting architecture in the first place? Ten years ago, there was a general feeling in the architectural community that the practice had shifted. Architectural research had moved beyond the era of studio-based architecture proposals, which might be funded under the Canada Council’s grants to artists, and was beginning to move towards the study and public presentation of built work. After holding a national consultation on the nature and promise of this shift, the Canada Council realigned its support.

Two architecture grant programs were created: one for individual applicants and architecture offices, and the other for organizations. These programs aimed to help fund professionally produced books, exhibitions and events focused on Canadian-built projects in order to nurture a dialogue about architecture that would be firmly rooted in the public sphere. And the public responded. Over the years, close to one million people have visited the shows, watched the films, attended the events and read the books supported by the grant programs, which have also generated considerable media coverage. 

To mark the 10th anniversary of the architecture grant programs, Canadian Architect met with the Canada Council to discuss the programs’ impact on the evolution of architectural culture in Canada. We spoke with Director and CEO Robert Sirman, Head of the Visual Arts Section Sylvie Gilbert, and Architecture Program Officer Brigitte Desrochers.

Looking back at the first decade of these programs, how has the Canada Council for the Arts generated a discussion about architectural excellence and what are some of the tangible results of this dialogue? 

Robert Sirman: Architecture is specifically cited as an art form in the Canada Council for the Arts Act and it may well be the art form that affects Canadians most, and in the most profound way. Buildings surround us at almost every moment of our lives and they determine, in large part, the quality of our experience of being in the world. They are meant to outlive us and to have lasting value–not just economic but artistic. We’ve seen our role as motivating a public discussion on what good architecture is, and what it brings to the world, with the firm belief that this discussion can in turn lead to better architecture and quality of life.

Sylvie Gilbert: The Canada Council has advanced this interest by opening the door to professionals across the country to support projects that make sense and matter in the context of their own cultural environments. We’ve insisted on having those projects carried through by professional organizations such as public galleries, museums and publishing houses. In this way, the architecture community has gained entry to a broad range of spaces across the country, which in turn has contributed to scholarship, lifted the quality of production, and improved public outreach.

Brigitte Desrochers: Certainly one of the more visible and lasting legacies of these first 10 years is the stream of professionally produced architecture books that has been created. There were very few of them 10 years ago, and we’re beginning to have a fairly good collection now, focusing on the Modernist period as Newfoundland Modern does, or encompassing a broader historical scope, seen in Building New Brunswick, Exploring Vancouver, and the recently published Architecture of Saskatchewan.

What about projects targeted to younger audiences? And how do you encourage applicants who may be new to curating projects and events?

SG: There has been a growing ambition among Canadian architects to bring forward live, engaging and democratic conversations on architecture. With Canada Council funding, public architecture festivals have been launched, and in almost every case, maintained through the years. Road shows have made their way across the country, with Migrating Landscapes, Spacing magazine and, a few years back, a group of emerging architects travelling in a bus. This fall, a first national architecturally themed Pecha Kucha is originating from Edmonton. We’re also seeing a multiplication of web-based projects. Well-edited architecture websites have appeared over the last 10 years. Some of them, like the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation’s website, list significant buildings marked by a QR code that links to online information. Audio-guide applications offering architecture tours of Canadian cities are being developed for mobile devices. 

RS: Council staff welcome the chance to engage newcomers to architecture and to the Canada Council grant programs in a conversation about their ideas and how to bring them to fruition. We keep track of the knowledge gathered in past projects and do our best to make it available to new applicants; sometimes we even connect people who might gain from one another’s experiences and ambitions. In other words, there’s a legacy of knowledge gained and lessons learned that are cultivated thanks to the continuous operation of this program. 

What lessons have you learned about running the programs so as to encourage leadership, innovation, and the exploration of new directions for architecture in Canada?

SG: We’ve trusted the milieu, its instinct and its capacity to make things happen in style. Baby boomers are retiring, leaving behind a strong legacy. A whole new generation of architects are finding their voice. Our relationship with digital culture is evolving fast and furiously, and unique organizational structures are being created. This opens the door to promising projects and new models. Networks of like-minded cultural activists have never been easier to create. Architects are defining new roles for themselves, as firms large and small engage a much broader range of clients and mandates by way of pro bono work. First Nations clients have multiplied and some of them are defining new roles for the architect. It’s fascinating and we are eager to see what will come of it all.

BD: And we don’t pick the projects to receive funding. Grants are awarded through a peer assessment process involving architects from all corners of the country, all age groups and all firm sizes. They make the decisions and demonstrate a consistent wisdom in doing so. We’re comfortable with this process, and over the years, we have broadened the variety of proposals the jury considers. Competitions have been added to the list of eligible projects in 2007, which provided wonderful surprises: the Green Line Competition in Toronto, among other projects, could not have been supported otherwise. This year, the programs have been adjusted once again, in response to the changing environment, but also as an expression of trust in the peer assessment process. 

What kind of proposals and projects do you expect to see in the future?

BD: Well-researched projects on canonical works should remain a core component of projects supported, and innovations are likely to happen in the ways they are presented. Currently, applicants who bring forth these projects seek ways to make their knowledge available to audiences that are mobile, connected and who cultivate a wealth of different cultural interests. Projects for solidly edited architecture guidebooks, applications and websites have been on the rise over the last year and it’s such a basic and smart offering that I expect to see more of that. For example
, Ottawa’s last architecture guidebook was published 30 years ago and is long out of print as you may imagine. The Council is supporting the production of a new one, to be published on the occasion of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations. It’s a wonder to think that Canada’s capital city would have gone that long without an up-to-date and readily available architecture guidebook.

SG: The possible rise of guidebooks is interesting, insofar as it values first-hand experience of buildings. It’s a live experience, it involves the senses and the emotions and it responds to a kind of thirst that the population seems to have today, as tourists as well as in their hometowns. We’re also likely to see an increase in international initiatives. They’ve been few and far between in the program’s first decade, but we’ve made our programs more welcoming in this regard. Given the flourishing network of architecture venues abroad, the increased attention Canadian architects have received in the international media, the growing mobility of practice and the internationalization of the construction industry, we’re bound to see an increase in proposals that aim beyond our borders. There’s a vital and interesting conversation happening out there.

In your experience, what qualities make for the strongest proposals and the most successful results? 

BD: The best projects are often created by people with a deep love and respect for architecture, who have found ways of teasing out all that’s good and interesting about it. Or they may pick up on what’s strange, unresolved, in progress, and worth a good talk. They’ve found partners and made a plan that is solid, and likely to have good traction with the public. Proposals are, in fact, evaluated on the quality of the buildings to be discussed, the relevance of what’s being brought into the public conversation, and the project’s capacity to reach out to the public. Criteria also include having a realistic budget, a good timeline and team structure, and the right mix of skill sets. Once you look at the variety of projects supported through the programs, you realize there’s nothing cookie-cutter about it. It’s very much about loving architecture and understanding context, but it can take hundreds of different forms. 

RS: These programs have, in fact, been very adept at supporting novel types of organizations. Festivals such as the International Garden Festival at the Jardins de Métis near Rimouski and the Warming Huts in Winnipeg are held by societies whose core structure is supported by a broader base of activities: historical gardens in Quebec, and a surprising roster of functions including a public market in Manitoba. Those are precisely the organizations with the greatest stability, the broadest international ambitions, and the greatest amount of media attention worldwide. To take another set of examples from Quebec and Manitoba, DOCOMOMO Québec and the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation both shine in their capacity to welcome largely volunteer-based contributions and to make smart use of new media, while upholding high standards in terms of production quality and curatorial oversight. Looking further into the extremely broad spectrum of recipients of this grant program reveals the inherent agility of this environment, its capacity to generate new organizational structures, new ways of conceiving of architecture, new types of connections with diverse publics and the wider world. If I were pressed to name one thing that fares well in these programs, it’s this agility.

SG: And, probably, the outward-looking, vivacious and welcoming disposition that often underlies it. We tread a fine line between keeping high professional standards and presenting friendly access points into the art of architecture. As Brigitte pointed out, jury members are very adept at locating the projects that fare well in this regard. They seek out what’s collective, smart and pertinent.

RS: Architecture is a deeply social art, and it does seem to fit that it should be the subject of a deeply socialized conversation. We like to think that these grant programs bring architecture into public awareness, but the reverse is also true. They bring an awareness of the public into architectural discourse. Just 10 years ago, this might have seemed like a dubious proposition. Today, it is proving to be fertile ground for invention and mutual benefit. CA