Jury Report: 2019 Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence

2019 awards jury Joe Lobko, Cindy Wilson and Rami Bebawi

The 2019 Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence jury—Rami Bebawi of KANVA, Joe Lobko of DTAH, and Cindy Wilson of LWPAC/Intelligent City—met at a charged time: six days after a global climate strike, midway through the federal election, with ongoing political turmoil in the US and social unrest in Hong Kong.

One criterion for our awards, given to design- and construction-phase projects, is the “demonstration of social and environmental awareness.” This year, these precepts were especially resonant. How does architecture participate—consciously or unwittingly—in larger issues?

Sustainability, the jurors were glad to see, was part of most of the entries. Many were pegged to LEED criteria, but others looked to more ambitious standards, such as Passive House.

The ones that were deemed award-worthy took a comprehensive lens to environmental sustainability. For instance, the Honey Bee Research Centre in Guelph features a roof planted with pollinator gardens. A pathway that ramps up the sloping surface extends an existing ground-level trail, and takes visitors on a swooping journey similar to the flight paths of bees—an issue that the Centre aims to build awareness about.

The ATTAbotics facility, a headquarters and manufacturing facility for a Calgary-based robotics company, takes an ambitious design-for-disassembly approach. This allows for ease of maintenance and minimizes material impact over the building’s lifecycle.

The wedge-like form of the ATTAbotics headquarters derives from airport district regulations.

Coincidentally, two thirds of the awarded projects—six out of the nine selected—propose to use mass timber for part of their structure. It’s perhaps an indication of the widespread interest that architects are showing in this family of materials, which, in theory, can contribute to a reduction in embodied energy.

Mass timber is at the heart of two projects: IW09, a mixed-use building in Calgary, and the University of Toronto’s Academic Wood Tower. Both propose to include exposed mass timber structures. While IW09 is still in design development, the Academic Wood Tower is a detailed, fully engineered design that gives a glimpse into the dynamic possibilities of mass timber. (Incidentally, three of the five Awards of Excellence went to university buildings, a hopeful indication of how some of these institutions are continuing to invest in quality architecture.)

The mass timber structure of the Academic Wood Tower is showcased on the fully glazed north façade.

The adaptive reuse of existing structures and the densification of cities are also of vital importance in reducing GHG emissions. The John Deutsch University Centre in Kingston is a sensitive addition to a heritage structure that renders it accessible, while creating new student spaces. The jury found its composition to be an exquisite union of old and new. In a similar vein, they selected a housing project, West Don Lands Block 8 in Toronto, as a new building that learned from its old surroundings. They admired its solid urban planning, thoughtful relationship to the ground plane, and choice
of materials and forms that reference the existing urban fabric.

Reconciliation was another concern that was top of mind. For the jury, the design for the new Thunder Bay Art Gallery exemplified how meaningful dialogue with Indigenous peoples might inform compelling architecture. The form of the gallery and its relationship to the site is driven by an Ojibway myth, emerging from the waterfront site like the continent emerged on a turtle’s back in an ancient legend.

On the upper floor of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery Waterfront Relocation Project , a generously sized hall accommodates large gathering.

Finally, two projects were selected that use architecture to transform the infrastructure that is vital to thriving cities. The Bellechasse Transport Centre in Montreal takes what was planned to be a large, above-ground bus garage and sinks it underground. It’s topped with a park that provides amenity to the adjacent residential areas. The Clayton Water Reservoir in Surrey, BC, uses a cladding strategy that evokes the presence of water. This adds an environmental learning opportunity and sense of poetry to what would otherwise be a bland, utilitarian structure.

The Bellechasse bus storage and maintenance facility is sunk underground, allowing a park to occupy the large site.

While it did not rise to the design level of the other awarded proposals, a project for modularly constructed homeless shelters in Vancouver generated much discussion. How can architects apply their expertise to pressing social and environmental issues? Given that issues like affordability and global heating are at a crisis point, how can we move more quickly to address them?

To the jurors, many of the professional entries seemed timid in this regard—bound all too tightly by client and economic constraints.

In contrast, the student entries to the awards offered frank, intriguing answers to tough questions.

Dystopian narratives and bold designs tackled the accelerating climate catastrophe head-on, while comprehensive research and careful analyses delved into issues affecting global cities and dilemmas closer to home in Canada’s cities and rural areas. The majority of the student projects engaged directly with big issues: from rising sea levels, urban densification and slums, to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, Arctic sovereignty and Islamophobia.

In a project by Cameron Parkin, two- and three-dimensional mapping is used to analyze the movement of birds through the city, and to locate interventions to facilitate their passage.

The jury was so impressed by the student entries that they selected five student projects for recognition, rather than the usual one or two. In order to fund the cash prizes that accompany the student awards, the jurors, as a group, opted to forgo their honorariums.

The final component of the awards focuses on architectural photography. Three entries were selected by the three jurors, joined by photographer Ema Peter, reflecting a diversity of approaches—as well as three very different places, from Santiago de Chile to Winnipeg.

The photo awards program allows us to recognize an important facet of Canada’s architecture: how built works are captured and represented. If the student awards are about pure concept, and the professional awards deal in concepts that have been informed by reality, then the photos draw things full circle. How does architecture emerge from ideas, and in photos, return to the realm of ideas?

In architecture, we deal daily with the slippery world between ephemeral ideas and bricks and mortar: our drawings, models, and contracts bridge between the two. The Canadian Architect Awards, it is hoped, remind us to keep one foot in both worlds.

For the full presentation of award winners, view our December issue here.