Leading By Example

2012 marks the 45th edition of the Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence, and the program continues to attract a respectable number of entries from across the country: this year, we received 139 professional submissions but a disappointingly few 28 student submissions–a result of the prolonged student strike in Quebec which precluded any entries from the Université Laval and the Université de Montréal. Generally speaking, however, the quality of work did not disappoint, as the jurors found it challenging to narrow their selections to just 13 from the many that made the shortlist. Most of the projects will be no less than transformative for their respective communities, and unquestionably elevate the discussion of how architecture can ensure a sustainable future for generations to come–in both urban and rural contexts. Our exceedingly conscientious jurors have been generous enough to share their thoughts about the current state of architecture in Canada–if the project submissions they so painstakingly canvassed can be accepted as an accurate representative sample.

Bruce Haden: Awards programs have distinct purposes. An ideas competition, for example, can have adventuresome provocation as its central focus, while the Governor General’s Medals in Architecture recognize a final built product. For the Canadian Architect Awards, we try to identify excellence in work that is partway through the curve of the design process from ideation to realization. This recognition at an intermediate stage carries with it the responsibility to ask particular questions: Is the work both ambitious and realizable? Does the graphic and written story give a robust dimensionality and reality to the project, or are words and images used to conceal hard truths about the weaknesses of a scheme? Will an award help support an extraordinary vision through realization? 

Accordingly, I was less interested in those projects that were graphically seductive but lacking in real information that would suggest the project was a step towards a serious and disciplined architectural proposition. The projects with critically important information missing were easy to set aside. More complex were the ones where photorealistic renderings created an image of the built work not subject to the rigours of detailing and construction–is that column really going to be that slim? 

I also believe an awards program designed to acknowledge the full range of work in Canada should support an advanced conversation about work of different scales. In my view, the single-family house is a font of architectural invention, but has been over-represented in most awards programs. A scan of many past CA awards issues would conclude, for example, that there was not a single multi-family housing project in the country that rises to the level of excellence. An extraordinary house can be created through a narrow range of concerns and means; an extraordinary city not only can’t be created with too narrow a lens, it must not be. The scale and sharp focus of a house design can produce a precise beauty that jumps out from a table laden with awards entries, but if architects want a strong voice in Canadian society, we must also be seen as successfully tackling the tougher layered complexities of cities and large buildings. We must support both the crisply elegant proposition and the messy wrestle with complexity.

As is frequently the case, Quebec was well represented in the list of honoured work. It seems clear that the cultural attitudes in Quebec–in combination with an advanced system of open competitions–nurtures a deep pool of talent across multiple generations while advancing the ability of firms to tell a story succinctly, graphically and in words. 

Ultimately, we chose to bestow Awards of Excellence on those projects that addressed issues with effectiveness and poetics, and that were clearly on the road to construction. The two Merit winners were seen as projects which piqued our interest and had the possibility for excellence, but which generated important unanswered questions. 

Marie-Chantal Croft: While the project presentations often possessed a clarity and vision that was inspiring, there remains still the tendency of some firms to include an excessively disproportionate number of schematic drawings intended to convey the concept and process of the project, but which are frequently unhelpful. It cannot be stressed enough that selective editing of text, images and drawings is critical in submitting for awards programs, as it is in client presentations in professional practice. I also noted in some cases, deficiencies in the provision of a detailed sustainability strategy along with specific information about site and context–both key components necessary in the comprehension and assessment of the overall scheme.

Donald Chong: One of the privileges of gathering as a jury for a national awards program is the unexpected spinoff of healthy conversation and the anchoring of relationships with counterparts from across the country. Any unique and regional perspectives that we individually may have brought to the table at the outset of these sessions only began to open up and reshape–as we arced through a wonderful and debate-filled two days of dialogue and discourse. There is, of course, an elegant irony in a country our size, as the degree to which we are physically widespread is matched by the degree to which we manage to espouse common, particularized beliefs–evidenced by the array of submissions from across Canada.

We appreciated the architecture of “the hard fight”–where the balance of a project’s realization was ultimately cradled by the sheer architectural will to make it happen. These projects that shared the aspects of unlikelihood brought out the best not only in the specific design but also in the innate notion of what architecture should be doing more of. If it’s possible that architecture may be uncomfortably close in teetering towards a rote and superficial process of late-stage handling, surface-driven administering and feature-based styling, then the work we wanted to single out was work that paid deep attention to reasserting architecture’s original role as a process which both seeks and cultivates a built-in intelligence and a nimbleness for worthy visions. The selection of projects shown here are what may in fact be a welcome, albeit gradual, resurgence toward a resumption of the architect as part catalyst and part steward.

Globally, nation-states are scrambling to reconfigure and revisit just what their stance is economically and ecologically. And architecture can’t not be part of that equation. Whether by Darwinian advances or by conscious choices, the hand of architecture is being forced, more than ever, to be a viable and essential vocation. Suddenly, what we want to do and what we need to do are becoming one and the same.

Stepping back, it can’t go unnoticed as to the role of the exemplary project, and therefore the role of the awards program at large. Inadvertently (and necessarily) serving as a common “diagnostics report” of architecture, these programs can tell us where we’re at as a country, and where we might suitably be headed.

It would be too simple to discount any alignments (as merely forced and convenient categorizations) among the wide range of projects from an even wider range of locales. But we can’t preclude the opportunity to consider whether these seemingly disparate projects–especially for those of a noteworthy degree of architectural resolution–are part of an unintended but nationally coherent and collectively subconscious thread of common traits, instincts and promise.

It’s this kinship, as it were, of an aspiring and a committed architecture: one that aims to net a higher-order outcome and figuratively appears to be launching flares to signal an architecture worth pursuing–well beyond the boundaries of the lot, the precinct, the region or the territory. Perhaps this is leading by example. Perhaps this is what it means to be exemplary.


Donald Chong

A principal of Toronto-based Williamson Chong Architects, Donald Chong is a registered architect with the Ontario Association of Architects and a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. He has firmly established himself in Toronto’s architectural culture through his inventiveness and investment in place-making. His project skills volley between the strategic planning of large-scale urban and institutional work to the detailing of finely crafted furniture. Among his speaking and teaching engagements, Donald has visited the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, University of Waterloo, University of Lethbridge, University of Massachusetts and Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). He collaborated with Nigel Smith and Rem Koolhaas on the design for the reissue of Delirious New York and, in 2004 with Brigitte Shim, he co-edited the award-winning book Site Unseen: Laneway Architecture and Urbanism in Toronto. Recent distinctions include: participation in the 2007 Interior Design Show for his project entitled Small Fridges Make Good Cities, and publication in the Architectural Review’s “Houses by Emerging Architects 2008” and Dwell magazine’s “The Future Issue” and “Top 100 Houses of the Decade” in 2010. He was also nominated for the 2009 Marcus Foundation Architectural Prize. With Williamson Chong Architects, Donald received the 2011 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence for Abbey Gardens, a master-plan strategy for a food community in Haliburton, Ontario. Williamson Chong was also awarded the 2012 Canada Council Professional Prix de Rome for a research itinerary entitled Living Wood in selected destinations including Austria, South Korea, Japan, Finland and Denmark.

Marie-Chantal Croft

Marie-Chantal Croft has been practicing as a design architect since 1992. Co-founder of the firm Croft Pelletier, she is now a partner at Coarchitecture, an architectural firm based in Quebec City. She also teaches architectural design at the Laval University School of Architecture and has served on the Urban Planning Commission for Quebec City. Marie-Chantal works actively to meet the challenge of balancing sustainable development with meaningful, experiential architecture. Although materiality and scale may vary from one project to another, they each bear the distinctive mark of her artistic approach and her ability to harmoniously anchor them in relation to their environment. Her work is known for its close relationship to context and landscape, warm and luminous public spaces, inspiring architectural promenades, and for generating a richly complex variety of moods and emotions. In addition to being involved in the design of numerous cultural and public projects, Marie-Chantal actively participates in major competitions which she frequently wins, such as the Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec, the Bibliothèque de Charlesbourg, and the Musée de la Gaspésie. Her team was selected as one of the 15 finalists in the competition for the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec. Her projects have been widely published in Canada and abroad, and have also received prestigious awards such as the 1999 Ronald J. Thom Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts, along with a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture in 2010, the highest distinction in the country.

Bruce Haden

Bruce Haden is a principal at DIALOG, and works out of the firm’s Vancouver office. His design accomplishments have been recognized globally, most notably the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos, British Columbia, which was recognized in 2008 by a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture and by a World Architecture Festival Award the same year. Bruce’s work encompasses both urban design and architecture, and ranges from large-scale public/university/mixed-use developments to smaller projects such as pump stations, cafés, and the recent competition-winning design for the Canadian Navy Monument in Ottawa. He is currently working on two projects at the University of British Columbia–the Student Union Building and the District Energy Centre, along withthe new Downtown Eastside/Strathcona branch of the Vancouver Public Library, which incorporates YWCA housing for single mothers on its upper floors. Additionally, he is DIALOG’s principal in charge for Westbank Developments’ Beach and Howe mixed-use project in collaboration with the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Bruce is also interested in the overlap between industrial design and architecture. His current work with the cell industry is illustrative of this and includes cell towers for Highway 1 in the Vancouver region, and a combined micro-cell antenna/electric vehicle charging station in Vancouver. Bruce has twice chaired the Vancouver Urban Design Panel and has taught at the UBC School of Architecture. In addition to conducting extensive freelance work for CBC Radio with respect to design and social issues, he was the Vancouver correspondent for Canadian Architect magazine for 10 years. He is also the recent Past President of the Board of the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver.