Modesty and Skill

Each December, the winners of the annual Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence are recognized by a special issue of this magazine dedicated exclusively to a handful of selected projects from across the country. This is the 47th year of our awards program, and an emergent theme was the recognition of work that responds to the realities of ever-decreasing budgets and challenging procurement methods. We were honoured to host an especially distinguished jury this year: Éric Gauthier, Michael Green and Tyler Sharp each received a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture this past spring.

Overall, the jurors were impressed with the skill level of the entrants. Green opened the conversation by commenting on the high quality of submissions from coast to coast. “I’ve been on a few international and American juries, and I think it’s refreshing how our projects and our architects stand with the best in any other country.” He adds, “There is a more consistent level of modern investigation than I have seen in many other juries I’ve participated in.”

Sharp agrees that the level of quality was high overall. “I imagine that the budgets for many of these projects are likely quite modest in comparison to what you might see elsewhere in the world. It is quite nice to see that architects are continuing to attempt ambitious projects within the constraints of tight budgets and tight timelines.”

All three jurors speculated on whether those constraints to some extent drove the simplicity and elegance of the solutions that they saw. “Canadian architects have often been described as modest or quiet,” says Gauthier. “I think we selected a number of projects that show this Canadian way of doing things. I would encourage this approach. I think this is still something valid, because operating with public funding obliges you to work with a certain responsibility. Architecture should not necessarily be extravagant with elements that are structurally superficial or unnecessary. I think some of the selected projects prove the point that it’s possible to operate in this more modest manner.”

Another consideration that was important to the jury was selecting projects that tackled larger-scale and more complex environments. They debated at length to select the best among several strong submissions that exemplified what Canadians are trying to do with bigger projects.

Several examples came close to making the final cut, and are worthy of mention. Says Sharp, “The River City project [by Saucier + Perrotte architectes] in Toronto is an example of a large-scale condominium project that is attempting to be very ambitious while working within the typical boundaries and constraints of the condominium market. I think that this is a strong project, representative of a very progressive approach.”

Gauthier continues, “As a multi-unit residence, we were impressed by the strength and audacity of the 62M proposal [by 5468796 Architecture] in Winnipeg. But we were not convinced in the end by some of the basic issues that this concept was trying to resolve: what’s happening with the space underneath it or how the views are allowed from this point. So we had those reservations, even though we had a lot of respect for and interest in the project.”

Green also highlights two additional entries that were deft in handling different typologies. “It was interesting and surprising to see a submission of a project located in Italy by a Canadian architect [Giannone Petricone Associates]. It’s a nicely put-together project, and it speaks to a typology of destination hotel and resort, executed in a sensitive way,” he says. “Another project that had a lot of promise was the project to revitalize Mies’s Westmount Square [by lemayLAB] in Montreal. It’s a statement on preserving Canada’s heritage building stock and celebrating some really great mid-century buildings.”

The quality of presentation was also worth noting, says Gauthier. “We saw some exquisite and very skilled high-level presentations. But we had to go forward and then try to understand if the projects were up to this promise. In a sense, the renderings act as a filter that you have to go through to understand the project.”

“It underlines the importance of representation in general,” says Sharp. “A well-represented project can elevate, and at times distinguish even the most prosaic projects. Alternatively, poor representation can seriously prevent skilled projects from being recognized. A strong concept needs an equally strong and carefully put-together presentation.”

Putting together an entry with the optimal level of detail can be a delicate balancing act. According to Green, “Some of the projects that tried to be highly representational in the graphics also opened themselves up to questioning of details and technical resolution. So showing too much early in the process exposed the project’s weaknesses—and not showing enough definitely revealed a project’s weaknesses.”

“In general, many of the projects are vague about how they’re going to be technically resolved,” he adds. “As a jury, that leaves us hoping the team follows through. Some of the more quiet solutions require a sophistication in detailing that we really hope to see when the projects are built—arguably, the success of the projects depends on it.”

The jury was particularly intrigued by the strong entries emerging from the Quebec competition system. “The Quebec competition process nurtures the existence of younger firms, and there are a number of new practices benefiting from these competitions,” explains Gauthier. “There’s movement, which is one of the unwritten objectives of a competition system—to open up the possibility for new firms and new ideas to emerge.”

“The downside of it is the danger that we see in other competition systems where images become more important,” he continues. “There may be a tendency to put too many things together to seduce and win the competition—more things than are necessary. As architects, we have to look through this smokescreen, and it is dangerous that architecture becomes more and more reliant on these kinds of visual effects.”

Gauthier adds that Quebec competition juries may also tend towards selecting buildings of a certain style. “There’s a discussion between architects and non-architects that is quite frequent in these juries. These two worlds collide, and the danger is that the selected project might be more palatable and acceptable to the general public, but we might overlook more adventurous architectural projects.”

The influence of procurement methods on design is apparent in other projects as well, says Green. “There’s an interesting overlap between some aspects of the competition system and the design-build or P3 system, where teams are putting out a design in advance of sitting down with the client and spending time to understand the subtleties of the issue, program or site. Really having the time to understand a project before you design it is to me so important, and I think both those systems create challenges for that.”

Emerging through these challenges of budget, scale, presentation and procurement, the jury selected the projects that follow as worthy of recognition. We’ll be keeping our eye on these projects as they come to fruition in the coming years, and look forward to sharing the results with you.

Éric Gauthier
Éric Gauthier joined FABG in Montreal in 1986 and became a principal in 1992. The firm’s architectural production under his guidance has been celebrated by numerous awards including two Governor General’s Medals, 15 Prix d’Excellence from the OAQ
, the Innovation in Architecture Prize from the RAIC, and the Architecture Merit Award from the United States Institute of Theatre Technology. As lead designer, he collaborated with multidisciplinary teams in the development of several major institutional and cultural projects, including the Caisse de Dépôt et de Placement du Québec headquarters, the Cirque du Soleil headquarters and the Montreal Science Centre. He has also led many successful rehabilitation projects such as Buckminster Fuller’s Biosphere and Mies van der Rohe’s gas station in Montreal. His work was recently featured in a retrospective exhibition at the Maison de l’Architecture du Québec as well as at the Centre d’exposition de l’Université de Mont-réal and the current Architecture Biennale in Venice. A graduate of Laval University in Quebec City, he has been the Sheff Visiting Professor at McGill University and has led design studios at the Université de Montréal.

Michael Green
A graduate of Cornell University’s architecture program, Michael Green founded Vancouver-based MGA in 2012 to focus on progressive architecture, research, education and innovation. The firm’s work is diverse in scale, type and location, finding common ground in meaningful and sustainable change through innovation in building sciences and design—in particular, advanced wood products. With projects around the world and a team of 24 designers and architects, they are vested in helping to build healthier communities through architecture, interiors, landscape and urban design. Their award-winning work includes private residences, retail and restaurants, academic, cultural, commercial and institutional buildings. Projects like Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver, an Inuit Cultural Centre, the Vancouver Food Bank, North Vancouver City Hall, Rocky Mountain Soap Company headquarters, and several restaurant projects high on Whistler mountain highlight the firm’s interests in and commitment to community. Michael also teaches at various universities, lectures extensively, and recently opened a not-for-profit school called the Design Build Research Institute.

Tyler Sharp
Tyler Sharp is a principal and design director of RDH Architects in Toronto. After graduating from Dalhousie University’s School of Architecture, he worked on a number of significant award-winning projects at Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects. Tyler joined RDHA in 2005 to help initiate a transformative process to elevate the firm’s status within the country and abroad. Projects he has led include the Bloor Gladstone Library, the Hamilton Central Library and Farmers’ Market, the First Leaside Financial Headquarters, the Guelph Civic Centre Skating Pavilion, the Waterdown Library and Civic Centre, and the Brampton Springdale Library. Tyler’s work has been published extensively, and has received over 20 major design awards in the last seven years, including three Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence, two Design Exchange Medals for Architecture, the 2010 and 2014 Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award, two Canadian Interiors Best of Canada Awards, two OAA Awards of Excellence, and the 2012 and 2014 Governor General’s Medals in Architecture. Tyler is also the 2014 recipient of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Young Architect Award.