Open Letter: On the Design Selection Process for the Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan

Team Daoust submission selected by the jury

October 30, 2023

 

To:          Members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs – Parliament of Canada

Emmanuel Dubourg (Chair), Blake Richards (Vice-Chair), Luc Desilets (Vice-Chair), Carolyn Bennett, Rachel Blaney, Sean Casey, Terry Dowdall, Brian May, Wilson Miao, Randeep Sarai, Fraser Tolmie, Cathay Wagantall

Cc:         The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, The Honourable Pierre Poilievre, Yves-Francois Blanchet, Jagmeet Singh, Ginette Petitpas Taylor (Minister of Veterans Affairs), Pascale St-Onge (Minister of Canadian Heritage)

 

From:     David Sisam – OAA (Retired), FRAIC

Joe Lobko – OAA, FRAIC

 

Re:         Design Selection Process for the Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan

We understand that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs will hold a hearing Tuesday, October 31, 2023, to review the recent actions of the government ministers responsible for implementation of a proposed Monument to Canada’s Mission to Afghanistan to override the selection of the competition jury they appointed and to instead chose an alternative design they deemed more popular. As architects with considerable experience in the design competition process, we offer the following to assist parliamentarians in their consideration of this highly unusual departure from conventional practice, beginning with the saga of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, built in Washington D.C. over four decades ago.

In 1979 a wounded and decorated veteran of the Vietnam war, Jan Scruggs, conceived the idea of creating a memorial to the over 58,000 American soldiers who died in Vietnam.  His hope was for the Memorial to reconcile the divide between the veterans of the deeply unpopular war with those who opposed the war. They raised considerable funds and gained the support of Congress for their project.

They decided to hold a design competition for the Memorial open to any American, 18 years or older. A distinguished jury was formed. They received 1,432 entries. In May 1981, a winner was selected – Maya Lin, a 21-year-old Chinese American architecture student at Yale. Lin’s proposal was for a long V shaped wall of polished black granite inscribed with the names of the dead soldiers. Lin’s characterization of the Monument was that it shouldn’t glorify war but rather honour the lives lost in that war.

Although the design received support from Scruggs and his colleagues, the proposal created controversy among some veterans and others. It was after all, a Monument to a war that was more tragic than triumphant. It was called among other things, “a monument to defeat” or “a black gash of shame.” Failing to stop the Monument from going ahead there was a movement to create a figurative bronze statue of three soldiers in uniform nearby, which was also implemented as a compromise.

It is now hard to believe that the Vietnam Memorial created controversy. It has become a sacred place for veterans and their families as well as one of the most visited memorials in Washington. As one juror commented during the review of projects, “A great work of art doesn’t tell you what to think, it makes you think.” We wouldn’t have this extraordinary Monument today if people hadn’t had the courage to support the jury process.

Design competitions provide their sponsors with a wealth of valuable ideas about how best to fulfill their objectives, in this case to appropriately honour those who provided considerable sacrifice and their lives in support of the cause to help make Afghanistan a better and safer place to live.

The five design teams selected for the second stage of this two-stage invited competition process have likely invested somewhere between 5 to 10 times the modest honorarium of $20,000 provided. These design teams have decided to make that investment on the assumption that their submissions would be reviewed by a qualified independent jury whose selection is respected by the competition sponsor. The terms of reference provided to each competitor includes the following declaration: “The jury will have overall responsibility for selecting the winning design, based on the combined scores of the jury and technical committee evaluations.”

The qualified jury appointed included a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, a mother who lost a son in the war, a former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan, a historian, an Art Gallery director, as well as an architect and landscape architect. They selected the submission of the team of Daoust Lestage Architects with respected jurist Louise Arbour and artist Luca Fortin, as best meeting the objectives for the memorial.

Design competitions are not popularity contests. The very substantial investment of design teams into this important mode of public procurement depends upon fairness of process, including a respect for the decision of the jury. Instead, the ministers involved made a political decision. It does a disservice to the veterans of the Afghan war whose sacrifice is to be honoured and if maintained will have a chilling effect on the future of any design competitions sponsored by this government.

Respectfully submitted,

David Sisam and Joe Lobko

Team Stimson submission selected by Government Ministers

David Sisam is Principal Emeritus of Montgomery Sisam Architects and a former member of the City of Toronto Design Review Panel. He has participated in many design competitions, all of which respected the decision of the jury.

Joe Lobko is a Toronto architect with a long history of serving as Professional Advisor for numerous design competitions on behalf of institutional clients across Canada and a former Chair of the Toronto Society of Architects.

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