Raising the Roof

The awards for this year’s Governor General’s Medals for Architecture (GGs) are as much an indication of the level of architectural maturity in Canada as they are representative of this country’s list of clients who are committed to a high level of architectural integrity.

The series of changes to the GGs since 1999, which are jointly administered by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) and the Canada Council for the Arts, has moved away from separating the award winners into categories of building types and distinguishing between categories of Excellence and Merit. Since 1999, jurors must choose a maximum of 12 Medals for Excellence. For the 2004 GG Awards, the jury chose to award only nine medals to six firms who are more or less equally and geographically divided between Vancouver and Toronto. Significantly, three firms received two medals each.

The jury for 2004 was comprised of Chris Macdonald (Director of the University of British Columbia School of Architecture), Danny Pearl (a Partner in the firm L’OEUF and Assistant Professor at the Universit de Montral), Stephen Teeple (of Teeple Architects in Toronto), Markku Komonen (of the Helsinki firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects), and Brit Andresen (of Andresen O’Gorman Architects in Australia). Andresen was awarded the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2002, the first woman to receive Australia’s most prestigious architectural honour.

According to Chris Macdonald, as the selections were being finalized for this year’s winners, the jury began to ask if additional projects should be added to the mix to ensure a better representation of building types. In the end, it was decided that adding winners would only skew the integrity of the awards. This year, five of the nine medals were given to private residences, a consequence of the jury’s opinion that many of the public projects being submitted had been compromised due to budget cutbacks. Value engineering had taken its toll on the best schemes “whereas the houses represented a labour of love, a full-on commitment,” according to Macdonald. Indeed, this year’s GG Awards may provide a commentary on the inability of larger institutional clients to be committed to the realization of architectural projects of excellence.

Without a doubt, all six firms are committed to the cultivation of a strong and identifiable image of themselves and their practices. How they approach their work and even how they establish relationships with their clients (some of whom may even be considered “patrons”) demands a sense of discipline and even sacrifice in declining commissions that may prove counterproductive to the development of their respective practices.

The history of the Patkaus clearly demonstrates the case where a firm is steadfast in its commitment to architectural excellence. The firm’s history and presence in Canada is solidly established, judging from the critical praise it has received in Canadian and international publications. John and Patricia Patkau, along with Principal Michael Cunningham, have demonstrated their abilities to consistently nurture and pursue a series of intense client-architect relationships that enable them to achieve their architectural objectives, while benefitting their client’s image and/or the needs of their respective stakeholders. Central to the work of the Patkaus is the importance of a site process well known to those who have had the opportunity to study with Patricia Patkau at UBC. Additionally, those who have worked with the Patkaus are recognized amongst their peers for an unwavering commitment to the firm’s ideals and to producing architecture of the highest calibre.

Also in Vancouver, the firm of Busby + Associates has developed a specialization in sustainable design and more generally, buildings, projects and products that demonstrate a particular technological prowess. All of the Associates are LEED certified. As an added element to the firm’s identity, Busby + Associates have developed Designlines Canada, a company that designs and manufactures building components, fixtures and furniture. The firm has made a considerable investment in ensuring that their projects raise the bar in sustainable design in Canada.

Finally, the Vancouver practice of Henriquez Partners Architects is led by father and son team of Richard and Gregory, and pursues market-oriented projects in addition to socially responsible non-market endeavours. Over the years, the firm has proven its commitment to the various needs of the Vancouver community. With the Lore Krill Housing Co-operative, it continues to engage in socially oriented projects.

The three Toronto firms in this year’s GGs have unquestionable strengths in their approach to design and design management. Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB) remains a reliable and professionally managed architectural practice that builds competent projects of varying scales. KPMB continues to receive a large percentage of significant architectural commissions in Canada, yet the firm recognizes the importance of careful and coordinated marketing strategies that assist them in identifying themselves with particular professional services to clients. The James Stewart Centre for Mathematics at McMaster University is essentially a renovation, but as Stephen Teeple notes, reflects an evolution in how teaching and learning is conducted in contemporary university facilities. This is clearly a response to the ability of KPMB to work efficiently and creatively with a client’s needs to create a coherent design solution.

The two remaining Toronto firms of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects and Ian MacDonald Architect Inc. have developed a business model more akin to the size and dynamic of the Patkau’s office, but these practices are nurtured in a business climate quite different from Vancouver. Shim-Sutcliffe has a studio practice that has incorporated furniture design and areas of research into its mix. Ian MacDonald’s commitment to craft and design is evidenced by his many published projects.

But what of the architecture that doesn’t appear on the radar of the GG awards program? Chris Macdonald intimated that not all of the best work in Canada was represented in the pool of applicants. Of the recent Lieutenant Governor’s medal-winners in British Columbia for example, Macdonald was surprised that some of that province’s best works were not submitted to the GGs. What is to be done? Should the RAIC and the Canada Council promote the awards more effectively? Should further reforms be made to the awards program in order to make it more attractive for emerging architects to present their work? Are young architects feeling disenfranchised from the awards process? And while the following pages are a testimony to examples of highly professional and resolved architecture in Canada, perhaps future winners will include practitioners at all stages of their careers.