The Winners; Awards of Excellence 2001

After completing the awards judging I visited Ron Thom’s Massey College at the University of Toronto. It was quaint and slightly old-fashioned when it was designed in the early 1960s, and still feels quaint. It has, however, aged better than many of its more thrusting, modernist contemporaries. It is well used and obviously well loved. The origins of Thom’s architectural language are evident at Massey: references to the original collegiate Gothic of the University, an earnest handling of “natural” materials mediated by the influence of Wright. The whole place feels very North American.

I was hoping to see a project during the judging process that was, similarly, somehow Canadian. A building that engaged with its site in an unexpected way, that handled its means of construction and the poverty of its budget with particular ingenuity. (I was reminded repeatedly of how low Canadian construction budgets tend to be; the elaborate faades that adorned many of the submissions were clearly in denial.) A building whose formal language was somehow surprising, or even shocking, but which resonated with the physical and social conditions of the project. Although I think that many of our choices avoid excessive formalisms, few really have the power to make one see things anew.

I was relieved to see that Canadian architects have not succumbed to the current craze for cyber/bug fantasies, but that may be because there is no room for radical practice within the construction culture of Canada. The majority of the submissions adhered to the new international style of “neo-modernism”–not much different from England or Holland, but without the difficult and critical activities on the margins, activities which can only be sustained by very special and courageous clients who seem to be more numerous in Europe than in North America.

Of the many country house submissions, most were flat-roofed, with a vaguely functionalist volumetric articulation and arrangement of windows. Few had pitched roofs or a constructional basis that would engage with their neighbours in the forest, the suburbs, or by the lake. The big urban projects were mostly over-articulated, as if embarrassed by their scale and reluctant to make simple faades that are about repetition.

I was impressed by the number and scale of public commissions, especially the explosion in new academic buildings. I appreciated that these projects were not restricted to big commercial practices, but that some are going to architects who are sensitive to the potential of public building. On the other hand, unrealistic design and construction schedules and very low budgets reintroduce the spectre of commercial constraints and favour larger practices that have done it all before.

While the continued presence of public architecture is a reason for optimism, as in Britain, Canadian public clients’ lack of confidence and ambition, and the consequent insistence on large consortia and on overly commercial conditions of finance, leave the powerful potential of public building unfulfilled. One only has to look at state commissions in German Switzerland to see what an informed and competent professional client and a good fit between architect and scale of project can achieve. In the mountain towns of the Grubunden canton one can see recent buildings that are both radical and enmeshed in their social and physical context, reasserting the possibility of a relevant regional architecture. Adam Caruso

The prevailing theme of this year’s awards submissions was a neo-modernist politesse, generally well-mannered buildings that reflect with very few exceptions a near consensus in language and the quiet tones of most contemporary building in Canadian cities and towns.

One somehow naively expects that building booms such as the one we’ve had for the past few years produce commensurate excellence in architectural quality, but in fact there was surprisingly little pressure on the technical, environmental or aesthetic envelope of architectural production. Probably this says as much about the Canadian client as it does about the Canadian architect. Not to bemoan the absence of extremes too much, however, as this contributes in large measure to the liveability of Canadian cities. If the alternative is a highly commodified American-style “star” architecture, give me the meat and potatoes any day.

The most interesting discussions among our jury occurred at either extreme of this well-behaved peloton (the name for the main pack of bicycle racers in the Tour de France). The most heated debate occurred around the issue of whether or not to give an award to a project that bore much more resemblance to land art than to architecture. As someone who was a little squeamish even giving an award to a house because it’s such an apples-and-oranges game pitting houses against more complex building types, I suppose my bias is to try to reward both the complexity of the problem and the elegance of the solution. Not that houses (or house clients!) aren’t complex; it’s just that the greater complexity of public building projects must ultimately weave in many invisible layers of constraint, consultation and responsibility, and I think as jurors it’s important to acknowledge the unevenness of the playing field and to weight our decisions accordingly.

Of projects that didn’t receive awards, I was most interested in those that legitimately struggled to elevate their programs and transcend their types. One project in particular I feel was short-changed because it didn’t fit into the comfortable language of neo-modernism: Brentwood Station, part of the Vancouver SkyTrain’s new Millennium Line in Burnaby, B.C. by Busby + Associates. The project tried to do a lot of things that few others even thought about. Its structural and electrical systems were all exposed, making the need for co-ordination and modulation of their visual aspects primary. It tried to differentiate (interestingly, I thought) between how materials worked; that is to say, when wood members could no longer handle the unusual loading patterns that resulted from the gradual transition of walls into roof, of columns into beam through the regularly varying bug-shaped volume, steel was used instead. I liked that expressiveness, and the idea that this was happening on a public transit building, a type with a notoriously gloomy history in Canada of being grimly utilitarian and without much redeeming architectural identity or character. So, good for Vancouver for extending its public infrastructure with adventurous architecture. Beth Kapusta

Being part of this jury was a great opportunity to share architectural ideas, to appreciate those of others and to confront them with one’s own. In the end one realizes that there exist points of convergence between architects of various backgrounds, from various places, engaged in various types of architectural activity. For example, we all agreed on the same basic postulate– practically tautological–that architecture must be conceived first and foremost for those who will inhabit it. From this essential link springs the life that animates the work of architecture.

I am particularly drawn to the rigour, the simplicity, and the clarity of a concept. The jury sought innovative forms and solutions, but only when they were supported by a sensitivity to context and to use, and only when these forms resulted from a reflection on the built environment or on the landscape rather than being derived from clichs and received ideas.

These latter criteria helped us to make a first selection from the projects submitted to the Canadian Architect awards. It became obvious that, from one end of Canada to the other, there was no general movement that might characterize our architecture as a whole. There prevailed, however, an awareness of what is going on in the world and a desire to seek our own way. We also observed certain nationwide idiosyncrasies or twitches. A large number of participants included horizontal-latticed brises-soleil as well as bulbous details produced from a sort of mannerist delirium. Too often
complex geometric exercises imposed themselves on the sense of scale and habitability.

In the same vein, hyper-sophisticated computer drawings served to inflate the most modest and most ordinary of projects. On the one hand there is always the danger in competitions–whatever their nature–that the built result might disappoint with respect to what is promised by the presentation. (A case in point: the Graduate Residence on the St. George Campus at the University of Toronto received a Canadian Architect Award of Merit in 1998, yet the result proved, to me, disappointing. The value of a well-organized and well-structured plan so evident in the presentation ended up obscured by a proliferation of flashy devices.) On the other hand the best presentations know how to distribute their effects, how to develop the major lines of their parti, and how to properly portray the concrete building that can emerge from them if they are faithfully executed.

Regarding the clients and commissioning bodies, our elected officials must be sensitized to our urban landscape so that they might develop it to advantage. They must increase their knowledge and understanding of it. They must stop using the word “concrete” in pejorative terms when speaking about architecture, for in doing so they denigrate one of the components of our culture, an immediate, tangible and relevant image of who we are. Architects must shoulder some of the blame, but the paucity of government budgets is very much at issue. They stand up poorly with respect to those of certain European countries with weaker economies. Mario Saia