True Reflections

Jonathan Kearns

Jonathan Kearns has been cofounder, principal and director of Kearns Mancini Architects Inc. (KMA) since 1984. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Kearns graduated from the National University School of Architecture in 1974, and emigrated to Canada a year later. KMA is a progressive and innovative 20-person design firm with a strong commitment to serving client and user needs, and is known for its public and community buildings which address personal, social and life skills development, rehabilitation and wellness. KMA have created and built elementary and secondary schools, community centres, transitional housing, mental healthcare, community housing and worship-related environments. Recently, KMA have completed O’Connor College School for the Toronto Catholic District School board. The firm was a founding partner of the Community Care Consortium which provided master planning and facilities design services for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in its redevelopment of a 27-acre site in downtown Toronto. Phase 1A facilities are now under construction, and Phase 1B of detailed design is now underway. In addition to his involvement in the massive CAMH project in Toronto, Kearns has led master planning and housing projects such as Block 11 (84 units) of the first phase of the Regent Park Redevelopment in Toronto, the DFAIT Canadian Official Residence in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the Belfast Docklands Redevelopment (47 acres) in the UK. Government projects include the Canadian High Commission, also in Kuala Lumpur, and the Canadian Consulate General in So Paulo, Brazil. KMA has been honoured with numerous awards for excellence in architectural design including the Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence, the Toronto Urban Design Awards, and the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland Regional Design Awards.

Rene Daoust

Cofounder and principal of Daoust Lestage Inc. since 1988, Rene Daoust received a Bachelor of Architecture in 1984 and a Master of Urban Planning in 1986, giving her the ability to oversee large and small projects from both an urban design and architectural perspective. Through a thoughtful multidisciplinary and conceptual approach, Daoust Lestage has created spaces of varied scale and scope including comprehensive planning, urban design, landscape architecture, architecture and interior design. For each project, the approach rests on a careful understanding of the space and the site’s historical and current characteristics in order to anchor the proposed interventions into the intrinsic qualities of their surroundings. Recently, Daoust acted as project and design architect in the preliminary phase and strategic development for the Quartier International in Montreal, and for the CDP Capital Centre, the main building in the Quartier project. She is currently part of the master-planning team for Ryerson University in Toronto while also overseeing the preparation of a master plan for Montreal’s theatre district, the Quartier des Spectacles. Selected to envision the redevelopment of the CBC Headquarters in Montreal, she is also partially responsible for the design of a new housing development on the LeBreton Flats in Ottawa. Additionally, Daoust has designed a number of striking and award-winning private residences and interior spaces, including BBDO’s new offices in Montreal. Daoust was named President of the Board of the Festival international des Jardins de Mtis, and is a member of Toronto’s Waterfront Design Review panel. She received a Fellowship from the Institute of Urban Design of New York in 2005, and has frequently been invited to lecture and participate in competition juries across the country.

Mark Ostry

Mark Ostry graduated from the Technical University of Nova Scotia with a Bachelor of Environmental Design Studies in 1984 and a Bachelor of Architecture in 1985. Eight years later, he founded Acton Ostry Architects with Russell Acton. His contributions to the profession and community include serving on the City of Vancouver Urban Design Panel and the City of Vancouver Artist Live/Work Studio Implementation Committee. He has also acted as an advisor to the Canada Council for the Arts and the City of Vancouver Cultural Planning Department, and is a member of the Canada Green Building Council. Acton Ostry Architects has been responsible for the design of a wide variety of building types for a diverse range of clients, in high-density urban areas and in remote locations. Projects vary in scale from childcare facilities to master planning, and have included community and recreation centres, places of worship, schools, university buildings, mixed-use residential projects and private residences. Rehabilitation, renovation and adaptive reuse of buildings form a core part of the practice in the revitalization of historic urban neighbourhoods. Current projects include the expansion of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business, multiple places of worship including two churches, a synagogue and two interfaith centres, a community centre on the West Coast in Ucluelet, and several mixed-use residential developments in and around the downtown core of Vancouver. Design excellence has been recognized through the achievement of significant local and national awards, including five Lieutenant Governor Awards, four Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence, five Canadian and American Wood Council Awards, and the prestigious Ron Thom Award.

Since 1968, Canadian Architect has administered its annual Awards of Excellence program with the intention of promoting architectural discourse through the publication of unbuilt architectural work as of yet unfettered by the pressures of full development and execution. Examining a project at its conceptual level provides an opportunity to discuss the ways in which architects pursue design methodologies that are inventive, clear and purposeful.

Regardless of whether or not a submitted project results in an award, many of the submissions that our juries review eventually transform from paper ideas into extraordinary buildings. As such, recognizing the limitations of any jury, Canadian Architect has made it a tradition to discuss a selection of noteworthy but not award-winning projects as a means of clarifying the intentions of the jury each year. In the competitive field of submissions that our magazine consistently receives, the challenge of selecting only a handful of winning projects is not an easy task. Every year, the jury must determine the critical definition of “excellence” in design–a more rigorous task than noting those projects which are merely competent, buildable or beautiful. This year, our jury members–Rene Daoust, Jonathan Kearns and Mark Ostry–were extraordinarily diligent and conscientious when reviewing all 143 projects submitted.

The projects receiving an award cover a wide range of building types with reasonable geographic diversity. There are two exceptional single-family residences represented amongst the winning schemes–one is very urban while the other is decidedly not. In addition to the private single-family home, a market-oriented mixed-use residential complex and a non- market housing scheme illustrate the possibilities for the Canadian residential architecture market to develop. And as our economy continues to remain healthy, inspired educational and institutional projects in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal were recognized in this year’s selections. One project–the revitalization of Nathan Phillips Square–promises to engender a new urban landscape serving the people of Toronto with a place in which to congregate and celebrate their city. It only remains to be seen whether or not their elected politicians can demonstrate the necessary leadership required to raise sufficient capital to realize the design team’s ambitions.

This year, the student projects received were of an extremely high calibre and some of the student award winners could have easily competed directly with the professional submiss
ions received. This could be attributed to the visual coherence of these entries, a testament to the abilities of our best students to represent their work in a way that both critically and visually engaging.

Mark Ostry feels that, generally speaking, this year’s submissions suffer from being premature in their conceptual design development. Could this be attributed to the fact that offices are placing a higher priority on the visual output rather than on the intellectual and aesthetic content of their submissions? Perhaps, but Ostry remains optimistic, believing that many of the submissions’ promises may be fulfilled in further design development.

The overuse and lack of critical use of digital renderings is what Ostry finds the most disappointing, but he empathetically suggests that this seems out of mainstream practitioners’ control. To Ostry, the hyperrealism of the photographic images has the propensity to render the drawings and schemes as faint neutral backdrops for the appropriated images. We are all aware of the oft-contrived folly of inserting a skateboarder in full flight, or an attractive couple stopping in the corridor for a brief chat–in order to add “life” to a project or to offer a sense of scale or perspective. Simplistic visual enhancements to the representation of a project may be deleterious to its true intent.

During the adjudication process, it was interesting to note how some submissions rely heavily on copious amounts of text and extraneous imagery. As Ostry remarks, “most projects reveal a considerable dearth of completeness and paradoxically have vast amounts of unnecessary documentation with a lack of minimum measure of thoroughness and precision.” Perhaps a more careful editing process on the part of the submitting firms is required–only include the necessary drawings. Indeed, the more successful submissions typically contain a restrained or purposeful collection of visual information with concise text accompanying the project. Unnecessary drawings and lengthy prose only serve to distract and annoy jurors, not to mention potential clients. An attractive, complete and succinct visual package increases a project’s clarity and impact, and facilitates the adjudication process.

Among the more laudable categories of submissions this year is affordable housing. Reviewed as a group, “these projects are conceived with a clear sense of the realities of publicly funded housing and only fall short in their ultimate architectural expression where the architect appears to have chosen to be not just low-key but unwilling to express any architecture,” notes jury member Jonathan Kearns. Appreciating the challenges of designing affordable housing, Kearns is an architect with considerable experience in this area, and believes that the projects submitted are much more successful in provoking controversy through their questions, rather than satisfying with answers. The selection of smaller affordable housing projects–usually urban infill buildings of about four storeys–contain many excellent planning qualities, according to Kearns, who admires the accommodation of such factors as economy, scale and sustainability. However, “does weaving an elegant yet understated affordable housing project into tight urban fabric immediately warrant an Award of Excellence? Is this the ultimate result of not wanting to be overly expressive, heroic or iconic?” questions Kearns.

Five projects were isolated as being worthy of discussion, even though they did not quite meet the standard of excellence as determined by the jury. The Bloor Gladstone Library project, designed by RDH Architects Inc., Shoalts & Zaback Architects Ltd. and ERA Architects Inc., represents an elegant and carefully considered contrasting addition to the heritage masonry of the existing building. Ostry describes the project as exemplifying an approach to adding on to or simply building in the context of heritage structures, and that the resulting contemporary “media box” elegantly contrasts, complements and pays respect to its heritage neighbour without pandering to clich. Scale, proportions, composition and materials are all carefully considered. Though this very small project relies on a high degree of consistency and precision throughout, all three jurors feel that one digression upsets the whole project–Ostry articulates this as being the resolution of the formal expression and materiality of the southwest corner stairwell as it wraps onto the roof and peels away to become what appears to be a mechanical penthouse enclosure. It is awkward, poorly resolved and not consistent with the overall language of the project. The jury hopes that design development will resolve this issue, and that the quality of the project will bear itself out in execution.

A second project, the Thtre de Quat’Sous by Les Architectes FABG, is believed to offer a masterly economy and efficiency of planning, according to Kearns. Although it is understood that the architect was seeking to reinvigorate the design with memories of the previous theatre on the same site, the elevations are excessively hyperactive with multiple materials, media and appliqu patterning. Daoust feels that the project has an interesting parti, showcasing the cultural memory of an important Montreal institution through the building envelope, but also that excessive references dilute the clarity of the message. More information relating to the faades of the adjacent buildings would be useful. Ostry also weighs in, stating that although the theatre is potentially a great little project, it suffers from an unconvincing transposition of elements from existing to new. The articulation and expression of the design of the small building would benefit from the same level of restraint communicated in the plan.

Though they ultimately did win an Award of Excellence for their Louis Bohme project, Menks Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux Architectes’ second submission–the Maison du Dveloppement Durable–also caught the jury’s attention. Kearns admires the project for the way it processes itself as nature’s partner in the city. For him, the layered jacketing of the building on three sides and the unbuttoned glazed west elevation exposing the interior atrium to a tree-filled courtyard succeeds in forming an elegant symbiosis between exterior and interior. Conversely, Ostry feels that the project fails to implement and convey the architects’ intentions for inviting nature into the building, stating that this design is typical of many submissions in that it lacks any kind of conceptual maturity with regard to formal expression.

The work of Marc Boutin Architect featured quite prominently in this year’s adjudication process. In addition to winning an Award of Excellence for the Calgary Centre for Global Community, two other projects made it to the discussion list. The Rain Coast Houses project does not make the leap from system to architecture, according to Kearns, as the presentation fails to convey a real sense of the entire ground plane with all of its social complexities. And although Daoust feels that the project is a thoughtful reflection on prefabricated architecture with interesting unit designs, there is no information provided on the general assembly of the houses and on their connection with the public realm. Ostry believes that the whole idea of a conditioned space between a constructed ground plane and a raised canopy is certainly intriguing, especially in the face of global climate change. He wonders if this is a transposition of the Calgary Plus-15 system of enclosed walkways onto the West Coast, and asks whether or not this expenditure of energy and resources is necessary or even desirable. When set in a magnificent wilderness site on the rugged and remote West Coast, the notion becomes literally out of place and redundant with the shelter provided by houses. The scale, size and extent of the raised ground plane and canopy seems antithetical to the values of a sustainable design strategy and would be likely cost-prohibitive and impractical with the realities and challenges of the sit
e’s remoteness. Ostry concludes by saying that if the owners of these recreational houses really don’t want to get wet, would they not simply be better served with a simple covered boardwalk, an umbrella, or a hat?

Lastly, with respect to Boutin’s Kicking Horse Coffee Caf, Daoust recognizes the value of good design for branding purposes, and feels that the project introduces an architectural quality and attention to detail into a prefabricated and repeated system to produce a recognizable spatial signature. Kearns is even more effusive, expressing that the caf is superbly crafted, creating a plausible progressive relationship between the customer and barista in an environment graphically infused with coffee and coffee beans. Ultimately, however, this project was outperformed by other entries.