Viewpoint (May 01, 2011)

While the success of many architecture firms depends upon their buildings being recognized by awards, relatively few awards actually celebrate a building’s long-term impact on a community or culture. As the official Journal of Record for Architecture Canada | RAIC, Canadian Architect is proud to celebrate the RAIC’s biannual Awards of Excellence program which this year includes the Prix du XXe Siècle Award, a special award that recognizes 20th-century architecture of national significance to Canadians. This year’s recipients comprise four unique projects: the Heating and Cooling Plant at the University of Regina (1967), the Ottawa Train Station (1966), Robson Square (1973-1983), and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (1971-76). These projects all embody the energy, ambition and confidence that defined Canada during the 1960s and ’70s. Their larger influence can be encapsulated into four distinct aspects of Canadian society that flourished during the same period: the maturation of the modern city; an elevated discussion concerning aboriginal culture; a confident nation undergoing an unprecedented period of university building and expansion; and the inspiring demonstration of modern transportation infrastructure linking our urban centres. To some degree all four of these projects are in jeopardy today, but each one serves as a poignant reminder of their original aspirations.

The Regina Heating and Cooling Plant remains heroically sited in the middle of a parking lot at the south end of the University of Regina campus. It remains to be seen how Clifford Wiens’s masterpiece will be incorporated into the university’s planned expansion to the east. The building’s understated exuberance is articulated through an elegant construction of site-cast concrete, a stunning counterpoint to its prairie landscape and a monument to powerful and everlasting architecture that supports research and education.

Arthur Erickson’s Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia have both served to define Vancouver as a West Coast city, but shockingly, neither has received heritage designation. Robson Square has recently been under considerable threat from various groups to modify its innovative urban design. Currently overlooking Robson Square, the Vancouver Art Gallery may be moved elsewhere in the city, thereby vacating this large, grand public building while potentially jeopardizing a precious central civic space. Meanwhile, the Museum of Anthropology is currently enjoying a new lease on life now that the reflecting pond has finally been completed, years later, as Erickson had always intended. However, this iconic building has seen a number of alterations that have reduced the impact of its subtle and sophisticated design, a design that seeks to offer visitors the opportunity of experiencing the rich and complex culture of First Nations through quiet discovery.

As a testament to the wonders and glamour of modern transportation in the 1960s, few buildings in Canada can compare to the Ottawa Train Station, designed by the archetypal Canadian global practice of the period–John B. Parkin Architects. In the 1990s, the sprawling forecourt of this train station was marred by a clumsy Modernist-inspired walkway connecting to an OC Transpo bus station. With ambitious plans underway for a new light-rail transit system to replace the once revolutionary high-speed bus corridor and its various stations, the future integrity of the Parkin-designed masterpiece will invariably depend on the commitment of VIA Rail–the current owner–to conserving the architectural importance of this landmark. It is sheer delight arriving at the Ottawa Train Station in the inky darkness of an early winter morning in anticipation of boarding a train. A powerful white glow emanates from this building, framed by a massive steel structure evoking train trestles and bridge engineering. The magic of the station is that it expresses an architectural idiom that has largely retained the purity of its programmatic rationale, expression of form, and optimism in technology.

Even if Canadian society has evolved away from the original intents and values that the four Prix du XXe Siècle winners had hoped to achieve, the importance of celebrating their impact on this country is paramount. We hope that generations to come will appreciate the positive contributions that today’s architects make in influencing the growth of a future Canada.

Ian Chodikoff