Viewpoint (December 01, 2008)

For every jury there is a reason. This year, the jury for the Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence decided to give an unprecedented number of awards to architecture students, while selecting fewer than usual submissions from architectural firms. Readers will note that many of the jury’s comments relate to research in practice, or a lack thereof. However, upon reviewing the student projects, the jury’s disappointment turned into optimism. And students couldn’t be happier with the jury’s declaration that they have emerged as the real winners in this year’s Awards of Excellence.

Are we experiencing an unprecedented shift in the way we value the innovation emerging from architecture schools? Undoubtedly, the profession will continue to grumble about the lack of real workingworld preparedness in recent graduates, but what about the many offices that neglect to include architectural design research as part of their business plan? While principals of design firms complain about the navet of our young graduates, the building and construction industry has embraced the burgeoning leadership and innovation demonstrated by architecture students around the world.

There are a few recent examples of organizations– many of them led by the building industry– that support the work of today’s architecture students. Two notable competitions include the Holcim Awards and the International VELUX Award for Students of Architecture.

Developed by the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, the Holcim Awards program is an extensive multiregional and international competition that celebrates innovative and tangible sustainable projects. During every threeyear competition cycle, the Holcim Awards includes a “Next Generation” category in which many of the 2008 recipients were students. Examples of the student projects include an ecosystem revitalization proposal for Suzhou Creek in China by a Taiwanese student, and the Dharavi redevelopment in Mumbai, India by two architecture students from Germany.

Another important awards program is the International VELUX Award for Students of Architecture which takes place every second year, challenging students to explore themes of sunlight and daylight in their broadest sense. With no specific categories or requirements, submissions include everything from building design to the rethinking of daylight in urban living contexts. The jury–comprised of Hani Rashid (USA), Enrique Browne (Chile), Huat Lim (Malaysia), Francis Nordemann and Michel Langrand (France), and Eva Jiricna (UK)–examined 686 projects from 244 schools in 46 countries, thereby sampling the current zeitgeist in global architectural education.

The winner of this year’s VELUX Award is Reilly O’Neil Hogan, a recent graduate from Cornell who examined the changing light qualities of a commuter station in Lower Manhattan. Adriana Ross, a student from Carleton University, received an honourable mention and was the only Canadian finalist. Largely inspired by the way a spider’s web catches natural sunlight, Ross’s project addresses how an apartment tower can incorporate either direct or diffuse natural daylight into its design. Her metaphorically infused solution is enhanced by other physical interventions such as doubleskin faades and crossventilation, along with patterned cutouts in concrete slabs.

Receiving an allexpensespaid trip to Venice to collect their awards, the three winners and eight honourablemention recipients gained a tremendous sense of confidence and validation for their work. Accustomed to being browbeaten by their architecture professors and criticized for failing to presciently address design problems challenging our profession, the students were emotionally overwhelmed by the ceremonies that honoured them. It is not every day that students are given an open platform on which to confidently display and discuss their ideas. The joy in recognizing our young talent is perhaps a good way to end 2008, providing us with a sense of hope and optimism as the architectural profession enters a period of economic uncertainty.