Viewpoint (December 01, 2001)

This year’s awards judging gave rise to what I believe is an unprecedented situation. As in previous years, the three jury members reached consensus on most of the projects that were to receive awards, but one entry–Winter Gardens by Pierre Thibault Architecte–so polarized opinion that it is being presented with a qualified “Special Award” distinct from the Excellence and Merit Award winners (see page 30).

While disagreements among judges are a staple of this or of any juried program, these are usually mild enough that a dissenting juror can be persuaded to relent and concur with the decision of the other two. In this case, however, the disagreement was not mild but fundamental, and cut to an argument on the distinction between architecture and art. Adam Caruso and Mario Saia were both entranced by Winter Gardens’ relationship to landscape and poetic expression using minimal means. Beth Kapusta, on the other hand, invoked Vitruvius to argue that it wasn’t fair to judge more conventional building projects against a temporary installation whose program allowed it to bypass “commodity” and “firmness,” needing only to “delight,” and concluded: “I am adamantly opposed to awarding this project an Award of Excellence.” The equal and opposite resolve of the other judges resulted in the compromise of the “Special Award.”

Viewed in the larger context of contemporary practice Kapusta’s argument comes at an interesting time. Given the recent interest in interdisciplinary practice–what Rem Koolhaas has termed “boundaryless practice”–traditional definitions of what constitutes architecture are in flux. Some architects have extended their activities into the world of design-build; others are exploring the digital arena; still others, like Thibault, are negotiating the increasingly fluid boundaries between architecture and contemporary art practice.

Kapusta’s objections to the inclusion of such disparate projects under a single awards umbrella recall earlier complaints that too many Canadian Architect awards were going to “trophy houses” (see Letters, CA March 2000). In fact, she notes that she 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,” and that it’s up to the jury to “acknowledge the unevenness of the playing field and to weight our decisions accordingly.”

While there’s no question that projects like Winter Gardens are working within very different parameters than are buildings with more complex programmatic and technical requirements, they are continuing to enjoy success in a variety of architectural awards programs. This may be because, like “trophy houses,” the fact that fewer constraints are placed on them creates fertile ground for the exploration of ideas that can subsequently find their way into more conventional architectural projects. This argument has long been invoked to defend conceptually-based projects against their more pragmatic detractors. In his 1974 essay “Conceptual Architecture” (published in Casabella 386) Peter Eisenman argued the case for the kind of esoteric and hermetic work–largely concerned with a self-referential understanding of architectonic form, disengaged from the strictures of program and materiality–that he conducted throughout the early ’70s with his numbered House series. In the context of contemporary practice, what’s interesting to keep in mind from Eisenman’s essay is his contention that, despite their apparent disengagement from the realities of day-to-day practice, conceptual projects can challenge and redefine accepted parameters of architectural culture, and ultimately approach “a more timeless level of social relevance.” Marco Polo