Viewpoint (December 01, 2002)

Last month at the Design Exchange in Toronto, London architect Will Alsop, in a public conversation with Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) Director Nicholas Olsberg, quipped that among the traditional professions, only architects were in a position to bring joy to society. The work of accountants, doctors, “and worst of all, lawyers,” he argued, deals primarily with human misery. Unique among these professionals, architects are in a position to transform the contemporary city into a pleasurable place. “Architecture should,” according to Alsop, “have pleasure as a primary aim.”

In this issue, we present the winners of the 2002 Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence, many of which seem to take a page from Alsop’s script. A number of the projects in this issue embody a lightheartedness uncharacteristic of much contemporary architecture, excelling not only in their programmatic and tectonic ambitions–Vitruvius’ Commodity and Firmness–but also achieving the most elusive of the Vitruvian triad, Delight.

Delight is clearly the inspiration for the Lake City Skytrain Station, whose graceful lightness and playful reference to speeding trains will surely help bring some levity to the drudgery of daily commuting. That such attention to design is brought to a transit station, and to its sister stations on Vancouver’s new Millennium Line, is a tribute not only to its architects, but to a commissioning body that understands the value of well-designed public infrastructure.

The Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant Site Design, which rehabilitates a generic industrial landscape into a multifaceted essay on the marriage of the natural and the manmade, promises to reward both intellectual curiosity through its engaging approach to industrial archaeology and more sensory appetites through the sheer pleasure of experience. The Truss House plays a sophisticated game, creating an inhabitable structural element that is at once a house and a machine for viewing. The Gordon Shrum Guest House not only subverts conventional notions of house and garden, building and landscape, but also establishes an engaging narrative of its own making. And the seamless logic of the Saturna Island House’s no-nonsense plan is punctuated with an exuberant roof.

On another level, the Messenger House delights not only as a building but as a process, evidenced by the builder’s outhouse constructed to emulate the main project. Occupants of the Pavillon J.-Armand Bombardier will be treated to the spatial complexity of the building’s public spaces and their relationship to the laboratories, emphasizing the importance of the social dimension of scientific inquiry and research. And, with its intimate integration within its wooded surroundings, the Student Residence at the University of Toronto in Mississauga is sure to provide students with a memorable and unique experience of campus life.

The two student projects, too, seek to bring new experiential dimensions to established building types. A new take on the Japanese school proposes a less rigid, more convivial model of early education, and the Quebec City airport is supported by playful helical columns that transform what are normally treated as generic structural elements into an engaging architectural experience.

Each of these projects responds, in its own way, to Will Alsop’s call for architects to engage the very human needs for experiential pleasure, intellectual engagement, levity and humour. They serve as reminders that not only are architects uniquely equipped to bring joy to the built environment, but that Delight–not just Commodity and Firmness–should be considered among our responsibilities. Good architecture, wrote Vitruvius, must exhibit three principles. Two, however well executed, are not enough.