Canadian Architect has long been known as a magazine of record, documenting work after the construction dust has settled and polished photographs have been produced. However, once a year since 1968, the magazine looks towards the future, recognizing commissioned yet unbuilt projects along with exceptional student proposals. During the design phase, projects often exhibit clarity of intention, innovation and ambition to a degree that can be later compromised by the demands and constraints of construction.
This year’s jurors—Karen Marler, Marianne McKenna and Marc Simmons—selected 11 award winners whose proposals embodied qualities of innovation and overall design excellence that, with the proper support of both architect and client, would realistically translate into built work. As McKenna notes, “In terms of selecting the Awards of Excellence, we were looking for the combination of qualities that anticipated that the eventual built work would produce architecture of substance, that was responsive to local context, program and culture.”
According to Simmons, the jury was particularly seeking projects with “controlled discipline” that “stand out in terms of their aspirations in the contemporary Canadian design landscape.” McKenna was critical of work that “appeared to be derivative.” She says, “We saw many of the same forms coming up repeatedly. The projects that were selected for awards were ones that were solidly grounded in an understanding of the site, and placed program to create a thoughtful narrative with clear ideas about how to create community through architectural form and space.”
The selected projects traverse geographies, including the recognition of initiatives in rural middle Canada, an important area of population growth with its burgeoning resource industries. “It’s important to recognize that two-thirds of Canadians live in the southern region of the country—but there’s another set of people that live in the other two-thirds of our land base,” says Marler. “So we need to understand and engage with the good things that are happening in the northern communities.” The jury drew on their broad collective experience to evaluate projects where remote location, shortage of skilled labour, and demanding climactic conditions posed distinct parameters for architectural merit.
In terms of building types, Marler notes, “The main building typologies that we observed in the award submissions this year can be summarized into relatively few categories. These were infrastructure, pavilions, single-family homes, and ultimately, civic and institutional projects were a strong player.” Marler, along with the other jurors, was “disappointed by the lack of private-sector multi-use residential projects,” a category that has garnered several Canadian Architect awards in past years, and which saw only a modest number of submissions in the current round relative to the prominence of this building sector.
On the other hand, the jury was cheered by a series of submissions that involved architects in infrastructural development, even though these projects did not rise to the level of excellence they deemed requisite for award recognition. “It was interesting to see the first waves of new transit initiatives that are beginning to happen in Canada, such as in the submission for Wagner Station in Vancouver and the Ottawa Light Rail project,” says McKenna, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Toronto-area agency Metrolinx. “In the Ottawa example, the designers are looking for a typology of elements that then can be used across the length of the system, which seems the correct approach to developing better accommodation, legibility, and elegant and repeatable solutions to encourage transit use. In this case, we remarked upon the short timeframe that the architects have been given to develop a system for transit that will be with us for many decades. How do we get to design excellence? ‘Good enough’ should not be acceptable for these kinds of public initiatives and we need to support respectful processes to achieve excellence.”
Marler continues, “Another infrastructure piece that we saw was the UBC District Energy Centre. You have to applaud the institution for taking the step of bringing architects to a project that’s effectively an energy plant in the middle of campus and giving it an architectural overlay. Generally speaking, at UBC the quality of architecture has increased exponentially over the last few years, particularly with the infrastructure projects and the public realm.” Says Simmons, “In the UBC District Energy example, while it’s a great achievement to decide that these infrastructure buildings actually need designed enclosures and a process is in place to do that, maybe that process needs to be pushed further in terms of ambition, because it’s quite mannered as an actual design.”
Throughout the jury process, there was recognition that the support for architectural excellence is necessary from multiple levels. “We need champions of design excellence, from architects, clients and from the general public who, when it comes to infrastructure and institutional projects, should be asking for excellence,” says McKenna. “As the world becomes more global and more competitive, public discourse in Toronto these days is engaged in a dialogue around what excellence means within the public realm and the urban fabric of our cities. I do think we are beginning to see an appreciation of the real value of the investment in innovation and design excellence from many sectors as they understand the need to improve the offering in transit infrastructure as well as in academic and community buildings. There is a lot of good new work in Canada but we still need to push harder, and be aware of what is happening elsewhere in Europe and the US.”
All jurors expressed the hope that their choices would advance an overall culture of design excellence in Canada. Simmons notes, “In terms of design excellence, I don’t think budget is the issue. I think it’s actually a cultural and design question between the architects, the construction manager, and the ownership about what their ambition is collectively.” McKenna concludes, “Given the material provided, it is often challenging to fully appreciate whether the final results will meet the architectural promise of the submissions. One hopes that these awards support the ambition of these projects and can be used to leverage the commitment of the early design work.”