Photo Essay

How to Create Great Buildings

Developers and governments must recognize that imagination isn't always expensive.

By Helena Grdadolnik 28 Jul 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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B.C Cancer Research Centre, Henriquez Partners/IBI Group. Photo by Nic Lehoux.

When the top awards for Canadian architects, the Governor General's Medals, were given out this year, only one went to a B.C. architect. Quebec firms, on the other hand, won eight of the 12 awards. This says a lot about the quality of work coming out of Quebec compared to the rest of Canada, but what does it say about architecture in British Columbia?

Can we infer from the numbers above that this province lacks design talent? Not in the least. There is a wealth of talent, especially in the younger generation that is just starting to make its mark. Two such Vancouver-based firms, BattersbyHowat and Molo Design (formerly Forsythe + MacAllen), were the recipients of the Canada Council's biannual Ronald J. Thom Award for early design achievement in architecture. Molo Design has also received scads of international recognition (from the Architecture League of New York, the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and a 2005 INDEX prize worth 100,000 Euros).

Why, then, are B.C. architects not producing more Governor General's Medal-winning work?

To answer this question we should look at the other side of the equation: the clients and the commissioning process. It is no wonder that many private developers are more interested in the project's financial bottom line than producing buildings to contribute to the province's architectural heritage, but it is harder to swallow when the public sector also takes this approach. The commissioning process favoured by the provincial government is a competitive design/build bid where the most relevant consideration is the dollar figure.

Is there another way to commission architecture?

Competition encourages excellence

Quebec was home to a high number of Governor General's Medal winners this year. What are they doing right? Commenting on this issue, Yves Gosselin, president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, suggests "an architectural competition program, such as the one in the province of Quebec, can successfully give rise to superior buildings."

The competitions were not for large high-profile commissions as is usually the case in Canada, but for modest public buildings in smaller urban centres. Despite their size, these buildings have had strong local impacts; Gosselin observed that the buildings were able to demonstrate the value of architecture in their communities.

Smaller municipalities stepping up to become patrons of quality architecture is evident in British Columbia as well. A few years ago the city of Prince George made the bold move to expand its airport's scope from regional to international in the effort to give Northern B.C.'s tourism, mining and timber industries greater autonomy from the Lower Mainland's hub of services. When it came to choosing the architects for the second phase of the expansion, the city of Prince George and the airport took another risk that paid off: they hired mcfarlaneGreen, an up-and-coming young firm based in North Vancouver.

The result is an exceptional building that gives both locals and international visitors a sense of arrival with natural materials that reference the region's resource industries: minerals represented by quartz zinc cladding and black slate tiles, timber by fir glulam beams and cedar soffits.

For vision, visit Moricetown

Architectural design can bring economic, social and cultural value to a community. A newly built gas bar and retail store in Moricetown, home to only 500 residents, is evidence of this. The Moricetown First Nations Band (Wet'suwet'en Nation) commissioned architects Killick Metz Bowen Rose, who convinced their client that this building should be regionally significant rather than the typical banal gas bar with no sense of context or local culture.

Located 40 kilometres west of Smithers, Moricetown's economy is largely dependant on forest products -- the Moricetown Band itself owns a 51 per cent share in a local mill. For this reason, the architects specified joists made of dimension lumber, plywood roof sheathing and a grid of glulam columns and beams. The structural system recalls traditional First Nations post and beam structures without resorting to mimicry. To allow maximum employment of band members for the project and to complete the construction before the onset of winter, the building was designed and detailed with simplicity in mind.

For their efforts on the Moricetown Gas Bar, the architects Killick Metz Bowen Rose have recently received an innovation award from the Architectural Institute of B.C. (AIBC). And mcfarlaneGreen's work on the Prince George Airport also won them a prize from the AIBC: a Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia Architecture Award.

Only three such awards were given out this year. The other two winners were Patkau Architects for La Grande Bibliothèque de Quebec and LWPAC Lang Wilson in association with Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden for ROAR_One, a mixed-use project of 10 condo units above a storefront space on West 10th Avenue.

Patkau Architects, a respected Vancouver firm, benefited from the appreciation of architecture culture in la belle province for la Grande Bibliothèque de Quebec in Montreal -- the building is their largest and most ambitious to date. The architectural project was awarded to them through an international design competition. Patkau Architects have been the past recipients of many Governor General's Medals: in 2004 they received two medals for the Agosta House on Washington's San Juan Island and Shaw House in the Point Grey area of Vancouver. In 2004 there was a lot of criticism that the Governor General's Awards were being doled out to too many upscale private residences.

Homeowners are motivated

This year the only private residence to win was also the sole project from B.C., the Naramata House by Florian Maurer located in the province's interior. Maurer not only designed the house for himself and his wife within a modest budget, he also built it.

Although the Lower Mainland is rife with condominium projects, this building type does not often receive the top architectural awards because they lack innovation and are too often cut from the mould that yields the highest return. It is much easier to convince a client to be open to innovation when the project is their own home, because they will benefit from the extra time or money spent to make good architecture. It is harder to convince a client to do this when the purpose of the project is to make a profit.

LWPAC (a.k.a. Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture) had the rare benefit of enlightened client-developers, Sergio and Andres Rodriguez, who encouraged Oliver Lang and Cynthia Wilson to push the envelope with ROAR_One.

The result was a courtyard building that opens up new possibilities for tight urban living in Vancouver. Even the bachelor units in ROAR_One are blessed with large amounts of daylight, fresh air and outdoor space. Although the building does not look like much from the street, the value of the architectural innovation is immediately obvious once inside, and it would be a more remarkable experience on a daily basis. Furthermore, the design innovation did not compromise the bottom line. (The building's construction price was still competitive with typical architectural projects of its size.)

If this is the case, then why can't other clients, whether they be B.C. developers or governments, follow the lead of the Rodriguez brothers, the Moricetown First Nations Band, Prince George and the province of Quebec in supporting the best in architectural design to benefit everyone in the province? After all, B.C. residents live, work and/or play in buildings on a daily basis.

Tyee series on B.C. architecture has been supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. Grdadolnik is an architecture critic and educator, who begins doctoral studies in the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science this fall.  [Tyee]

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