Beauty contests, otherwise known as architecture competitions, are becoming too painful to watch in this country. Most of them are set up to nab a foreign superstar even though Canadian talent is called up and begged to participate. Others are exhausting affairs, costing competitors hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare, and they fail to keep a basic promise: Building the winning scheme.
The latest in a long line of farcical Canadian competitions is the abrupt cancellation of a major new Senate building to hold offices and meeting rooms on Bank Street next to Ottawa's Parliament Hill. This contest distinguishes itself for keeping the jury's decision secret for two excruciating years before delivering the bad news to the winner.
Gilles Saucier, whose award-winning Montreal firm Saucier + Perrotte architectes represented Canada last year at the Venice Biennale, got the phone call from the Department of Public Works last week. In an exchange that would surely test the health of anybody's heart, the official announced in one breath that Saucier had won the prestigious Bank Street competition; in the next, he declared that the project had been cancelled.
"I'm the one who designed that architecture and it's dead, dead, dead," said a distressed Saucier after receiving the bad news. "That object that was created is dead."
Competitions, when they deliver on their promise to build, play a critical role in advancing architecture that springs from ideas rather than the bottom line. Constructed, the winning scheme by Saucier + Perrotte would have produced the first instance of contemporary architecture within close proximity to the Gothic Revival architecture of Parliament Hill. A sublime box that floats on a podium of glass with upper stories clad in lace-like stone panels was designed to be highly attentive to the materiality and scale of its historic surroundings. Committee rooms currently lacking in the West Block building were to be accommodated in light-filled spaces set partly underground. The scheme used a principal plaza with a reflecting pool from which a ribbon-like promenade wraps around the sunken meeting rooms eventually to cut down to the escarpment toward the banks of the often-neglected Ottawa River.
In this way, the architects took up a bold, increasingly Canadian position that the landscape rather than an architectural object should dominate the one-hectare site at the intersection of Bank and Wellington streets. Set next to the triad of historic buildings on Parliament Hill, Saucier's scheme would have asserted to the world that there is a highly visible place for remarkable contemporary architecture within the machinery of government.
In Public Work's press release last week, issues of security, cost and the need to restore the West Block were provided as reasons for the project's cancellation. Flagging the West Block is curious as the $170-million Bank Street building was always intended to accommodate those senators and administration staff who would have been displaced during an extensive renovation of the Gothic Revival building. What's more likely is that the arrival on Parliament Hill of something without a château roof was too frightening for some politicians to bear.
"It's extremely disappointing -- the amount of effort that goes into staging something like that is immense," says Toronto urban designer Ken Greenberg, who organized a stellar jury, including Brigitte Shim, landscape architect Moura Quayle, the distinguished French architect Bernard Reichen, the award-winning British architect Edward Jones, MP Robert Marleau and Senator William Rompkey. "It's absolutely immense. To just have it drop off the radar scheme, without any warning, is a great disappointment. . . . It sends out a terrible message."
The blow of the Bank Street competition comes hard on the heels of three other beauty contests: the University of British Columbia's international competition for a new gateway to its campus; the Human Rights Museum competition in Winnipeg and the competition for the Edmonton Art Gallery.
The latter two were motivated by the need to bag spectacular schemes -- British architects Will Alsop and Zaha Hadid, both short-listed for the Edmonton project, bring instant credibility to massive fundraising campaigns. Fair enough. But less graphic schemes that present subtle, possibly more enduring, architecture are quickly passed over.
The UBC jury was a strange mix of rigorous modern thinkers, such as Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, and those with a penchant for nostalgic forms, such as Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Moshe Safdie. A shortlist of competitors was drawn up before the jury even arrived to have a look. It was hardly surprising that the palatable, pretty design by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects and Planners of Santa Monica, Calif., with Hughes Condon Marler took the top prize, beating out Patkaus of Vancouver, one of Canada's leading design studios.
The Bank Street competition was managed from the beginning with the utmost professionalism. Remarkable, too, is the fact that the short-listed competitors were each paid $300,000 to cover their costs and engineering, environmental and landscape reports, almost double what competitors for the ground-zero redevelopment in New York were paid. But, for all of its good intentions, it fell apart when push came to shove.
Occasionally, the leap is taken. One of the most encouraging testaments of an architecture competition that works is the small-scale initiative recently launched by a group of young Vancouver architects, academics and critics who call themselves Space Agency. They wanted to awaken an interest in public space in the city and make visible the ideas of young, thinking architects.
As its first project, Space Agency launched an international, open competition for a temporary, low-cost installation for the back lanes of Gastown. About $25,000 was raised from the Gastown business improvement society and the Western economic diversification agency, the call was put out on the agency's website and a jury was called in, including Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, University of Toronto associate professor An Te Liu, Vancouver architects Peter Cardew and Patricia Patkau, as well as myself.
Our winning choice, unanimously decided, was for an ethereal design by a couple of Japanese architects, Satoshi Matsuoka and Yuki Tamura. They proposed animating the alleys of Gastown with enormous, luminous white balloons. Determined to get the idea built, the Space agents discovered an expert in massive balloon manufacturing located not in Japan but in Surrey, outside Vancouver. The round white clouds -- the largest measures 25 feet in diameter -- will be wedged into place between the walls of Trounce Alley and Blood Alley for three days beginning Aug. 18; evening street parties and family events will take place on the street under the balloons.
The culture of architecture will only flourish when startling ideas are widely disseminated. Knowing this, the Space agents have organized an exhibition of all the participants to be held in one of the buildings backing onto the lane. The brown agency T-shirt, designed with the collective's logo, is a gift valued more than any plaque I've ever received for helping out on a jury.
Note to the Space agents: please send Saucier + Perrotte a couple of T-shirts, and invite them to gather under the balloons with you that August weekend in Vancouver. It might help rekindle their faith in the profession.
The winning scheme for the Senate administration building proposed for the corner of Bank Street and Wellington Street in Ottawa was designed by three collaborating architectural firms: Saucier + Perrotte Architectes, Stantec Architecture Ltd. (formerly Dunlop Architects Inc.), and Cohos Evamy. Incorrect information appeared on June 25 in Review.