In the old town of Galt, Ont., a fine contemporary building landed unexpectedly on the main street a few years ago. Glass pavilions flank a stony 1890s post office, defining a new library branch that combines kids’ books, maker spaces, and bright space to sit and relax.
This place is public, and its architecture by the firm RDH demonstrates how a contemporary building can make space for everyone. Now the building is one of this year’s 12 winners of the Governor-General’s Medals in Architecture, which the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada announced Monday. These awards, distributed every two years, are the most prestigious prizes for buildings in the country.
This year’s crop provides a fair summary of Canada’s state of architecture. But while it has moments of excellence, the public sector is not leading the way.
Of this year’s dozen winners, only five are really public buildings. These include the Cambridge library, called Idea Exchange; the luminous new Tom Patterson Theatre, by Hariri Pontarini Architects for the Stratford Festival in Ontario; Forest Pavilion in a Winnipeg park, by Public City; and the Reception Pavilion of the Quebec National Assembly, by Provencher_Roy with GLCRM Architectes.
Each of these can be visited by a member of the public. As great architecture should be.
The humblest, which I have not seen in person, is the park pavilion by the landscape-and-architecture firm Public City. It combines public washrooms with open-air meeting rooms, is designed to resist flooding from the nearby Red River and provides shade on hot summer days. It’s also beautiful, wrapped in a finely tailored coat of rough-sawn fir.
Architects GH3 contribute another public medal winner with their Cherry Street Stormwater Facility in Toronto. This building, as I wrote in 2021, is a utility building that could easily have been designed by engineers; but the officials in charge at the public agency Waterfront Toronto chose to bring in an excellent design firm to contribute. The result is a piece of sculpture.
This sort of thing – a deliberate statement of excellence in the public sector – is far too rare. The default in public architecture, across most of Canada, is to hire designers based on who is the lowest bidder.
Universities often break this pattern. At the University of British Columbia, the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre by Formline Architecture took a medal. Formline’s principal Alfred Waugh, a gifted designer, is a member of the Fond Du Lac Denesuline First Nation of northern Saskatchewan. This is the first time an Indigenous-led architecture firm has won a GG.
Toronto’s KPMB also won two medals for academic projects in the United States, a private high school in Manhattan and an academic building at Princeton University. These demonstrate the ability of top Canadian firms to compete in an elite U.S. setting, and also to mix contemporary design interventions with renovating older buildings – a particular strength of KPMB. But these private and well-funded clients don’t resemble the Canadian public sector.
Indeed, the private sector often pays for ambitious architecture. Among the GG winners sits 60-80 Atlantic, a pair of office buildings with a mass-timber structure by BDP Quadrangle. The clients are a well-capitalized developer and an insurance company.
And, inevitably, there are three private houses – or, really, compounds. The upstarts in this category are Montreal firm la Shed, whose project, dubbed “Les Rochers,” is a compound of two houses in the Magdalen Islands. The buildings’ simple forms reduce traditional gabled houses to their Platonic form and polish them up with spare modernist detailing.
That intellectual approach, bringing regional traditions into the present day, is the hallmark of Halifax architects MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple. The private “village” that Brian MacKay-Lyons has willed into being in Kingsburg, N.S., wins another of this year’s medals. There’s no question that this work, very specific to its place, provides an intellectual lighthouse for architects.
So does, in a different way, the final winner: the ultrarefined Point William Cottage in Ontario by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects. This is the product of decades of design exploration by Shim-Sutcliffe, who blend modernist traditions from B.C. and Ontario with Scandinavian expressionism and the Venetian meticulousness of Carlo Scarpa. There is a role in architecture for such work: the endless refinement of form and detail for enlightened and affluent clients.
But the public sphere is where architecture has the most meaning. If the GG medals do represent the state of the art, where are the other public libraries? The recreation centres and city halls? Where, even, are the apartment buildings? Why doesn’t high architecture touch these places as well?
Beauty behind closed doors never shines as brightly.
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