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lisa rochon

The Governor-General's Medals in Architecture are the country's most prestigious design awards. Twelve projects were honoured (you can see them all here).

Among the notable award-winners were three, across Canada, that recognized private-residential design that takes your breath away, and a multi-unit housing project in Winnipeg that pushed hard for creative form-making.

Importantly, one of the awards this year overturned the G-Gs' tradition of recognizing specific buildings; instead, it honoured a process that is helping to heal aboriginal communities.

Linear House, Saltspring Island, B.C. Patkau Architects

Astonishing and exhilarating are words I rarely use in combination to describe architecture in Canada. But here it is: a Canadian response to Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House or Philip Johnson's Glass House that interprets the rural retreat as high art. John and Patricia Patkau have long contributed some of the most iconic, instructive architecture in this country. But the Linear House – called Villa Klaathem by its offshore owners – occupies a class of its own. It's an audacious one-storey stroke in black. Extending 276 feet (84 metres), it cuts between an orchard and hay field on Saltspring Island, B.C. A row of Douglas fir trees towers above.

The exterior of the house is clad in durable, charcoal-coloured fibre-cement panels to enhance the drama of the long cut the house makes against the lush island landscape. "We've always felt that dark colours are recessive in the landscape, and it was the owners' desire that the house not jump out in the landscape. We started from that point of departure together. It's sort of the colour of shadow in tree foliage," says John Patkau, over the telephone from his 16-person studio in Vancouver.

Saltspring Island enjoys a benign Pacific climate, with less precipitation than Vancouver, and the house opens wide to the elements. Its largest opening, an indoor-outdoor room, is an amazing, clear span 78 feet (some 24 metres) wide, made possible by fully retractable metal-framed windows made in Vancouver and suspended from the wooden structure above. Interestingly, the opening is only 6-feet-6-inches tall, the better to emphasize the linear gesture and to create space above for the necessary structural beams.

The breezeway, lined in wood, divides the house into principal dwelling and guest quarters. In the interior, the ceiling is lined with translucent acrylic panels. Naturally lit with a series of skylights by day, they are backlit to glow by night.

Who are the clients? They're not interested in any publicity. But they were attracted to the obvious pleasures of the West Coast and the temperate climate of Saltspring. Unusually, they were less interested in creating a home on the waterfront. Instead, they opted for a farm-like setting to indulge their tremendous interest in food and systems that support agriculture (on Saltspring, these include the raising of lamb, and the area's emerging wineries). An epic wooden table in the kitchen and a fireplace with various baking/heating chambers number among the minimal but critical elements within the house.

There is nothing demure here – just an amazing confidence in creating design architecture that aligns itself to the power of nature. The late Vancouver modernist Arthur Erickson understood this fundamentally. With the Linear House, the Patkaus have created a compelling manifesto that is sure to capture the world's imagination.

Integral House, Toronto, Shim-Sutcliffe Architects Inc.

Throughout the history of architecture, the commission of the private house has allowed for new experiments and daring approaches to design. The Integral House joins the distinguished company of those architects who dedicate time and energy to researching new ways to innovate with materials such as glass, rusting Cor-ten steel and wood.

Overlooking a heavily forested ravine in Toronto's Rosedale neighbourhood, the Integral House is one of those rare masterworks of design that seamlessly and fearlessly unites all the arts – including musical performance. In this case, Toronto-based Shim-Sutcliffe Architects have created a superb exploration of volumes softened by serpentine curves and nuanced plays of natural light. Hand-crafted oak fins and etched, undulating glass on the upper storey establish a vertical rhythm at the front of the house. The two-storey front drops down into its ravine site to create a five-storey volume at the back.

An intimate performance hall, surrounded by viewing galleries, allows the owner to indulge his love of music and to open the lyrical space to amateur and professional concerts. A curvilinear motif, inspired by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, is exquisitely expressed in everything from suspended pendant lights to the shape of the floor plates and bronze hand rails, to the bases of organically shaped oak columns.

Cliff House, Upper Kingsburg, N.S., Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects

Among the many weekend and vacation-house submissions received by the international jury, this insightful reinterpretation of the wood cabin distinguished itself for cutting a simple and astounding profile. Every summer, Nova Scotia architect Brian MacKay-Lyons teaches how to build with confidence and knowledge when he hosts a two-week design-build seminar at his farm in Upper Kingsburg, along the south shore of Nova Scotia. MacKay-Lyons has dedicated his long and distinguished career to expressing a stripped-down rural strength in his contemporary houses. In this particularly gutsy design, structural steel beams are rammed into a cliff, allowing two-thirds of the house to cantilever dramatically over the Atlantic Coast.

Bloc_10, Winnipeg, 5468796 Architecture Inc

Designed by the "numbered" Winnipeg firm selected to represent Canada at the 2012 Venice Biennale, this multifamily housing project allows apartments to fit together with the pleasing complexity and ingenuity of a Chinese puzzle. The site, on a busy traffic corridor in the postwar neighbourhood of River Heights, is unremarkable, but the project is enhanced by six-foot-deep cantilevered projections that extend the useable area on alternating floors. Bloc_10 uses a protective veil of wooden slats to help mitigate some of the traffic noise. Multiunit housing is often tossed off as forgettable, but some key, inexpensive moves by this Winnipeg firm create a refreshing scenario. In this case, a little bit of innovation goes a long way.

Mission Kitcisakik, Kitcisakik, Que., Architectes de l'Urgence du Canada

Squalid living conditions provoked Montreal architect Guillaume Levesque to design a sustainable alternative. Working for a pittance or nothing at all, Levesque convinced the community at Kitcisakik, five hours northwest of Montreal, to use their own labour and locally sourced materials to rebuild their inadequate houses. He showed them how thickly insulated roofs, walls and floors would dramatically reduce the amount of wood they had to burn inside their homes, and that watertight windows would eliminate mildew.

Partnership funding was secured; two portable wood mills were purchased by the community to cut their own cedar and spruce into construction beams and posts. Pride of place started to bloom. Carpenters, cabinetworkers and electricians are now emerging and, as Levesque told me, some of the aboriginals have now earned their "construction cards," allowing them to bring their skills to other communities. It's not big-city, big-budget design. But, given the shame of aboriginal living conditions, it's equally deserving of Canada's most coveted award for architecture.

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