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Where are the best new buildings in Canada? The list of Governor-General's Medals in Architecture, announced today, gives a strong set of answers to that question.

The 12 awards honour very simply "excellence in the art of architecture." These days, that is a difficult thing to assess. Through digital media, the design world faces a daily fashion show of new buildings, seen quickly and out of context. The subtle attributes that make a good building don't show up easily in this environment.

But these medals, which are awarded only every two years, offer a useful antidote. The jury has chosen buildings that are far more than visual one-liners. I think these five, in B.C., Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, are notable for their careful urban design and public spirit: A bandstand and four public buildings, they are each designed to animate and enliven public spaces.

They are thoughtfully detailed, and use materials in creative ways, and they are also all rooted – as good buildings must be – in the places where they sit. And they strive to make those places better.

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Kongats Architects
Kongats Architects

Centennial College Athletic and Wellness Centre, Toronto

This is a building that’s surprisingly nuanced for its type – an athletic centre on a suburban campus. It works, aesthetically, on two scales: up close and as a drive-by.
For the students who use the building, it provides a bright and crisply detailed interior with occasional hits of bright colour. Workout spaces, a track, and a triple gym all get carefully modulated daylight, and they give surprising views between rooms and spaces. Materials are put together with an eye to sustainability and hardiness: The gym features wall panels made of wood from the floor of the old gym that stood on this spot.
Outside, the building does another sort of work. It is seen each day by thousands of drivers on Highway 401, which passes right by. To address them, Toronto’s Kongats Architects created a façade of glass columns – classical in its rhythm, contemporary in its use of patterned glass and friendly in the way it showcases the human presence within the building.
It’s a fine building that is, as a bonus, a sort of billboard for the institution.
Les Architectes FABG – Éric Gauthier
Les Architectes FABG – Éric Gauthier

Conversion of Mies van der Rohe gas station, Verdun, Que.

In 2008, this building was a relic: an obsolete gas station, built for Standard Oil in 1968 and now boarded up. But it was designed by Mies van der Rohe, perhaps the greatest architect of the 20th century.
Montreal architect Éric Gauthier and his team at FABG brought it back into use as a youth and seniors’ centre, adding new functions while stripping away all the nonessential details and furniture. It’s now a pure expanse of Miesian space, slightly edited: two spare glass-and-steel pavilions, each with a slab containing storage and mechanical services, and an impeccably tailored steel roof hovering overhead.
Judging from the historic photographs, it has never looked better. And in place of gas pumps, Mr. Gauthier installed air intakes for the building’s new geothermal heating system.
The rigour and craft in this building should leave Mies, and Canadians who value good architecture, breathing easy.
Atelier TAG and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte
Atelier TAG and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte

Raymond-Lévesque Public Library, Saint-Hubert, Que.

On the edge of the 50-hectare Parc de la Cité in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Hubert, this new library serves a strong civic function and creates a beautiful, memorable place.
Like most libraries in the 21st century, it’s meant to offer social gatherings and cultural programs as well as the traditional functions of research and quiet study. The design team, led by Manon Asselin, put the public functions on the first floor, and the quieter zones on the second level – wrapping them all around a central courtyard, and capping the building’s irregularly slanted roof with a series of deep, diamond-shaped skylights.
The building features plenty of complex geometry; the architects liken the roof to a “flying carpet.” But these work to serve the main purpose of the building – good public space with deep views into the forest next door, through windows protected by a beautiful array of wooden louvres.
Michael Green Architecture
Michael Green Architecture

North Vancouver City Hall, North Vancouver, B.C.

While fairly small in size, this renovation of a small, civic building delivers technical innovation and aesthetic power. The main gesture is a new atrium – a boldly projecting rectangular box, 220 feet long, that is both a lobby and a public square for this inner-suburban municipality.
Architect Michael Green, who has been a strong advocate for new types of wood fabrication, designed this lobby with long beams of laminated strand lumber – a product that glues together small chunks of cheap, sustainable softwood (here, aspen) into strong beams. Visually, they have a warmth and texture that rivals real hardwood, without the ecological cost. Mr. Green’s team also uses laminated strand lumber for drop ceilings and other interior elements.
All this is in the service of a well-proportioned and well-planned public space; together with the renovation of the older building and the surrounding landscape, it makes a coherent and strong statement about the city government’s ambition.
5468796 Architecture
5468796 Architecture

OMS Stage, Winnipeg

The young, Winnipeg firm 5468796 (the name comes from its legal incorporation number) is pushing to raise the design ambitions of its city.
This project, basically a bandstand in the Exchange District, shows the scope of the firm’s ambition and skill. Rising from a base of concrete, the structure is a 28-foot cube; it has a large stage facing the park, a mini-theatre tucked on the second level, and a skin that resembles chainmail, made from thousands of small pieces of extruded aluminum.
This skin can be pulled back for performances, left closed to surround the space for small, interior events, and be illuminated with lights, or projected images, to spectacular effect. The result is a building that’s porous to light and air but mutable and complex, ready to serve as a sculpture and a beacon through the winter months.


> Joseph L. Rotman School of Management Expansion, University of Toronto 

KPMB Architects

A boldly contemporary add-on to an academic building in a

historic block.

> Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), Waterloo, Ont.

KPMB Architects

An academic project that speaks to the community with a

quadrangle, a bell tower and a welcoming glass façade.

> 60 Richmond East Housing Co-operative, Toronto 

Teeple Architects Inc.

A co-operative housing building with an unorthodox form and serious environmental ambitions.

> Bloor Gladstone Library, Toronto

Tyler Sharp of RDH Architects Inc.

A contemporary update and expansion of a 1913 library



> Tula House, Quadra Island, B.C.

Patkau Architects Inc.

A complex and highly detailed house built to sit quietly on a

waterfront site.


> Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Centre for Drug Research and Development, University of British Columbia

Saucier + Perrotte architectes / Hughes Condon Marler Architects

On UBC’s campus in Vancouver, a six-storey building that

combines a playful form of stacked blocks with subtle effects in glass.


> 2 O'Connor Drive,  Toronto

Shim-Sutcliffe Architects Inc.

A highly refined building, on the edge of a ravine in Toronto, that allows an order of nuns to remain at home and receive medical care as they age.