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The Niagara Parks Commission’s Butterfly Conservatory received this year's Prix du XXe Siècle Award of Excellence.

Steven Evans/Royal Architectural Institute of Canada

An iconic conservatory in Niagara and a futuristic bridge in Toronto have just been honoured for architectural excellence. They were ahead of their time when they were built a quarter of a century ago and continue to inspire architects today.

The Niagara Parks Commission’s Butterfly Conservatory, inaugurated in 1996, received this year’s annual Prix du XXe Siècle Award of Excellence that recognizes Canadian landmark buildings of the 20th century. And the Humber River Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge, opened in 1994, has received a Certificate of Merit.

Most architecture awards are given for the latest and most contemporary designs, and there isn’t a lot of acknowledgement for structures that endure, says Robert Webster, adviser to the award program sponsored by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) and the National Trust for Canada.

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“Architecture that endures may not always be fashionable at the moment it is built. There are many sustainable projects that prove themselves over time and achieve special places in people’s consciousness and deserve recognition. The award criteria are not just enduring design elements, but also sustainability and energy efficiency as well as ambiguous factors like being inspirational,” he says.

Award winners are not all necessarily grand structures like the CN Tower or Habitat ’67, designed by Moishe Safdie for Expo ’67 and still a Montreal landmark. Even a YMCA and a university heating plant have received RAIC awards since they became annual in 2011.

Of this year’s 12 nominated structures, the Niagara Parks Commission’s Butterfly Conservatory was at the top of every judge’s list, Mr. Webster says. The complex of glass buildings dedicated to the public display and rearing of live butterflies was designed by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects in Toronto. The attraction, nine kilometres north of Niagara Falls, quickly became a must-see, attracting more than eight million visitors since it opened, the jury’s decision noted.

The conservatory was designed by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects.

Richard Seck/Royal Architectural Institute of Canada

“It is a project that may not have been at the height of architectural fashion when it was completed in 1996, but with the benefit of hindsight, we see a building that has stood the test of time and was a forerunner in what we now understand as sustainable design. The conservatory design is based on careful problem solving, the use of natural, durable and repairable materials and poetic engagement with the landscape. These elements alone make this project stand out and offer guidance to contemporary architects,” the jurors stated.

Energy efficiency was an important consideration and objective of the “integrated design” approach taken by the architecture and engineering team for the Butterfly Conservatory, the jury found. For context, the now popular Green Building Councils were only just being formed in the 1990s, and the LEED Certification system would not become standard until years later.

“To maximize building performance, the design of all building systems was considered holistically, including their potential to exploit and manage natural air movement,” the jury noted. Butterflies only fly in daylight, so providing as much light as possible was a core focus in the design and glazing of the glass houses.

And the conservatory, which is located in the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden, has expanded programs and practical work experience for students of the Niagara Parks Horticulture School. The school was originally founded to train horticulturists to support the extensive gardens and natural landscapes under the stewardship of the Niagara Parks Commission.

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At the time it was designed, the conservatory received industry awards, including the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction’s Ontario Steel Design Award in 1997. More recently, it received the 2007 and 2008 Breaking the Barrier award for full accessibility presented by AccessibleNiagara.com.

The Humber River Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge was awarded a Certificate of Merit.

Robert Burley/Royal Architectural Institute of Canada

For the other RAIC award, the Humber River Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge, by Toronto’s Montgomery Sisam Architects, provides more than a river crossing on the waterfront trail system along the shore of Lake Ontario, the jury agreed. The design team included engineers, architects, landscape architects and artists to ensure that the project could provide a narrative of the cultural and natural heritage of the site.

“The tied-arch form and cairn-like concrete abutments mark a gateway to what was once a historic trading route of Eastern Woodlands Indigenous peoples, who frequented the site for over 200 years. The steel superstructure connecting the two tubular arches is patterned with an abstract image of the Thunderbird – ruler of all airborne species – an icon of these Indigenous peoples. Etched panels depicting the site’s complex history are located on walkways beneath the bridge deck. Snake and turtle motifs were incorporated in recognition of the natural world at the mouth of the Humber River,” the jury wrote.

The 2020 awards jury consisted of Jennifer Marshall, principal of Urban Arts Architecture in Vancouver; Rosanne Moss, partner at Fournier Gersovitz Moss Drolet et associés architectes and EVOQ Architecture in Montreal and Bernard Flaman, conservation architect with Public Services and Procurement Canada in Regina.

“The awards program is having an ongoing influence on contemporary projects because they highlight the fact that enduring projects build in not only physical sustainability but also adaptability to an evolving society,” says Diarmuid Nash, a Toronto-based partner at Moriyama & Teshima Architects, who is Chancellor of the College of Fellows of RAIC.

“There is more of a drive than ever to understand the impact that a structure has on the environment not only in terms of energy but also meeting constantly evolving values and uses. This award is identifying structures that can accommodate change,” Mr. Nash says.

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The awards recognize not only design quality by the original architect or firm but also the continuing stewardship of the owner of the building to accommodate new uses without substantially altering the original design. Buildings that are nominated by architects for the award should also reflect originality, technical advancement, innovation ahead of its time or symbolic significance.

Previous winners of the award have included well-known structures such as Ontario Place and the CN Tower, but they have also included the heating and cooling plant at the University of Regina, the Ottawa Train Station, Robson Square in Vancouver and the Toronto Central YMCA.

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