Every awards program sends a message: What's working? What matters?
But in the slow-moving world of architecture, there's often an emphasis on details and small victories. Awards rarely signal radical change.
This time is different. The Governor General's Medals in Architecture for 2016, announced Thursday, include two projects that capture real innovation in the world of building. The promise: that new forms of wood production could hold up a sustainable and beautiful future.
Those two winners, out of the 12, are the Wood Innovation and Design Centre by Michael Green Architecture and the BC Passive House Factory by Hemsworth Architecture. Each of them makes use of mass timber – wood products made from laminating together many smaller pieces of spruce, pine or fir.
Ema Peter Photography
The promise is tremendous: These products can now be made to order with powerful structural properties, and they have a vastly smaller carbon footprint than steel or concrete.
Michael Green, whose firm also won a second medal, has been arguing the case of mass timber for years; he is one of a group of architects across North America trying to take wood structure into towers, a process that has already begun with mid-rise buildings in Europe.
His firm's Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George is a powerful test case: It rises elegantly eight storeys into the air, and almost every aspect – from its post-and-beam structure to the window system – reflects novel uses of wood. It's also very good-looking (at least in pictures), with all the ruddy beauty of an old-growth timber structure.
Ed White Photographics
For the homebuilder BC Passive House in Pemberton, B.C., the firm led by John Hemsworth built a more modest building – a factory – on a modest budget. "For us, it was this idea that you can elevate this simple [type of building] by focusing on rhythm and detail," says Hemsworth.
Its post-and-beam structure is made from glue-laminated Douglas fir beams. Some walls are made from panels of cross-laminated timber, essentially a thick and precisely engineered form of plywood. These components, all made in B.C., were assembled rapidly on the building site – the major structure went up in just eight days.
Ema Peter Photography
Innovation in this field in B.C. has already begun to bear bigger fruit. Acton Ostry Architects and Fast + Epp engineers are now constructing an 18-storey, 53-metre-high student residence at the University of British Columbia. Scheduled for completion next year, it will be one of the world's tallest wood buildings.
The Governor General's Medals send other messages, too. For one thing, all 12 winning projects are open to the public or belong to public agencies. The current kudzu of condos in Vancouver and Toronto has not produced a single tower that reaches this level of architectural excellence – a fact that should, but probably won't, make developers take a long pause.
Ema Peter Photography
Indeed the medals honour the ability of public buildings to change the culture. Halifax's new Central Library, by Fowler Bauld & Mitchell with Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen, "is a community gathering place that responds to the diversity of its users, accommodating many more activities than the traditional library," as the jury wrote in its comments. It's part of a wave of such projects that, as I wrote last year, are defining a new sort of public commons.
The Governor General's jury also honoured three projects in Toronto with a strong bent toward the public realm: Bridgepoint's rehabilitation and complex care hospital, most notable for how it connects the hospital with the city around it; the extraordinarily good Regent Park Aquatic Centre, by MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, which solves many complex problems and serves as a beacon of quality in a long-deprived neighbourhood; and the revitalization of Nathan Phillips Square.
The square renewal, a subtle and layered scheme by PLANT Architect in a joint venture with Perkins + Will Canada, started construction in 2010 and is still unfinished – though pieces of it, including the very fine new Peace Garden, are complete. Canada's largest city apparently can't find the money to finish fixing up City Hall's most important public space.
Toronto Mayor John Tory and all of Canada's leaders should be paying attention to the public spirit and high ambitions of the Governor General's medalists – and aspire to the woodsy poetry John Hemsworth conjured up in a small-town factory. "We're hoping that, having seen this everyday building, people will feel that something better is achievable," Hemsworth says. "I firmly believe that the quality of space people are getting matters."
• Amphithéâtre Cogeco (Trois-Rivières, QC): Paul Laurendeau | François R Beauchesne | Architectes en consortium
• BC Passive House Factory (Pemberton, BC): Hemsworth Architecture
• Bridgepoint Active Healthcare (Toronto, ON): Stantec Architecture / KPMB Architects (Planning, Design and Compliance Architects) and HDR Architecture / Diamond Schmitt Architects (Design, Build, Finance and Maintain Architects)
• Glacier Skywalk (Jasper, AB): Sturgess Architecture
• Halifax Central Library (Halifax, NS): Fowler Bauld & Mitchell
• Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization (Toronto, ON): PLANT Architect in joint venture with Perkins + Will Canada, formerly Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners
• Regent Park Aquatic Centre (Toronto, ON): MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects
• Ronald McDonald House BC & Yukon (Vancouver, BC): MGA | Michael Green Architecture – project begun at mcfarlane | green | biggar architecture + design
• Head Office of Caisse Desjardins de Lévis (Lévis, QC): Consortium ABCP architecture and Anne Carrier architecture
• University of Manitoba ARTlab (Winnipeg, MB): Patkau Architects / LM Architectural Group
• Wong Dai Sin Temple (Markham, ON) Shim-Sutcliffe Architects
• Wood Innovation and Design Centre (Prince George, BC): MGA | Michael Green Architecture