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Ontario’s architects gather in praise of good design

From a Vegas-style light show at Ryerson University and a sublime pharmaceutical building at the University of British Columbia, to a beautifully composed residence on the Cedarvale ravine and another on the Scarborough Bluffs, jurors tasked with doling out Design Excellence Awards on behalf of the Ontario Association of Architects were bleary-eyed, to say the least.

Ensconced at OAA headquarters in Don Mills (a sort of Justice League for the T-square set) on a crisp February day, only the free coffee and pastries – and the promise of an awards dinner to follow in May – kept these audacious architectural aficionados going.

I should know: I was one of them.

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And I exaggerate. But still, we did scan more than 125 submissions, survive a few good-natured dust-ups, and were the last group to leave (there were other juries, but they got off easy).

Veteran architect David Sisam, our non-voting chair, led Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, MOD Development's Gary Switzer, Andrea Gabor from Urban Strategies, and your humble architourist through the mysterious world of awards-granting (okay, not so mysterious, I served as a juror in 2006) and, a few weeks ago, our efforts were rewarded as we watched the smiles and speeches on stage.

Since this gala was not televised, I thought I'd share some of the winners. First, however, I should note that jurors did not know the names of the firms responsible for each design on judging day; also, this was the first time buildings by OAA-registered architects built outside of Ontario were eligible.

Cedarvale Ravine House Initially thinking Drew Mandel's design was yet another Dwell magazine box, the floor plan pulled me in: one rear wall angles outward to hungrily pull in more ravine view into the interior, and the cantilevered second storey (over the pool!) juts out to grab at the landscape also. That much of the façade is opaque is wonderful, too, as this speaks to our climate (more on this later). In addition to a Design Excellence award, Mr. Mandel won the Michael V. and Wanda Plachta award (projects that cost no more than $8-million).

University of British Columbia Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences/CDRD If Star Trek's Borg had more design sense, they'd build something like this. Seriously, though, this is one sexy lab building by Saucier + Perrotte Architectes (and Hughes Condon Marler Architects) that deserved Best in Show. Judges enjoyed learning about the design process – a pixelated photo of a tree was used as inspiration for the protruding glass façade – and photos of the stunning, shard-like wood interior.

House on the Bluffs Also winning the People's Choice award, Taylor Smyth Architects delivered a stunner of less than 2,500 square feet that gives the illusion of 4,000 – but good design can achieve this. The rear elevation, almost all glazing, is exquisite, and the asymmetrical detail by the front door is a nice touch. Mr. Sisam said the "house embraces light and air with a transparency and shifting of volumes that connect it to its remarkable site."

Quartier des Spectacles-Place des Festivals In Montreal, a textbook example of how to reclaim space in the downtown core. Rather than a boring series of predictable pathways and benches, this project is dynamic and animated, with racing-stripe pavers and freaky UFO landing lights.

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Ryerson Image Centre/School of Image Arts Similarly, Diamond Schmitt Architects has done the public realm a favour by creating a colourful beacon at Ryerson University. Animating Lake Devo in a Vegas-like light show, it's also a green reuse of an existing building.

While there are many other winners I'd love to discuss, I thought it might be fun to feature a few of the non-winners since, although some were well-loved, debate and compromise bumped them out of the running.

Annex House Dubbeldam Architect + Design's infill project was praised for the symbiotic relationship between the main residence, courtyard and coach house; maintaining a traditional roof pitch was a sensitive nod to the existing heritage of the neighbourhood. We all regretted not being able to honour this one.

House on Bayswater A "sophisticated and respectful agent of change" in an old Ottawa neighbourhood, the personal home of architects Emmanuelle van Rutten and Mohammed al Rifai really struck me, but I was unable to convince the others. Where they saw a cold, blank brick façade, I saw a clever response to cold winters (much like Stephen Teeple's award-winning 60 Richmond St. E.), and an innovative solution to light penetration (the middle of the home is literally carved away). While other homes on the street have gables, this stark, flat-roofed modern home defers to them by being shorter, and by aligning its front façade with them.

Maybe you don't agree with some of these? That's good, says OAA president Bill Birdsell: "Engaging the public in a dialogue about design excellence is critical to raising the profile of architects and inspiring creative solutions to city building."

In other words, if we don't have a friendly debate, how can we build a city we can all love?

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For a complete list of the 2013 winners, visit

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More


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