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the architourist

Post-and-beam, single-family house at 33 Denver Cres. in Don Mills by architect Edward Ross, which championed “segregation of the bedroom areas.”Canadian Housing Design Council Awards

Awards season, with all of its requisite pomp and circumstance – and again this year with auditoriums strangely silent – has come and gone. And as much as I stood and cheered for Messrs. Levy and Ms. O’Hara (I have been an SCTV fan since I was a single-digit lad), the general rethink on how awards are distributed has me thinking about my wheelhouse.

I have a little experience in this area. On two separate occasions I served as juror for the Ontario Association of Architects (the OAA is the regulatory body that licenses architects in the province), I have served for the City of Toronto’s William Greer Built Heritage Award, a few years ago I had oodles of fun judging “Canstruction” – where architectural firms build things using cans of food that are then donated to food banks – and, wearing my other professional hat, have judged radio commercials more than once.

And, before I begin my musings, know that I would participate in any of these again if asked, since I do believe there is much more to these events than the handing out of shiny hardware; with the right amount of public engagement and outreach, they can enlighten and engage with folks who don’t give architecture much thought.

But my concern is twofold: the actual mechanics of how architecture is judged needs a reboot, and the way in which those results are presented to public needs to be expanded.

On that first point, let me offer some insight. When I started this column in 2004, I promised myself I would never write about a building I hadn’t walked through. How could one consider architecture without touching its surfaces, smelling the sun-charged air, witnessing shadows crawl along a wall, or experiencing the (sometimes emotional) transition from room-to-room? Yet, every time I’ve been asked to judge, I’m presented with a boardroom full of binders stuffed with sexy photographs and all-too-brief write-ups. And, typically, there is very limited amount of time to go through those binders.

London, Ont., pyramidal home for the Aaron family by architect Richard G. Henriquez of Vancouver.Canadian Housing Design Council Awards

Of course it would be impossible to tour the (sometimes) hundreds of buildings on offer. I get that. But I wonder if this model is based upon a time when so much was “new” in every city – I’m thinking here of postwar housing – that photographs were enough. Recently, an architect friend lent me a stack of Canadian Housing Design Council Awards booklets from 1964 to 1983. In the 1964 edition, I marvelled at the bold, completely cylindrical form of 40 Fir Valley Court, an apartment building designed for Metro Toronto Housing Co. by Chapman & Hurst where “each apartment is within a short walk of the elevators,” and the post-and-beam, single-family deliciousness of 33 Denver Cres. in Don Mills by architect Edward Ross, which championed “segregation of the bedroom areas.” In the 1981 booklet, a head-shake at the audacity (the good kind) of a London, Ont., pyramidal home for the Aaron family by architect Richard G. Henriquez of Vancouver, and how its “low profile” helped it blend into a more traditional neighbourhood. All amazing stuff, and all of these, from what I can gather, still stand.

But “newness” in and of itself is old hat. Even the esteemed US$100,000 Pritzker Prize, which in the past has “valorized flashy and expensive buildings” to create “starchitects” such as Frank Gehry, has, according to Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic, “begun to shift in the past decade” to honour architects who “build with a strong social conscience.”

So maybe we need to eschew judging the what in favour of the why here in Canada also.

Its “low profile” helped it blend into a more traditional neighbourhood.Canadian Housing Design Council Awards

If we must include aesthetics, or how programmatic challenges were overcome, is there a better way? Is it silly to suggest a preliminary culling of projects (using those binders) and then, once whittled down to 20 or 25 candidates, find judges in the cities in which those projects are located so that real life walk-throughs can occur? Or, at very least, could entrants be required to provide a pair of 3-D goggles for a virtual walkabout?

And what about the public? Vehicles such as the Pug Awards, which accepts online votes from the general public (based purely on aesthetics), are the ones that get folks talking at the water cooler, garner the most ink in non-architectural publications, and have radio and TV talking heads cooing and chuckling. So, how to achieve that same engagement with “real” awards?

It didn’t last long, but before the Design Exchange shut down, they experimented with hosting a 3-D printing exhibition in an old condominium sales office at King Street West and Blue Jays Way, with the hope of luring harried passersby into their design-y web. Could the same thing work for architectural competitions? Could a sponsor provide snacks to get folks inside?

What about placing finalist photos or models into shopping malls, which are often owned by the same corporations that build the buildings being judged? Or community centres near some of the projects? And, at those community centres, host sessions where kids can strap on the 3-D goggles to experience those same walk-throughs the judges enjoyed. And speaking of 3-D printing, could architectural firms make up tiny architectural models to hand out as keychains? Grassroots placement and tangible items to hold, examine, and consider are musts in this digital world.

Architecture can be exhilarating, but only if approachable. So the architecture world needs to approach how it presents itself to the public much differently in future.

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