158 competitions documented 412 competitions listed
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When Young Firms Were Still Welcome in Competitions: Three 1980's City Hall Competitions in Ontario

by Jean-Pierre Chupin, published 2014-07-01
Who remembers, in Markham, Mississauga, Kitchener - or even Toronto, that the voluntarily 'symbolic' civic buildings of these towns came about through design competitions, which capture the zeitgeist of the 1980s, while still involving young firms of architects? Competitions are means rather than ends, and it is normal to forget the competition itself once we are left with the concrete outcome. Yet, the history of these competitions deserves to be revisited. Twenty five years later, the comparison is informative.

The Canadian Competitions Catalogue holds 11 competitions concerning town or city halls. Of these, the most historically remarkable, if only for the sheer quantity of submissions of over 500 from around the world, remains the competition for Toronto's City Hall, held in 1958. This remains one of the few international competitions to be held in Canada until the end of the 1980s. It is also worth underlining the fact that Toronto's City Hall was once again the object of a competition 40 years later, this time for its renovation. The 'City Halls' series extended to 1959 in Winnipeg, 1961 for both Red Deer and Chomedey (Laval), with the1960s coming to a close with Brantford's City Hall competition. Things picked up again in Edmonton in 1979 and Calgary in 1981, culminating with Mississauga in 1982 and Markham in 1986, before closing up once more in 1989 with the competition for Kitchener City Hall. Thus, six of the eleven competitions were held in Ontario, three in Alberta, and merely one for each Quebec and Manitoba. What do all these competitions have in common? Surely they constitute a sort of temporal frieze of the emergence of a Canadian symbolic modernity, all these cities experiencing an economic and demographic boom at the time.

Only three of these competitions are currently documented within the CCC, as, surprisingly, the archives are not easily accessible. Even the large administrative machine that is the City of Toronto has never really taken the time to properly archive its competitions, starting with this international event of 1958. In what regards Mississauga, Markham, and Kitchener, the simple fact that public figures such as James Stirling, Phyllis Lambert, Arthur Erickson, or even George Baird and Larry Richards played a decisive role in the competition fuelled publications which followed, and, in a way, inscribed these civic endeavors firmly within a Canadian history.

Secured by Jones and Kirkland Architects in 1982, the Mississauga City Hall competition gathered no less than 246 projects. While the number of firms engaged in the process is unusually inferior, one will notice that certain architects submitted more than one proposal, and thus many versions of the civic building/civic square configuration required by the competition program, which explains the discrepancy. Nearly every Ontarian practice in business at the time competed against one another in the Mississauga competition, no doubt placing much hope, in a period of economic downturn, in this great consultation organized by George Baird. As architect and theoretician whose career reached its apex in the early 2000s, when he was appointed dean at the University of Toronto, Baird played a decisive role in the outcome of many civic building competitions of the era. Phyllis Lambert, who was at the time actively preparing her Canadian Centre for Architecture project, participated in the jury, as did James Stirling, an English modernist and recent convert to the historicizing delights of 'post modernisim', at the impulse of Leon Krier and Charles Jencks, both of whom must certainly have appreciated the outcome of the Mississauga competition. Certain architects from many Canadian provinces - including Quebec - risked participating in this international competition, finally won by a Toronto firm founded four years earlier and which would, in the following two decades, specialize in urban design. Edward Jones and J. Michael Kirkland were briefly associates in Toronto. Jones, a British expatriate, later joined Jeremy Dixon in London to found Dixon Jones Architects, whereas Kirkland, educated in the United States and having worked for a brief moment with Barton Myers in 1976, would turn to urban planning and found The Kirkland Partnership, in Toronto. The competition result was purely a product of the postmodern algorithm: complex yet 'significant' forms, changes in scale, strong, cut-out geometries, grand perspectives, etc. The image summarizing the project would throne upon the cover of Progressive Architecture in 1987, the year of its inauguration, and the architects would receive a medal from the Governor General in 1990. In the June 1987 edition of Canadian Architect, Ed Zeidler - a defeated contestant in the competition - bitterly critiqued the built project, equally criticizing the competition, the urban context, and 'architecture in the postmodern condition'. Twenty years later, the project would still be considered a 'touchstone of Mississauga's architecture' in the local print, but its symbolic value would start to wither and lose its strength of civic constitution, as displayed in a vain polemic raised in 2013 concerning its aesthetic - oft-compared to that of a prison - launched by a devastating public call: "Is the world's ugliest city hall in Mississauga?" (Mississauga News, October 25, 2013).

The Markham City Hall competition was also organized by George Baird, though this time with strict restrictions within the competition rules, as only three firms were called upon to participate. Arthur Erickson was encouraged to compete, and indeed, his proposal was selected over that of Moriyama and Teshima Architects, and most of all, over the scheme presented by Barton Myers Associates, who had nearly won the Mississauga competition, four years earlier. Excluding Ronald J. Thom or Larry Wayne Richards, the jury was far more anonymous and less deterministic than it had been in the case of Mississauga. The program clearly requested a 'symbolic embodiment of the city... an identifiable image', as well as to take into account the duality between a multicultural and technological city. Erickson, who was at the time busy with various projects in the Middle East, signed the concept, but had little to do with its construction, which he mostly discovered upon the building's inauguration, as recounted in an ingenuous yet respectful article published by the project manager, Joseph Galea, in the July 2009 edition of The Architect journal. The reflecting pool, a typical attribute of institutional compositions at the time, certainly caused a few headaches to the conception team on a technical level, but its design softened the symmetrical geometry and convinced the jury which praised the symbolic image as 'most appropriate to represent the city of Markham.' Technical compromises were however necessary, as the porous surface of the basin did not sufficiently retain the water, and the introduction of chlorine - a brutal solution - saddened Erickson, definitively ruining his major argument in favor of a natural lake. For many reasons, this was not Erickson's greatest project, which constituted a great deception to him, despite the fact that he was awarded, in the same year, the gold medal from both the American Institute of Architects and the Académie d'Architecture in France. Erickson's website later displayed the project under the 'conceptual design' category, as its construction had been entrusted to a local firm.

Clearly abandoning postmodern recipes, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg's winning proposal for Kitchener City Hall, in 1989, relied on a composition of complex forms and volumes, in order to tie the building into its urban surroundings in a subtle yet distinctive manner. The competition, organized by Detlef Mertins, gathered a balanced yet demanding jury, drawing Canadian architects Peter Rose and Richard Henriquez around the influential theoretician and historian Alan Colquhoun, in a two-stage enterprise which produced high quality projects and gave a great chance to less experienced firms. Most notable is the proposal by the young firm Saucier et Perrotte (the + sign had not yet linked their perfect tandem), which, while it did not win the first prize, maintained the jury's attention into the second phase. One could also say that this introduced a prosperous period for this new Quebec firm in the Ontarian context. The Kitchener competition, however, mainly allowed for the construction of a flagship project for the young firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, founded 2 years earlier in 1987: a project which still today manages to mark its urban environment, no doubt because it did not seek to organize it within a classic geometry or reflect it in a basin of still water. This competition was organized into a superb monograph, the likes of which are no longer published in the age of the internet. The publication gathered Larry Richards and George Baird around Tom McKay, Detlef Mertins, Douglas Shadbold, and even rallied the reflections of Brigitte Shim, who still represents the newfound place of women architects in the Canadian context. Interesting fact - Brigitte Shim, cofounder of the brilliant Shim - Sutcliffe team, was working at Baird Sampson's Toronto office at the time, a position she would resign from in 1987 in order to found her own firm, while Howard Sutcliffe was still a member of the team behind the winning proposal at Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg. A few years later, in 1991, Sutcliffe became the first recipient of the Ronald J. Thom award for 'Early Design Achievement' granted by the Canada Council for the Arts, while the new Shim - Sutcliffe team was preparing to receive the Governor General's award for the Don Mills Garden Pavilion and Reflecting Pool. As for Bruce Kuwabara, he now presides over the Canadian Centre for Architecture alongside Phyllis Lambert.

With the current regulations penalizing young architects in many Canadian competitions, particularly in Quebec where these rules are supposed to protect clients against the inexperience of young firms, only Erickson would have been authorized to participate in any of these three Ontarian examples of the 1980s. Neither Jones, Kuwabara, Payne, McKenna, Blumberg, nor Saucier or Perrotte, to name only these, would have had a chance in these important public commissions. It is quite clear that competitions may not always change the world, but studying them is often very telling, and gives us a better understanding of the history of architecture as well as that of prejudice which competitions tend to underline, including in Canada.

To see the competitions, please refer to the following links:

Kitchener City Hall
Markham Municipal Building
Mississauga City Hall

P.S. The author wishes to thank professors Anne Cormier and Georges Adamczyck for their further information and their great knowledge of Canadian firms in the comparison of these three competitions.

IMPORTANT NOTICE : Unless otherwise indicated, photographs of buildings and projects are from professional or institutional archives. All reproduction is prohibited unless authorized by the architects, designers, office managers, consortiums or archives centers concerned. The researchers of the Research Chair on Competitions and Contemporary Practices in Architecture are not held responsible for any omissions or inaccuracies, but appreciate all comments and pertinent information that will permit necessary modifications during future updates.
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