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National Housing Design Competition (part 1-2): a Monster Competition by the CMHC and the Canadian Housing Design Council, 1979

by Georges Adamczyk, published 2014-09-17
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has been, and remains, an integral player in the development of urban forms in Canada. Not only does the CMHC provide recommendations for viable domestic space planning, it also promotes the use of safe, affordable, and sustainable constructive principles, and stimulates the creativity of developers, contractors, municipal officials, planners, and architects. In the same vein, the CMHC has produced numerous publications focused on social, technical, and economic research that have contributed to the enhancement of Canada's architectural culture. The planning of domestic spaces has been further advanced by Habitat magazine. The magazine served as an enlightening guide for residential architectural projects from the 1950s until the 1980s. Additionally, La construction à ossature de bois is a book that has been regularly republished since its first publication in 1967; many consider it the authority on housing construction in Canada. One could say that it is the Canadian/US Vitruvius of the North American home.

Launched during the 1979 energy crisis, the National Housing Design Competition, organized by the CMHC and the Canadian Housing Design Council in 1979, fell within the aforementioned pro-active approach. The competition focused its intentions on finding innovative solutions that encouraged the densification of suburban territories and addressed looming energy concerns, while combining the elements of accessibility to individual housing with the desire for sustainable communities. During this competition the CMHC put aside its usual focus on individual homes. Instead, the organization concentrated on high-density housing that incorporated landscape and recreational amenities, while taking into account the inevitable constraints of suburban sprawl. In sum, the competition's question was: How does one design residential models that generate high-quality environments, good neighbourliness, and the enhancement of family life?

George Baird was the professional advisor and the president of the jury - or more precisely the five juries since the competition spanned five regions. The regional breakdown included the Atlantic region, the Quebec region, the Ontario region, the Prairies region, and the British Columbia region. In fact, the competition was comprised of five sub-competitions, each with its own unique site. The only changing variable in the program for each competition was the requested density, ranging from 25 to 75 houses per hectare. Furthermore, the competition also strived to promote the idea of regionalism in the proposals, which indeed impacted the residential models being proposed with climatic, cultural, and historical particularities.

Those two aspects, density and regionalism, were at the core of each proposal's contextual interpretation of the site. The chosen sites were seen as representative of the five regions' suburban development, which, in turn, lead to a different research perspective for each region. For example, many competitors from the Ontario region, whose site required a very high density, saw the competition as an urban composition exercise based on generative morphological innovations of public spaces, whereas the competitors from the Atlantic and the Prairies regions whose respective sites did not require a very high density, put more emphasis on the individual dwelling and its private outdoor extensions.

The competition was unable to determine a winner, thus reflecting a feeling of failure. Here, the architectural potentiality resides in the competition's brief much more than in the project proposals. Comments from the jury members, divided on the priorities to be considered, illustrate the lack of consensus between "progressive" and "culturalist" trends - evoking here the still relevant distinction proposed by Françoise Choay in her studies on the history of urban planning. However, this distinction is influenced by other trends which are timidly considered by the jury: Pop Art for Sturges Donnell and Associates's project in the Prairies region, Historical Pastiche for Andrew Lynch's project, and Evolution (Grow Home Concept) for Terence Cecil's project in the Atlantic region, Ironic for James H. Jorden's project, and even Rationalist for Dunker Associates' project in Ontario. Even today, one can still be surprised by the utopian twist of the Piccaluga brothers' project in Ontario and still be awed by the sensible approach of Naomi Neumann's project, in which the meaning of amenity is magnificently illustrated in her drawings. Her drawings resemble those of Atelier Bow Wow - probably the most interesting project out of the five that were awarded a mention for Shawinigan in the Quebec region.

Finally, a region that seems to stand out from the others is British Columbia. The Vancouver site is presented almost as an autonomous island, bordered by streets on three sides which form a depression in its center. The site conditions and the very high density that was required favoured very unique projects. Instead of proposing a prototype stemming directly from the site, Paul A. Gant's project, which is the only one who received a special mention for this region, rather offers an effective implementation of a conceptual model on a specific site.

Examining the competition results, we see that juries were more or less selective. For Mississauga (Ontario region), eleven projects were selected out of twenty-two submissions; for Shawinigan (Quebec region), five projects were selected out of fifteen submissions; for Vancouver (British Columbia region), eight projects were selected out of fifteen submissions, for Saskatoon (Prairies region), only three projects were selected out of nineteen submissions; and finally, for St. John (Atlantic region), four projects were selected out of 17 submissions. When reading the jury comments, one can see that the submitted projects were either juried as a whole or juried while taking into account the potential of some aspects of the project for its overall benefit. The harmonization of the different juries in the five regions clearly presented some difficulties. This certainly explains the lack of positive feedback obtained by the competition at the time.

A critical review of these projects is difficult because not all submissions are accessible. Here, only the selected proposals are presented. Is there a project (or more) that might have escaped the jury's attention? Would the outcome of this Monster Competition been better if young architects could have participated? According to George Baird, division among jury members was strong. He writes in the jury report's introduction "it is partly a matter of philosophy and partly a matter of generational conflicts." More generally, if some projects remotely evoke the Siedlungs by Bruno Taut in Berlin and Ernst May in Frankfurt in the thirties, while some others are inspired by the postwar new Scandinavian cities like Tapiola in Finland, none actually manages to meet the ideal ambitions of the city suburbs, such as imagined by Humphrey Carver in his famous book "Cities in the Suburbs" published in 1962. Humphrey Carver was in fact the chair of the CMHC research committee from 1948 to 1965 and was well known for being involved in his community. Attentive to the development of cities, just like Lewis Munford, very socially committed, and doubtfully inspired by the garden cities and new towns in his home country, England, Humphrey Carver saw the development of the suburbs as an opportunity to reinvent the city. His lessons have seemingly been forgotten by competitors, or they were perhaps already subject to questions raised by Jane Jacobs in her book "Death and Life of Great American Cities", published in 1961, which paved the way for harsh criticism of urban sprawl. And one must not forget that the design of Seaside, Florida began in 1979. Finally, we may regret this missed opportunity as it could have spared us these "McMansions" that are proliferating in our suburbs, which are still suburbs to this day.
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