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The 2010s in 10: Canadian Architecture That We Loved

Including a trio of Toronto buildings that helped define a decade of Canadian design

By Stefan Novakovic, Kendra Jackson, Evan Pavka, Danny Sinopoli, Daniella Viggiani, and Elizabeth Pagliacolo

What a decade. Over the last 10 years, Canada’s largest urban centres have dramatically transformed. Relentless high-rise building booms in Toronto and Vancouver are poised to continue into the 2020s, while cities like Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Halifax, have also been re-shaped by development. Noteworthy buildings emerged from a landscape of blue-glass condominiums – think Saucier + Perrotte’s River City – but the country’s most prolific architecture was seldom also its best. The standouts of the past 10 years vary widely in sensibility, function, scale and location. From a pavilion and swimming pool that renegotiates our relationship with nature to a humble HIV/AIDS hospital that reaches out to both body and spirit, here are the decade’s most memorable Canadian architecture projects.

1. 60 Richmond Street East by Teeple Architects, 2010

Want to solve the housing crisis? Build 1,000 of these. When 60 Richmond Street welcomed its first residents in 2011, the striking building – defined by a play of colourful, interlocking volumes – represented the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s first new co-operative in 20 years. Teeple Architects’ design exemplifies urban infill. Its resident-run restaurant and training kitchen animate the street (while providing an income source for residents), and its central courtyard creates a sociable green space, with waste from the kitchen and restaurant used as compost for the communal gardens.

According to principal Stephen Teeple, the design was driven by the firm’s interest in “intriguing banalities, where everyday things can be inspirational.” At 60 Richmond, everyday life is a canvas for an expressive design. As the decade unfolded, Teeple’s social housing portfolio expanded with buildings at Alexandra Park. The results, once again, were admirable. It’s affordable housing with a sense of community – and architectural flair. In the 2020s, we’ll need much more of it.

2. Borden Park Pavilion by GH3, 2013

Over the past decade, Edmonton has made a significant investment in modern architecture by holding design competitions to re-energize its public spaces. Borden Park, in particular, has benefitted from this increased attention – and Toronto’s GH3 has had a major role to play. The Borden Park Pavilion was the first of several interventions by the architecture and urbanism firm, which also designed the magnificent natural swimming pool that recently opened there (one of our sister magazine Azure’s favourite projects of 2018).

Reminiscent of a carousel that once stood on its footprint, the pavilion is a circular folly framed by 92 V-shaped trusses and clad in mirrors. The wooden stools along its inner perimeter offer a spot of repose, adding a second layer of functionality to this building, which is primarily a public bathroom. That’s right, a public bathroom – and a beautifully considered one that was honoured with the 2018 Governor General’s Award for Outstanding Architecture.

3. Sisters of St. Joseph Residence by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, 2013

Perched above a ravine and overlooking Toronto’s Don Valley, this healthcare facility and assisted living residence carves out a unique architectural identity for an uncommon client: the Sisters of St. Joseph, one of the city’s oldest congregations. The project was designed by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects – internationally known for its renowned Integral House and more recently for Toronto’s under-construction Ace Hotel – and represents the firm’s first foray into healthcare design.

The curved structure blends into its surrounding landscape with a circular chapel and an exterior reflecting pool at the heart of the building. The four-storey, 8,900-square-metre facility houses 58 residential suites for elderly nuns. Inside, expansive windows and panoramic views into the valley allow for an abundance of natural light, while the striking exterior is clad in weathering steel, rusted to deep red and emerald green.

Sustainability was a focus, too. The use of solar panel collectors, green roofs and geothermal heating and cooling make for an efficient building – one defined by simplicity and beauty.

4. Audain Art Museum by Patkau Architects, 2016

Over the past 10 years, a number of praiseworthy art museums have been built from the ground up in Canada – the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, the Remai Modern in Saskatoon – but the one that perhaps comes closest to perfection, synthesizing function, context and aesthetics sublimely, is nestled amid a stand of towering trees in a reclaimed meadow in Whistler, B.C.: the Audain Art Museum by Patkau Architects of Vancouver.

Housing 10 galleries and nearly 200 works of art, the 5,200-square-metre pitched-roof structure is both a presence in and deferent to its pristine forest setting. At a key entry point, a wide wood-plank staircase leads to an elevated glass walkway through which the woods behind are visible. Observed from those woods, the building’s angular form, clad in black metal panels, appears “to recede into the shadows of the surrounding forest,” as the architects put it. This subservience to site, however, is more than merely cosmetic: Located on a floodplain, the museum is raised a full storey above ground to protect it from inundation, allowing passage from one side of the meadow to the other in the process.

According to the architects, whose firm also realized another notable B.C. museum – the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver – this past decade, the “deliberately restrained” Audain was designed first and foremost as a backdrop to art and to nature. And while that is certainly the case, it’s also just as likely that the museum itself will become as time-honoured as many of the pieces within it, once again proving, as the Patkaus so often do, the power of understatement.

5. Casey House by Hariri Pontarini Architects, 2017

When Casey House opened in 1988, it was the world’s only dedicated HIV/AIDS hospital. When the first patient was brought into the makeshift Toronto hospice, a medical team in gowns, masks and gloves transported the man inside, never daring to touch him. But the staff at Casey House met him with an open embrace, establishing an ethos of openness and courage that endures today.

Thirty years later, the treatment of HIV/AIDS is different, and so is Casey House. Opened in 2017, the hospital’s new home, designed by Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Architects, elegantly combines a restored Victorian mansion with a volume of glass, stone and brick, and introduces a spirit-lifting ambiance to the healthcare setting. Framed in rough-cut stone, the fireplace in the lobby lounge establishes a sense of comfort that permeates through the building. A slender central courtyard brings greenery and light to the innermost reaches of the building, while shared spaces underscore a sense of intimacy. Seldom does the romance of home take on such resonance.

To embody the spirit of kindness – even love – in a building is a remarkable feat. Architects are rarely granted the opportunity to work with such a powerful history and program, but having the grace to pull it off with such aplomb is rarer still. It is a masterpiece.

6. Brock Commons Tallwood House by Acton Ostry Architects, 2017

At the start of the decade, concrete and steel still reigned supreme as the building materials of choice in Canada. But a lot can change in 10 years and soon a new (well, old) alternative began gaining traction as a go-to for Canadian architects and builders – wood. At the vanguard of the movement is Vancouver architect Michael Green, a long-time advocate for “building with advanced wood products and technologies” who, in his 2013 TED Talk, campaigned for a worldwide adoption of wood-framed skyscrapers. Innovations such as cross-laminated timber (CLT), glulam and other engineered woods add literal strength to his argument, offering sustainable options to steel and reinforced concrete.

An impressive realization of the potential of the readily available and renewable resource, Brock Commons Tallwood House by Acton Ostry Architects was awarded the title of world’s tallest mass-wood tower when it was completed in 2017. Standing 53 metres tall, the structure combines wood, steel and concrete to a degree that stores 1,753 metric tons of carbon dioxide and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 679 metric tons: set on a concrete foundation (with two concrete stair cores), the 17 upper floor plates are made from CLT panels and glulam columns. What’s more, the LEED Gold certified building with its vertically striated prefabricated facade took only 66 days to erect. While it recently lost its tallest building title, it helped set the stage for a wave of mass-timber hybrid structures across the country.

7. Illusuak Cultural Centre by Saunders Studio, 2018

Cultural spaces in the North are scarce, particularly so in Nunatsiavut. While the last decade saw much-needed infrastructure added to many of Canada’s northernmost communities, this self-governing territory in Labrador (one of the four regions of Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland) only recently opened the doors of the Illusuak Cultural Centre in its capital of Nain, courtesy of Saunders Studio.

The winding Kebany wood–clad structure functions as a new community nexus. Containing an auditorium, café, craft shop, studio space, theatre and five permanent exhibitions, the 1,200-square-metre centre not only frames the celebration of Nunatsiavumiut traditions, language, stories and art, but is also a material beacon of the cultural revival echoing throughout the North. Though perhaps best known for the multi-site architectural, artistic and economic model of Fogo Island, Newfoundland expat and principal Todd Saunders looked to another coastal vernacular for inspiration when it came to Illusuak: traditional Inuit sod huts as well as contemporary residences.

“What I realized in Nain was that people met privately in one another’s homes,” Saunders recently told Azure. “So I conceived Illusuak as a living room.” While school gymnasiums and homes are all too often the only option for gatherings in rural communities, Illusuak reveals the successes of a community-based approach to community-centred architecture. And one that finds the profound beauty in the constraints of building in remote locales.

8. Calgary Central Library by Snøhetta and Dialog, 2018

The architectural potential of libraries as statement-making community hubs came to the fore this decade – at least in Canada – with the 2014 unveiling of Halifax Central Library, an ecstatically received five-storey flagship designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen of Denmark with local firm Fowler Bauld & Mitchell. In terms of refining the typology into a seamless fusion of artistry, architecture and infrastructure, however, the epitome arrived some four years later in the form of Calgary’s main facility, an equally lauded, $245-million joint venture between Snøhetta and the Canadian firm Dialog.

Perched above an LRT station, the triangular building on a curved half-moon plot rises around a series of wooden arches – inspired by the chinooks that sweep through the prairie city in winter – before blending into the already iconic hexagonal glazing above. The chinook motif is repeated in wooden walkways that swirl around a 25-metre-high atrium connecting, both physically and symbolically, the library’s East Village setting to downtown Calgary. Inside, the idea of the modern library as more than just a repository for books is reinforced by the multitude of seamlessly integrated functional spaces, including digital commons, performance halls and a showcase for Native art.

Almost miraculously, Calgary’s newest showpiece building is both intensely local in look and feel and universal in scope. In this sense, it serves as a model not just for libraries, but for any type of gathering space.

9. 62M by 5468796 Architecture, 2018

Here’s something different. 62M, by the inventive firm 5468796 Architecture, led by partners Johanna Hurme, Sasa Radulovic and Colin Neufeld. A circular, two-storey building on 20 sculptural columns, the Winnipeg project features two layers of 40 prefab wedge-shaped units. It has become a novel symbol on the Prairie city’s skyline, its weathering steel, glass and chain-link palette proving that not all multi-unit buildings need be steel-and-blue-glass pillars. And yet 62M’s form was secondary to the overall intention.

“We weren’t chasing iconography,” Radulovic told Azure when the project opened. “The distinct shape came from trying to resolve the challenges of both the site and budget.” Hurme reinforced his point: “We hated the idea at first. Who is going to propose a round thing on stilts? The more we studied it, though, the more sense it made.”

10. Idea Exchange Old Post Office by RDHA, 2018

What does a library without books look like? In taking over a former post office in Cambridge (originally built in 1885 overlooking the Grand River in Southwestern Ontario), Toronto studio RDHA answer was two-fold: First, renovating the once derelict masonry building and, second, adding a series of crisp glass additions that shape the heritage structure into a 21st century institution.

In lieu of traditional stacks, creative studios occupy the lower level, with the main floor housing the café and core reading room (almost appearing to slide off the embankment). Above sit the discovery centre and a suspended glass reading room that dramatically cantilevers toward the water’s edge. A makers space fills the pre-existing attic, below dramatic wood bracing trimmed in brilliant white. As the inaugural recipient of the AZ Award for Adaptive Re-Use, Idea Exchange expertly celebrates and elevates its heritage foundation – firmly anchored in the present while looking on toward the future.