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The best designed building in every province

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Recently I saw an article in Architectural Digest entitled “the best designed building in every state”. Interesting, quirky choices. I reposted it and a friend asked “how about the same list, but for Canada?”

Good idea.  I looked but couldn’t find one.  So I made my own – looking at aesthetics (that is so subjective!) as well as design values, sustainability, and iconic value.  So yes, my own list is pretty quirky too.  It’s basically what caught my eye while looking at architecture, environment, or travel sites; I’ve lucky enough to see a few for myself.

Number 10: B2 Lofts, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Old Town Lunenburg is unique. It is one of only three Unesco heritage sites in Canada that feature a built environment (the other two are old Quebec and the Rideau canal; the rest are archaeological or sites of natural beauty). If you want to build in downtown Lunenburg, how do you go about it?

B2 Lofts is a nice addition to a busy, gentrified street that provides six residential units and a small retail store (both badly needed amenities) as well as – what else – an architect studio. The design is sparse and effective, blending well with the existing structures without looking like a historical set.  I just like it, precisely because it is effective without any pretension, preserving the feel of the historic downtown. But I rank it low (number 10) because the lack of info about environmental efficiency.

Another building caught my eye, the new Halifax Central Library. It’s architecture definitely makes a statement in an otherwise pretty staid neighborhood, and it is equipped with high-performance windows, rain water collection, and other design touches you expect from a new public building. But because I wanted only one library in my list, it is my runner-up for Nova Scotia.

Number 9: Naugler House, Fredericton, New Brunswick

There are plenty of pretty old buildings in New Brunswick, but none caught my eye as much as this brand new little home, the Naugler House near Fredericton.  It looks totally ordinary but is built along PassivHaus standards – as a result, its annual heating bill is $77. Ecohome notes that

it is saving money right now, as the monthly savings on utilities outweigh the added mortgage cost for energy-efficient upgrades to Passive House standards. This blows a gaping hole in the myth that high performance homes don’t pay off.

Number 8: 60 Richmond Street East, Toronto Ontario

This residential building is included by Azure Magazine in its list of the best Canadian architecture of the 2010 decade. It is a simple residential tower – but Azure comments are:

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.

ArchDaily has more details. The building is an award-winning housing co-operative, LEED Gold certified, with a green roof, rainwater collection, and energy saving devices. But what really makes it unique is a

design which incorporates social spaces dedicated to food and its production. The result is a small-scale, but nevertheless full-cycle ecosystem described as “urban permaculture”; the resident-owned and operated restaurant and training kitchen on the ground floor is supplied with vegetables, fruit and herbs grown on the sixth-floor terrace. The kitchen garden is irrigated by storm water from the roofs. Organic waste generated by the kitchens serves as compost for the garden.

Azure lists a few more new buildings in Ontario.  They are all cool, but once again it is a library that is my runner up; but the new Idea Exchange in Cambridge is a renovated post office that is a “library without books”, a site with plenty of research and creative space. Azure writes that

Idea Exchange expertly celebrates and elevates its heritage foundation – firmly anchored in the present while looking on toward the future.

Number 7: The Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Manitoba

CMHR, as it styles itself, is housed in a very impressive, iconic building that boasts a lot of interesting environmental features: a green roof with native grasses and a drought resistant landscaping; water saving devices; an energy efficient system for heat and light that includes ventilation with a heat-recovery enthalpy wheel.  And, of course, the rather unique theme of this museum, with a strong focus of First Nations cultures, makes it an obvious choice for Manitoba. But some critics see it as a “tourist trap, failed memorial, and white elephant.

Number 6: Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland & Labrador

Playground for the rich or sustainability icon? The Inn is a bit of both, maybe. It has created local jobs and has been designed in a way that is very respectful of its environment. Archdaily has reviewed the architecture and noted some interesting touches, such as

The required number and orientation of the solar panels dictated the form of the outbuilding and the angle of the roof.

That’s right: even in the middle of the stormy Atlantic, the Inn is equipped with solar panels, and not just as an afterthought, but as a governing part of the design. It is, of course, also insulated within an inch of its life, catches rain water, and so on. It is also designed so that its physical footprint is minimal; continues Archdaily:

The inn is completely tied to Fogo Island and traditional Newfoundland outport architecture by the way it sits in the landscape and the materials used throughout. The building hits the land directly without impacting the adjacent rocks, lichens and berries. The exterior cladding is locally sourced and milled Black Spruce.

The Fogo Island Inn is owned by the Shorefast Foundation, a Canadian charitable organization established by Zita Cobb and her brothers with the aim of fostering cultural and economic resilience for this traditional fishing community.

Numbers 4 and 5 ex-aequo: the Ark in PEI and the Conservation House in Saskatchewan

Both of these buildings were amazingly innovative when they were built, ushering in self-contained ecological function (the Ark) and PassivHaus-like energy efficiency (Conservation House). But never followed up, left mostly forgotten. I wrote a post about them here.

Number 3: Calgary library in Alberta

What a cool building! I’ll just quote again from Azure:

In terms of refining the typology into a seamless fusion of artistry, architecture and infrastructure, however, the epitome [of libraries] arrived in the form of Calgary’s main facility. 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.

Archdaily provides more details. Of course, it is energy efficient; you can get cozy with a book behind triple-glazed windows. I’ll leave it at that.

Number 2: the Marine Building in British Columbia

Of course the iconic Vancouver public library is here as a BC runner-up.  Built by Moshe Safdie, is as iconic as it gets, and provides one of the best indoor spaces anywhere. It has undergone a recent make-over, with energy efficiency improvements, solar panels, and an accessible green roof with a design by Cornelia Oberlander.  

Brock Commons Tallwood House at UBC, profiled by Azure, is another runner-up. It is a rather ordinary apartment tower – except that it is all built in wood rather than concrete and steel, the tallest in the world when it opened: a pioneering development in sustainable architecture.

My choice for best in BC, though, is Vancouver’s Marine Building. It is an Art Deco marvel, with exquisite finishes, as anyone who has set foot in the lobby will attest. And those familiar with the building, such as Allison Rana of Rana Law, the penthouse’s tenant. She has contributed to the refurbishing of the building, even locating the original penthouse chandelier in the basement storage.

So I picked it as the ultimate icon – but what about its sustainability score? Heritage buildings like this are notoriously difficult to upgrade. You can’t, for instance, just replace the revolving doors with better insulated ones; the original doors are part of what makes the Marine Building an icon. Nonetheless, the building has undergone a recent efficiency upgrade; details can be found here.  After all, the ultimate North American icon, the Empire State Building, has undergone significant upgrades which enable it to use 40% less energy as before.  I love the fact that environmental upgrades and heritage preservation are compatible.

Number 1: Habitat 67 in Quebec

Maybe you have gathered that I like public libraries? I have three runner-up: The one in Varennes, a new building which was the first net-zero public building in Canada; and the Monique Corriveau and the Claire Martin libraries, both in retrofitted churches, preserving heritage.  

But for me, it is simply impossible that the top building not be Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67.  The building is a world icon of architecture, unique in the world. It has been called a brutalist monstrosity and a failed dream, but it still is a highly-coveted elite address. It launched Safdie’s career (it is based on his Master’s thesis) but it has failed to live to its potential or be imitated.   

Genevieve Paiement writes that

Habitat 67 echoes a little known post-war Japanese architectural movement called Metabolism, whose proponents believed buildings should be designed as living, organic, interconnected webs of prefabricated cells. It was while travelling across North America as a student that Safdie surveyed grim apartment high-rises and unsustainable suburban sprawl. He returned home to Montreal with a mission: to “reinvent the apartment building”. He longed to create, as he put it in a 2014 Ted Talk, “a building which gives the qualities of a house to each unit – Habitat would be all about gardens, contact with nature, streets instead of corridors” (each cube has access to a roof garden built atop an adjacent cube).

A few things stand out about the project. First, all the units are stacked in an organic pattern, which ensures that every terrasse or garden has a certain degree of intimacy; immediate neighbors above can’t just peer in. Second, it is also clear that this is modernist building: it doesn’t follow any particular silhouette or try to abide by some proportions. And there isn’t any ornamentation: just plain concrete.

Third, and this is the key point: all pre-assembled units can be lifted in place and installed directly. To my knowledge, this is the first time that prefab was given serious consideration. Safdie’s vision was for acres of these buildings, with assembly lines used for each unit, greatly reducing costs and thus creating affordable housing. The complex at Expo67 was to be a demonstration, pilot project; but because of its small scale and novel construction techniques, unit costs were very high – so much so that what was built was only one half of the proposal.

Also, it was built in a hurry, for a World Fair where it may have been dismantled later. But against all expectations, it is one of only two buildings that has survived since 1967 more or less intact (along with the Montreal Casino, the former French pavilion; the Geodesic Dome is also still there, but its plastic sheeting caught fire and was never replaced). Given this, it has aged remarkably well – but there has been water damage and some mold issues.

Safdie still owns a unit in the complex and recently decided to upgrade it; new high-performance insulation was installed, as well as triple-glazed windows (details here).  Of course, this was not cheap.

Despite all this, the proof of concept is there, even if it was half a century ahead of its time. Prefab is no longer a synonym for shoddy construction, as architecture critic Lloyd Alter repeatedly points out; in fact, it may well be the only viable approach to producing mass housing that is energy-efficient while remaining affordable. Noteworthy is the fact that assembly line also minimizes the amount of waste usually produced during construction.

Be that as it may: the building leaves no-one indifferent; that’s as good a reason as any for it being my number one pick.  More details at Archdaily here, and on Safdie’s own site here.  

Written by enviropaul

January 3, 2022 at 4:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized