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When the inaugural cohort of AZ Awards winners was announced in 2011, it marked a watershed for Canadian design. The country’s first international and multi-disciplinary design competition, our nascent annual showcase facilitated a new global conversation. As Azure co-founder Nelda Rodger put it, “The AZ Awards shows the high calibre of Canadian design by pitting it against the best in the world.” Thirteen years — and hundreds of winners — later, our awards program is an established part of the international design landscape, regularly drawing more than 1,000 submissions from over 40 countries and across six continents.

With our AZ Awards 2024 jury recently announced — submissions are open until February 23! — we’re taking a look back at 13 years of design inspiration, showcasing a memorable winner from every past edition. While choosing just one entry from each year left out many of our favourites, the selections speak to the breadth — and evolution — of both the AZ Awards program and the design industry itself. (And along the way, they highlight a few Canadian treasures that confidently take their place on the global stage.)

If you haven’t done so already, submit your best work now to the AZ Awards 2024 at awards.azuremagazine.com.

2011: Long Studio by Todd Saunders (Best in Commercial Architecture)

In its inaugural year, the AZ Awards bestowed its Best Commercial Building honour onto Long Studio, an artists’ retreat that heralded the renaissance of Fogo Island, then being transformed into a cultural site by the indefatigable Zita Cobb. Designed by Todd Saunders, who was born in Gander, Newfoundland, but practices in Bergen, Norway, the slender structure – clad in blackened rough-sawn pine and internally lined in whitewashed spruce – is anchored to its craggy site on one end while, opposite, its ocean-facing facade floats above the terrain on a series of stilts. These characteristics would be amplified by the Fogo Island Inn, to be completed not too long thereafter – but the Long Studio still stands on its own (stilts and all) as an example of the local vernacular celebrated in sophisticated form.

2012: Sunset Chapel by BNKR Arquitectura (Best in Commercial Buildings < 1,000 Square Metres)

Stepping into a diamond-shaped funeral chapel made entirely of concrete, you might assume that its interior would be just as heavy and imposing as its exterior. Yet, the interior of Sunset Chapel by BNKR Arquitectura in Acapulco, Mexico, is remarkably light and open, with built-in pews facing a glass wall and transparent crucifix that align with the setting sun, bathing mourners in a divine pool of colour and light. Juror Brigitte Shim of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects described this winner of Best Commercial Architecture under 1,000 square metres best when she said, “It’s spiritual, raw and powerful — quite an accomplishment when concrete is your only material.”

2013: Städel Museum by Schneider + Schumacher and Licht Kunst Licht (Best in Lighting Design)

Viewed in the wake of the pandemic, the 195 white circles on the lawn at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum may at first evoke the social distancing markers that were a fixture of many city parks circa summer 2020. But get a little bit closer, and the sloped field’s graphic accents reveal themselves to be something far more exciting: The circles are actually UV-resistant skylights, carrying daylight down into a subterranean museum extension buried underground to preserve the institution’s limited green space. (Slip-resistant ceramic frits keep the apertures safe to walk or sit on, allowing the space to maintain its appeal as a park.)

Granted, the apparent simplicity of this scheme masks a lot of behind-the-scenes complexity. Downstairs, Bonn-based lighting design firm Licht Kunst Licht devised an array of LEDs powered by dynamic sensors that respond to the shifting weather conditions up above — bolstering the basement’s glow during cloudy days, or taking over entirely at night. (Louvers can also be activated to block out daylight entirely if light-sensitive canvases are on view.) But perhaps what’s most impressive is how seamlessly the light emitted by the ceiling’s LEDs and that passing through its skylights are blended together. Credit the textile layer installed just below the LEDs, which evens everything out into a dreamy, diffuse glow. Hence this praise from our 2013 juror Todd Bracher (of Todd Bracher Studio): “There is a logic and beauty to the idea of taking sunlight and allowing it — not forcing it — into a gallery space, and letting the time of day and seasonal changes be part of the experience.

2014: U Turn Chair by Niels Bendtsen (Best in Furniture Design)

At first glance, the U Turn Chair might appear to be any ordinary tub chair. But Vancouver designer Niels Bendsten’s rigorous less-is-more approach is what ultimately won him the AZ Award for Best Furniture Design. “I’ve seen a lot of furniture that is over-exaggerated and over-animated. U Turn is just the opposite. It has phenomenal proportioning and style that will stand the test of time,” said 2014 juror Diego Burdi. Its tapered, tulip-shaped form lends elegance to the often-stumpy typology, while the smooth 360-degree rotation that gives the chair its name takes cues from the auto industry. Boasting form and function in equal measure, the design is the perfect marriage of Bendtsen’s “Danish sensibility for refined craftsmanship and his Canadian pragmatism.” At a time when design trends seemingly change by the minute, U Turn remains a timeless piece that would suit any contemporary interior, even a decade after its initial release.

2015: Oiseau des Îles Social Housing by Antonini Darmon (Best in Residential Architecture – Multi-Unit)

Social housing can often be treated like just another box to check — a chance to meet a moral obligation, rather than to explore a real design opportunity. With the Oiseau des Îles residences, Antonini Darmon flipped this idea on its head, creating a grid-patterned façade that looks like a giant game of tic-tac-toe capped off by a sharply angled roofline. Back in 2015, this architectural scheme managed to establish an elegant landmark all the while also delivering a comfortable, empowering environment for its residents in Nantes, Frances. Indeed, the design allows each of its occupants to play an active role in reshaping it on the fly over the course of each day. By opening or closing the full-height perforated aluminum shutters along the building’s exterior hallways, residents gradually fill in or reveal some of the building’s boxes — keeping the blocky façade forever in motion.

The interiors are just as dynamic, with a range of unit configurations devised to suit both single dwellers and families. At ground level, a bank of timber-clad garages and shops add warmth while blending into the wooden boardwalk that borders the Loire River. Along with being commendable for its beauty, the project was also celebrated for its sustainability. (In addition to its thoughtful yet affordable material palette, the residence is equipped with an array of solar panels.) Our 2015 juror Philippe Malouin was particularly impressed, saying “Not enough good architecture is dedicated to housing projects. When someone takes the time to pay proper attention and care, that needs to be underlined and celebrated.”

2016: Comme Moi by Neri&Hu (Best in Commercial Interiors)

Retail design evolves quickly. Just eight years later, interiors from 2016 can feel like a bygone era, rooted in a bygone set of fleeting trends. The best design, however, transcends shallow aesthetic signifiers yet nonetheless embodies its time and place. In Shanghai, Rossana Hu and Lyndon Neri‘s striking space for the Comme Moi fashion brand achieves a timeless quality through its sensitive adherence to spatial and cultural context. Within the concrete husk of an Art Deco hotel, the local designers conjured a new milieu of brass, metal mesh, terrazzo, and oak flooring.

A striking brass banister frames the perimeter, with shelves, mirrors and displays ingeniously suspended below. The careful interplay of textures and materials creates a warm and cohesive space — one that resolves the aesthetic dichotomy between Art Deco flourishes and raw concrete walls. It’s a perfect home for the brand’s elegantly unfussy garments. And, as juror John Tong put it, “[It] is a perfect balance of contemporary style and old-world luxury.”

2017: CHUM Passerelle by CannonDesign and NEUF Architect(e)s (Best in Lighting Installations)

Dazzling dotted lights dancing across a Montreal sky bridge. That’s what we remember from the 2017 lighting installation winner: CHUM Passerelle by CannonDesign and NEUF Architect(e)s. But the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre’s elevated glass passageway is so much more than a simple shortcut between two facilities, it is both a vital link between buildings and a powerful work of art. With 197, 838 punctured holes that allow for dappled, natural light during the day and embedded LED lights at night, CHUM Passerelle lights up what might have been an uninteresting walkway — from dusk till dawn.

2018: Casey House by Hariri Pontarini Architects (Best in Social Good)

Nearly seven years after it opened its doors, the Hariri Pontarini-designed Casey House, a hospital for people living with HIV and AIDS, is an enduring paragon of architecture that embodies social good. Grafting a contemporary new addition onto a restored Victorian mansion on Jarvis Street, the architects greatly expanded the care centre’s ability to serve its clientele while crafting a space imbued with all the intimacy, warmth and comfort of a residential setting. Its quilt-like façade comprises crust-faced limestone, brick and tinted bronze glass that maintains patient privacy while still evoking the organization’s ethos of transparency. “In the eighties, during the HIV crisis, there was a huge stigma – as there is today – around HIV, and our facility was in the shadows of this community,” Joanne Simons, Casey House’s CEO, told us in our initial coverage of the project. “Nearly 30 years later, we’re making a very bold statement. We’re not hiding anymore.”

2019: Officina sofa by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec for Magis (Best in Furniture Design)

A perfect embodiment of the beauty that can be found in contrasts, the Officina sofa harmoniously pairs rugged wrought iron with soft-to-the-touch upholstery. Originally designed for Magis in 2017 by French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec (well before the two’s recent decision to explore individual creative pursuits), Officina relies on ancient metal forging techniques to shape its iron frame, effectively celebrating the perfectly imperfect nature of hand-wrought industrial craftsmanship. The surprisingly slender framework wraps up and around both the back and sides, elegantly embracing the sumptuous cushions in such a way that they almost appear to be hovering midair. Carefully composed to be attractive when approached from all angles, Officina is at once modern and timeless, sensible yet a little extravagant – and it was all these well-considered and original details that caught the eye of our 2019 jury and garnered it the top award for Best in Design: Furniture

2020: Borden Park Natural Swimming Pool by Gh3* Architecture (Best in Commercial Buildings < 1,000 Square Metres)

Toronto-based architecture firm Gh3* has proven time and again that infrastructure can — and should — be as beautiful as it is functional. Its design for Edmonton’s Borden Park Natural Swimming Pool is no exception. At its completion in 2018, the project marked a milestone as Canada’s first chemical-free outdoor pool and only the second of its kind in North America. At the north end of the pool, a “constructed wetland” filled with stones, gravel, sand, flora and Zooplankton improves the water quality while evoking the local landscape. The second natural filtration system — along with changerooms and staff areas — is housed in a low-slung, austere building that runs along the pool’s southern edge. Meanwhile, the concrete deck slopes gradually into the water, an accessibility strategy that formally nods to a beach’s sandy shoreline. Not only is the pool easier and less costly to maintain than its conventional counterparts, its thoughtful design, which renders visible the process of water treatment, makes it a true standout.

2021: Matheson Cookware (Best in Interior Products)

Leave it to Matty Matheson. Together with designers and long-time collaborators Castor Design — led by Brian Richer and Kei Ng — the iconic Toronto restaurateur has created a new culinary classic: Matheson Cookware reinvents the iconic cast-iron skillet through a series of subtle yet remarkably thoughtful design gestures. Most notably, the lip of the pan is gently raised where it meets the knurled handle, facilitating an easy way to collect sauce when the skillet is raised and tilted. Meanwhile, the elongated handle creates a safe and comfortable distance between the chef and open flame, while a matching lid seamlessly transforms the skillet into a dutch oven.“This understated piece takes an object that’s been around and reinvents it in such a way that it feels fresh, right down to its well-considered details,” said Juror Paul Filek.

2022: A Floating Forest: Fish Tail Park (Best in Landscape Architecture)

In our Landscape Architecture category, Beijing-based Turenscape are serial winners. Widely recognized as a leading global practice, the firm – led by Kongjian Yu — boasts an extensive portfolio of ecologically regenerative and aesthetically striking environments. Yet, none captured our attention quite like Nanchang’s Fish Tail Park, which reinvents the site of a former fish farm as a flood-proof archipelago full of tree species that can survive fluctuating water levels. On a site where nearby power plants dumped mountains of coal ash, the designers mixed the waste material with dirt to create a new ecosystem of lakes and islets. It’s also a haven for the public, thanks to the striking angular geometry of walkways and viewing platforms that rises just above the landscape.

2023: Quay Quarter Tower by 3XN (Best in Adaptive Re-Use)

If architects and developers are serious about reducing the carbon loads of their buildings, they need to act boldly. This project, by the always ingenious 3XN, pushes the possibilities of adaptive re-use as far as they can go. It essentially grafts a new building to an existing tower’s core, reducing the need for demolition and saving some 12,000 metric tons of concrete in the process. Awarded by a jury including Lawrence Scarpa, who noted “It sends a big message to developers who are quick to tear buildings down and start from scratch,” Quay Quarter Tower also demonstrates that working with an existing structure need not preclude the creation of uplifting spaces: the building comprises five volumes stacked around a series of atria and includes external terraces that allow access to outside space from the podium all the way to the roof.

The 2024 AZ Awards is presented by Keilhauer, Cosentino, and Alumilex, and sponsored by Colombo Design America and Technogym. Gala sponsors are Dark Tools, ScavoliniGeorge Brown College’s Brookfield Sustainability InstituteVogt and Landscape Forms.

Media Partners: Archello, ArchDaily, Archilovers, Archinect, Archiproducts, The Architect’s Newspaper, Architonic, Bustler, Design Week Mexico, v2com newswire and World-Architects.

AZ Awards 2024: A Look Back at 13 Years of Design Excellence

With submissions to the 2024 edition now open, we profile memorable winners from each of the past editions.

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