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Why doesn’t Canada have a design culture? Throughout my career as an architectural journalist, the question has carried a sort of gravitational mass. Whether the conversation hinged on Toronto’s dispiritingly generic condos, the lack of opportunities for emerging firms, the middling state of institutional architecture, or the general paucity of public engagement with contemporary buildings, the dialogue circled an invisible drain that eventually arrives at two inevitable words: Design culture.  

I never quite grasped what it meant. When I started writing about design a decade ago, I was thrust into a milieu whose jargon isn’t intelligible to many members of the profession itself, let alone us dilettantes. I’d sheepishly nod along as architects and academics described the vague contours of a seemingly ineffable problem. Oftentimes, the gist of it was that the public just wasn’t sophisticated enough to “get it.” But whatever design culture was, I was assured that Canada — especially English Canada — doesn’t have it. (Googling the term didn’t help, yielding a Wikipedia entry consisting of management consulting pablum about business structures and customer experience; a cousin of the similarly vacuous notion of “design thinking.”)

Over the years, I started to cobble together my own sense of things. Azure’s late co-founder Nelda Rodger framed the issue concisely, describing that “the word ‘designer’ was irrevocably bound to the word ‘jeans’” in the public consciousness when our magazine was founded in 1985. And although much has changed since then, the design of our built environments still remains a footnote in the zeitgeist. Even in the public drama of zoning reforms and 15-minute-city conspiracies, architects and designers are little more than cameo players in the cacophony. This, at least, was my gist of an opaque discourse: Canadian culture and Canadian design are two solitudes. 

The Design Exchange’s small museum was housed within the former Toronto Stock Exchange building.

Then, when Toronto’s Design Exchange (DX) permanently shuttered its modest gallery, my thinking evolved. In 2019, the country’s only dedicated design museum was quietly consigned to history and a rare tangible link to the public was severed. But was the institution’s closure symptomatic of an indifferent cultural zeitgeist? It’s an abstruse question — and maybe a misguided one — against a rather more prosaic reality: The DX closed because the government didn’t adequately fund it. A lack of support and subsidy shuttered the museum, which more acutely reflects a failure of public policy than of public ennui. 

As Canadian writer and V&A curator Brendan Cormier told Dezeen, the DX’s closure reflected a chronic “problem of overall lack of support for the design profession, and design culture in general.” And according to Toronto-based architect Heather Dubbeldam, the shuttered museum was symptomatic of bigger structural problems. “Never mind the cultural implications, there is a seeming lack of understanding by government at all levels that good design can be a driving force for innovation, for healthy cities, for economic growth in all sectors from technology to architecture, manufacturing to education and everything in between,” said Dubbeldam. 

Dubbeldam stressed that Canada became “one of the few advanced economies in the world without its own design museum.” Indeed, as our only design museum closed, other countries were opening theirs. In the last decade, Hong Kong unveiled Herzog & De Meuron’s landmark M+ Design Museum, while the V&A introduced a design outpost in Dundee by Kengo Kuma, as well as an affiliate site in Shenzhen, housed in a building by Fumihiko Maki. Against this glittering bijouterie, Canada’s parsimonious bureaucracy augurs badly for architecture in the public sphere. If nothing else, the DX’s demise illustrated that the civic bureaucracy — and the public purse – plays a meaningful role in nurturing our shared values. But if bad public policy destroys design culture, can good public policy bring it to life?  

The DX’s closure was a watershed for Canadian architecture. But the funding of a museum represents the public tip of the proverbial iceberg of design policy. While a dedicated cultural institution is a vital (and high-profile) venue for public discourse, the government’s influence is manifested in every public building constructed across the country. For architects, the public sector is first and foremost a client. Is it a good one? 

Whether driven by a federal, provincial or municipal government (or another public body like a school board or hospital), every new project is preceded by a selection process, determining the standards by which services are obtained. This is the realm of procurement — the bureaucratic mechanism for governments purchasing everything from toilet paper and coffee cups to billion-dollar buildings. For architects to be considered, they must respond to a tender, with contracts awarded based on criteria outlined in a Request for Proposals (RFP). It’s a dry and seemingly anodyne bureaucracy, and one that’s far removed from politics and the public eye. Yet these documents also set out what constitutes a successful building and a worthy designer. And in doing so, they represent public values.

“It’s a really boring-sounding subject,” says architect Toon Dreessen, “but it’s essential to design and the architectural profession.” A principal of Ottawa-based DCA Architects and a former president of the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA), Dreessen is at the forefront of a movement to bring public awareness — and reform — to how procurement shapes the built environment

For Dreessen, Canada’s “procurement is fundamentally broken.” It starts with understanding the selection process. While various governments and public agencies all apply their own metrics to evaluating RFPs, two prevailing factors dominate the criteria: cost and experience. A typical RFP outlines a scoring rubric that weighs the firm’s portfolio of similar projects and the proposed fee. To win a commission for a library or a hospital, for example, architects need to demonstrate an expertise in already having designed these types of buildings as well as the ability to deliver “best value” to the public. Both metrics are profoundly flawed.

Canada’s fee-driven procurement structure is the low-lying fruit. It’s a paradigm that encourages a race to the bottom among designers, and one that Dreessen illustrates by way of example. “I remember when the RFP was out for Ottawa’s Museum of Science and Tech, and there was a meeting with the project manager,” he says. “One of the things he said was, ‘Look, if the top three firms all are roughly equal technically, I’ll take the cheapest bid because you’re all good enough.'” It’s a graceless but brutally honest summary of a calculus that evaluates architecture merely as the provision of a service.

And we get what we pay for. Although architectural fees account for an almost negligible proportion of a major public project’s total construction budget, the cost-cutting engendered by a fee-based policy entails meeting only minimum requirements. It’s a model that leaves little room for design input, which often comes at the expense of both architectural quality and long-term value. “Even if, as an architect, I can demonstrate that a two per cent increase in a building’s construction budget can reduce long-term operation costs, or that it can improve the health of occupants, the procurement criteria doesn’t take it into account,” says Dreessen. “So even if the RFP describes an emphasis on ‘design excellence’, it’s often fundamentally at odds with the reality.”

For design firms, the pressure to maintain low fees also feeds a vicious cycle of exploitative work culture. According to Darryl Condon, a Vancouver-based architect and managing partner at hcma, it fits a bigger pattern. “If architects accept low-fee work, how do they make a profit? Maybe by using unpaid interns and underpaid employees,” says Condon. (What’s more, the unpaid work of responding to an RFP can itself easily take hundreds of hours; it requires meticulous attention to project requirements and addenda that often span over 1,000 pages.)

It’s hardly a uniquely Canadian problem. Andrew Daley, a New York-based architect and union organizer, put it to Azure‘s Sydney Shilling in simple terms. “If we don’t give our labour away, then our competitor will give it away,” Daley explained. But it’s an issue that our neighbours to the south have at least tried to tackle. In 1972, the United States adopted the Brooks Act, a federal regulation that prohibits scoring on price in RFPs. And while the legislation has continuously been attacked and sometimes watered down, it remains law in 49 of 50 states and hundreds of municipalities. “For Canada, a version of the Brooks Act would be a great step forward,” says Dreessen.

Even the privilege of undercutting the competition seldom comes cheap. For Canadian architects to become eligible to enter the low-fee sweepstakes, they must demonstrate extensive relevant experience in the RFP. Like the “best value” proviso on fees, it’s a qualification that seems reasonable on its face — and one that acutely shapes both the design industry and the built environment.

Monica Contreras, an architect and project manager with 20 years of experience in creating and evaluating RFPs, explains that the prior experience criterion is primarily rooted in avoiding uncertainty. “It actually has more to do with risk than anything else, because when you’re trying to find an architect — for instance, for a capital project, for a new building — you want to know that they have the capacity to do something big,” Contreras told Canadian Architect.

In a regulatory environment where past experience is paramount, gaining experience to begin with is paradoxical. “You can’t get experience unless you have experience,” says Dreessen. The Toronto Public Library (TPL) offers an apt example. Although a generally progressive and forward-minded institution, the TPL uses fairly typical public sector procurement criteria to commission new buildings, namely relatively low fees (seven per cent of the total construction budget) and proven experience with three similar local projects. Want to design a library in Toronto? Only if you’ll do it reasonably cheap — and you’ve already done it.

As Alex Bozikovic argued last year in the Globe & Mail, it’s a policy that has limited recent commissions to just three firms, Diamond Schmitt, LGA Architectural Partners and Perkins&Will. “Nearly every thoughtful architect in the city would love to do a library,” wrote Bozikovic. “Yet the same few firms dominate projects at the library and in parks.” Indeed, the TPL is far from alone: Toronto’s parks and community centres are awarded via a similarly restrictive schema.

Predictability comes at the expense of evolution. Regardless of ability or talent, architects without extensive experience, particularly new and emerging design firms, struggle to break through. Moreover, public procurement criteria typically assign project experience to the architectural firm — not individual design team members. If an architect leaves a larger practice to start their own studio, for example, they effectively start a portfolio from scratch. This spurs a culture of mergers and acquisitions that consolidates the currency of experience in the hands of a cadre of corporate mega-firms. (Little wonder, then, that so many emerging architects instead stake their reputations on opulent single-family homes.)

In some cases, the criteria can even omit Canadian designers entirely. “The federal government tends to have the most conservative, restrictive procurement policies, and there are projects where international mega-firms are the only ones who qualify. It’s an incredibly risk-averse culture,” says Condon. Not to mention a recipe for mediocre design. But the more meaningful damage is to the public.

A philosophy fundamentally rooted in eliminating uncertainty and risk also eliminates a civic dialogue about the shape of the built environment. Even when architects design thoughtful and well-considered buildings, they do so under the auspices of a system that isolates design from public discourse. “It erodes the social contract that architects are supposed to have with the public,” says Dreessen. “There’s an expectation that publicly built architecture will be of good quality and meet our needs, but also that it’s going to represent who we are as a society.”

Let’s again consider public libraries. In the 21st century, the social and civic functions of these institutions continue to transform and to be debated. Yet when the primary criterion for designing one remains prior experience, the corollary is that an effective design schema already exists — and that there’s no real dialogue to be had. We need only tweak and replicate the formula.

Long-term care homes offer an unnerving example of the same phenomenon. Over the course of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a series of devastating outbreaks has laid bare the failings of the long-term care model — all as Canada’s aging population faces a demographic crisis. By late 2020, a majority of COVID-19 deaths in Ontario occurred in such settings, instigating a public reckoning. Canadians of varied political stripes argue that change is needed, from a re-evaluation of funding models and semi-privatization to the fundamental standards of healthcare. So what about design?

According to the City of Toronto, at least, the name of the game is still prior experience. For example, a 2022 RFP for an improved facility on Finch Avenue identified the typical public-sector experience metric: To qualify to design the new building, architects needed a portfolio of three long-term care homes completed in Ontario within the past decade. Even amidst an urgent civic dialogue about the future of long-term healthcare, the procurement policy implicitly calls for more of the same. If we need to fundamentally re-imagine how congregate care is delivered, why isn’t design part of the equation?

“Somewhere along the line, we started looking at architecture in strictly monetary terms,” says Dreessen. “I don’t know when exactly it happened, or whether it was a consequence of neoliberalism and public cutbacks, but it became all about finding value and eliminating risk.” For the public sector — and arguably the public writ large — the built environment thus becomes little more than a commodity. Dreessen likens this cost- and experience-driven procurement to the simple logic of a household purchase. “If I’m going to buy toilet paper, I’ll buy it where it’s cheapest, and I’ll buy it in bulk if that saves money.”

It’s a paradigm that has transformed the civic function of architecture. As George Thomas Kapelos writes in Canadian Modern Architecture, 1967 to the Present, the combination of poor procurement policy and Canadian governments’ increasing preference for Public-Private Partnerships in lieu of true public works has “led to shifts in the role of the architect from designer to project manager.”

It wasn’t always so. In the years following WWII, Canadian public policy celebrated art and architecture — by heavily subsidizing it. With the establishment of the Massey Commission in 1949, the Canada Council for the Arts in 1957 and the Centennial Commission in 1961, public design flourished. (In the 1960s, the Canada Council also supported small publishing, helping propel authors such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro to national and global acclaim, defining an era of Canadian culture along the way.)

Canadian Modern Architecture
Habitat 67.

Ahead of Montreal’s seminal Expo 67, a young Moshe Safdie won a major commission. As a 24-year-old architecture student, Safdie developed the concept for what would become Habitat 67, a complex that would be completed before his 30th birthday. The building was constructed with a substantial budget of $17 million, which translates to over $140 million in 2023. For his part, Safdie definitely didn’t have the prior experience. But the design was a vision for the future, not an expression of established best practices. To that end, youth and inexperience was a virtue. Was it all worth it? Habitat 67 is an icon, its presence defined not as a mere spectacle of architectural form-making, but as a meaningful exploration of the nature of urban living. It is a building that embodies an era of architecture and of civic optimism — a metonym for the spirit of the age.

Should we strive for that again? Around the world, such fairy-tale opportunities still occasionally flourish. My brother’s career is a case in point. In 2017, Uros joined partners Sebastian Bartnicki and Nicolas Koff to enter an anonymous international competition to design a cultural master plan for the new South Korean city of Sejong. Remarkably, they won, and the project is now under construction. Their small Toronto firm, Office OU, subsequently won another competition to design a public school in Czechia, though their Ontario projects remain limited to much smaller private-sector commissions. But personal bias aside, the open competition model presents a fraught counterpoint to Canada’s conservative procurement.

The Office OU team would be quick to tell you that the international competition model privileges a superficial “marketplace of forms” where engagement with local culture and context is limited. In the European cities I know best, recent competition-winning projects epitomize the trend. In Prague, where I lived for much of my childhood, renderings of a planned philharmonic hall by Bjarke Ingels Group boast incredible panache, yet none of the city’s subtle, inscrutable public spirit. And in Belgrade, where I spend part of the year, images of another upcoming concert venue — by Amanda Levete Architects / AL_A — mostly express the Serbian state’s yearning to assert itself on some imagined global stage. Much as I admire Levete, it’s a design that could be copied and pasted to a city in China, Singapore or Sweden, changing little in translation.

More prosaically, it doesn’t always work out. Buy a talented Canadian architect a drink and they’ll tell you their tale of woe — of winning an international competition for a project that went exactly nowhere. “I may be a little jaded,” says Condon, “because I’ve been quite successful at winning competitions throughout my career, but not very successful at seeing the results of those competitions get built.”

Naama Blonder, a Toronto-based architect and urban planner, reflects on a similar experience. A co-founder of award-winning firm Smart Density with Misha Bereznyak, Blonder began her career in Israel, where she completed her studies. “Before coming to Canada, we won a couple of competitions in Israel, but both projects were ultimately re-assigned to bigger, more established firms,” Blonder says. One way or another, risk management eventually rears its head.

Maybe there’s a Canadian middle ground. While open international competitions represent a bold antithesis to our typically rigid bureaucracies, more modest local reforms to the process have already yielded meaningful results.

Things have always been a little different in Quebec. Even as Canada’s federal government and English-speaking provinces adopted parsimonious and risk-averse bureaucracies, Quebec has integrated occasional design competitions into its policies, carving out opportunities for younger practitioners. In 1991, the City of Montreal created the position of Design Commissioner, spurring a series of competitions to remake the urban fabric and the public realm. Aided by a more density- and pedestrian-friendly civic culture, the metropolis is, in my mind, home to more good emerging practices — including YH2, L. McComber and Pelletier de Fontenay, to name a few — than any other city in Canada. Last year, meanwhile, the province formally adopted a national policy on architecture and land use.

Efforts to institute a Canada-wide architecture policy are also on the horizon: Both Dreessen and Condon are members of the steering committee of Rise for Architecture, a national, volunteer-led movement to develop one. Procurement is a key part of the vision. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) and provincial regulatory bodies in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta, all now support the adoption of a methodology called Quality-Based Selection (QBS). QBS policies vary by jurisdiction, but the core of it amounts to a Canadian version of the Brooks Act, eliminating price as an evaluation criterion. The metric was already adopted by Toronto Community Housing (TCH) in 2022, allowing the public agency to select architects via what it describes as “streamlined” and “value-based criteria.”

A values-based procurement methodology is also now the norm in Edmonton. In the Alberta capital, Carol Belanger was appointed as the City Architect in 2008 and ushered in a series of reforms — ones that largely taking price out of the equation. “We adopted the revolutionary move of actually adopting the RAIC’s fee schedule,” Belanger jokes, referring to the guidelines set out by the national advocacy organization. (Sadly, those outlined fees are largely aspirational within Canada’s dominant low-fee procurement culture).

While previous experience remains a key requirement for major projects, Belanger also championed “peer and architecture awards as another selection criterion,” to balance out the weight of prior experience alone. “It’s an imperfect metric, but we looked at what kind of awards proponents won, as well as their track record with municipal review boards.”

Edmonton also introduced an anonymous national competition to design a series of park pavilions. For emerging Canadian firms, the 2011 competition offered a rare opportunity to design public infrastructure without much prior exposure to the field. One of the winners was Toronto-based firm Gh3*, then predominantly known as a boutique landscape practice. Two of its designs were selected – the Borden Park and Castle Down Park pavilions – and went on to garner multiple awards.

Gh3*'s acclaimed Borden Park Natural Swimming Pool was facilitated by Edmonton's progressive procurement policies.
Gh3*’s acclaimed Borden Park Natural Swimming Pool was facilitated by Edmonton’s progressive procurement policies. PHOTO: Gh3*

Then, Gh3* won a bigger commission to design the Borden Park Natural Swimming Pool, the first chemical-free outdoor pool built in Canada. Completed in 2018, it is one of the defining Canadian projects of the 21st century. And two years later, the firm unveiled Edmonton’s Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage, which transforms a typically unremarkable typology into a striking civic showpiece. Now under construction, the striking Windermere Fire Station #31 is a similarly artful interpretation of city infrastructure.

To my mind, these projects have played a pivotal role in transforming Gh3* from a well-regarded boutique Toronto practice into a leading national firm. In 2023, Gh3*’s Pat Hanson and co. enjoy a deserved place at the summit of Canadian design. That so much of the firm’s best work is in Edmonton is no coincidence.

QBS and competitions notwithstanding, Canadian procurement is gradually evolving with social values. In fact, the most transformative recent change comes from the otherwise stodgy federal government, which now mandates that Indigenous designers must play a key role in all major public projects. Moreover, the federal government is also moving towards Net-Zero targets for new construction, which are already enforced by some Canadian municipalities (including Toronto).

It’s tempting to think that Canada’s lack of design culture might just be a lack of good design bureaucracy. If we were to synthesize the best practices from local and international jurisdictions, could some immaculate and enlightened public policy pave the way for a new golden age of architecture? It is a quintessentially Canadian question — and a naive offering at the altar of good governance. The reality is much messier.

Like any bureaucracy, procurement is deeply political. And while public policy can help shape civic culture, the more fundamental causal relationship runs in the opposite direction. “When you look at the 1960s, there was a lot of innovative and exciting architecture — but there was also incredible economic growth and a tremendous optimism about the future,” says Condon. “I don’t think we feel that way anymore.”

Today, the movement for Truth and Reconciliation is arguably our nation’s most revolutionary zeitgeist. And it is not by accident that it is now translated into public architecture policy. But the decolonization of design isn’t being fuelled by the wisdom of federal bureaucrats, it’s made possible by decades of Indigenous activism and civic leadership — and led by the work of practitioners like Douglas Cardinal, Eladia Smoke, Brian Porter, Matthew Hickey, David Fortin, Wanda Dalla Costa and Ryan Gorrie. The policy is downstream of the culture.

According to Condon, it’s a lesson settler architects should take to heart. “We need to adopt a values-based procurement system,” says Condon, “but we could also look at it another way. Maybe this is actually a symptom of a larger problem — of a divide between the profession and the public, and of a weakening social contract.” Architects must interrogate how we got here in the first place — and how much responsibility they bear.

“Our critiques of procurement are valid, but they also imply that the government and the public should come to us,” says Condon. “That they should better understand our value and the importance of what we do. And of course, I’d love it if they did. But are we doing enough to meet them in the middle?”

Even when addressing procurement itself, architects must do more than simply ask for better. “Nobody is forcing us to respond to shitty RFPs and exploit our interns,” says Condon. “Nobody is forcing us to put in these ridiculously low fees. We do it to ourselves.” Similarly, the architectural embrace of luxurious single-family homes only serves to further distance the profession from the public interest. “Why should the public care you designed a rich person’s house? Why would they care about form-making?”

Condon’s frustration is well placed. Today, precious few Canadian architects have a strong public voice. In writing a tribute to Toronto’s late Jack Diamond, I was struck by the leading role he played in the civic culture — as an advocate for social housing, an opponent of downtown freeways and airports, and a champion of progressive urban land use and human rights. Yet in issues of housing affordability and spatial justice, architects have largely ceded their public voice to urbanists and planners.

Naama Blonder is an exception to the rule. With a practice devoted to housing affordability and urban quality of life, the architect and urban planner is a prominent civic presence who addresses the socio-economic issues that dominate public discourse. To wit: a recent CBC video interview titled “Want to solve the housing crisis? Build these, experts say.” It’s been viewed over 72,000 times. For a Canadian architect, it’s some coup. “But when I get interviewed by the Toronto Star or the CBC, they usually want to talk to me as an urban planner,” says Blonder. “I have to remind them that I’m also an architect.”

Fortunately, there are other bright spots on the horizon. Set to represent Canada at the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale, the Architects Against Housing Alienation curatorial collective is rooted in a mission to “instigate an architectural movement and create socially, ecologically, and imaginatively empowering housing for all.” It’s a rare and refreshing link between the architectural profession and pressing social issues. (And while we’re assigning blame, I’d be remiss not to single out Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, whose 1993 federal budget eliminated funding for social housing — a move that not only precipitated the current housing crisis, but effectively eliminated the architectural profession’s most powerful tool for addressing social inequity.)

Where does that leave procurement? It takes more than an enlightened bureaucracy to meaningfully restore the frayed link between architecture and the public. What’s more, it’s awfully difficult to even map out how exactly such a bureaucracy might look. Hell, even our most promising reforms tend to be weighed down by their own complications. Should architecture awards help win commissions? Those are usually juried out of the public’s sight. Should competitions become the norm? They’re an inherently colonial paradigm.

For all that, it’s worth fighting for an architecture that serves — and reflects — the public. The strongest argument for procurement reform isn’t about giving architects their due, it’s about ensuring that our civic priorities can be reflected in the built environment. It means embracing design as a collaborative discourse.

We, the public, can do our part too. On the evening of March 7, a public meeting will explore the future of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre. In one of the city’s rare architecture competitions, five designs have now been shortlisted to re-imagine a major cultural venue. I’m not sure if the concepts are any good, or if the competition was well conceived to begin with. What I do know is that the designers will have to explain what their work is about, and which priorities it reflects. And we will ask our questions and have our say. Maybe I’ll see you there — and maybe we’ll even talk about architecture. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that design culture.

Lead image by Jason Hafso.

Can Public Policy Fix Canadian Architecture?

An exploration of how the bureaucracy of procurement shapes design — and how civic culture shapes bureaucracy.

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