Success and Failure: Thoughts on OAA Awards

Last Monday on March 6th, the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) has announced twenty Design Excellence Finalists of this year’s OAA Awards. Scrolling down through the list, I experienced a spectrum of emotions: hope, excitement, bitterness, unease, a very mixed feeling, just like the other hundred or so architects!


Architecture awards are kind of a big deal in the world of architecture: it’s an opportunity to have your work’s excellence, value and effort recognised and to promote your firm (and most importantly, who doesn’t like awards!?). But the truth is, only a limited number of architects get to taste the sweetness, and the majority, the bitterness; so would you share my bitterness?


1) Numbers

Let’s get straight to the numbers and stats. Out of 140 submissions, 20 finalists were selected, and out of 20 selections, a firm or two were selected more than once. There are about 3,800 registered architects in Ontario, with 1,500 in the making1. It’d be a false assumption to believe that every architect is working (we know it), but there is definitely a lack of engagement and participation. Looking at these numbers, I couldn’t help but ask myself why: Years of bitterness and disappointment? Lack of motivation/encouragement? Lack of interest? Or, years of experience, knowing that same firms win the awards?


2) Absence of Sub-category

Aga Khan Museum, the Winner of Design Excellence in 2016

Design Excellence Category recognises the creation of excellent, innovative spaces, buildings and communities that enhance our environment and human activities. The Finalists are comprised of a wide range of building types including community/recreation centre, library, commercial retail, residential and even a bird viewing pavilion. It’s simply fascinating that a variety of developments are happening despite the hot real estate market (i.e. not just houses and condos). However, what caught my attention was the absence of sub-categories: commercial, residential, community, cultural, or pavilion. Having sub-categories is one method to encourage more architects to participate, because for instance, some of us are discouraged to submit their residential works, knowing some community centres will win the award.


3) No Condominiums

Condo Jungle (Source)

It’s really funny, isn’t it? There are hundreds of condos in Toronto, yet not a single one of them has ever won the OAA Design Excellence Award, and there are pros and cons in this:

Pros: Condos are often built by big development companies that are often able to secure budget and resources (e.g. pre-sale). On the other hand, a single family house, for instance, is supported by a private owner/individual that has a limited budget to begin with. Awarding private residences or townhouses encourage smaller projects to participate.

Cons: This has more to do with the current condo madness in Toronto. Some are skyrocketing, and some are ridiculously out of space, not matching with the existing neighbourhood and adjacent properties. But, at the end of the day, who cares about design, right? Well, certainly real estate agents and owners don’t, and can we ask ourselves: are we the architects honestly doing our job?


At the end of the day, we are not sitting here to whine about having tasted bitterness, but simply to share our experience and thoughts that probably some of you may have as well. We are all working to solve problems, whether that may be to enhance the existing communities or to alleviate housing issues, and every project that fulfills such goals should be considered a ‘success‘. After all, the OAA is for architects themselves —ourselves, so why not strive for what’s the best for us?