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Designs on Excellence

Giving out awards for excellent architecture is a small but important way to recognize the role design plays in making a great city. The City of Ottawa is to give out its first such awards on Nov. 14. It's a small step — there's no money or anything, just a certificate and bragging rights — and Toronto has given awards for good construction since 2000, so it's not even a first step down a new trail. Still, honouring the people who put up buildings with public value shows the city notices when people live up to city council's urban-design ideals.

Doing so isn't easy: you need talented architects and engineers, of course, but also skilled builders. More than that, you need a property owner willing to support a great vision with hard cash. Downtown Ottawa is a virtual architectural wasteland because the entity most responsible for the buildings there, the federal government, has always sought maximum space at minimum cost. The results, buildings that look like bricks stood on end, are disheartening; worse, they've given many private developers excuses to do their work on the cheap, too. There are exceptions. The new Canadian War Museum, for instance, is a work of art (though its lead architects, Moriyama & Teshima of Toronto, had the luxury of a blank slate on LeBreton Flats). On a smaller scale, there are many attractive infill projects downtown, put up by such private builders as Domicile and Charlesfort, that might not attract attention outside their neighbourhoods, but should.

Toronto's 2005 awards recognized everything from a striking new building for the Ontario College of Art and Design to a new facade and patio for a small vegetarian restaurant. Such gems in Ottawa deserve more public attention, too.

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E. & O.E.