Last month, the Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, invested Marianne McKenna, a founding partner in the Toronto firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, as an Officer of the Order of Canada. The award, which recognizes Canadians for their talents and contributions to the country on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II of Canada, is one of the country’s’s highest honors, roughly equivalent to the Order of the British Empire in Britain and the Kennedy Center Honors for artists in the United States. Complete with military band, the formal ceremony—which McKenna called "moving"— took place in Ottowa’s venerable Rideau Hall. Since the award was established in 1967, recipients of the medal have included Margaret Atwood, Phyllis Lambert, Joni Mitchell, Mordecai Richler, Christopher Plummer, and Frank Gehry, FAIA, as well as several honorary figures, including Aga Kahn IV and Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Since its founding in 1987 as the successor firm to Barton Myers Associates, KPMB has built a large and growing legacy of medium- and large-scale buildings that have endowed downtown Toronto and Montreal with crisp, handsome Modernist buildings that are sustainable, urbanistically responsible, and spatially and programmatically complex. The work ranges from educational and cultural buildings to mixed-use developments, some setting the stage for Toronto’s cultural Renaissance. The success of the buildings as good citizens has prompted clients south of the border to commission the architects for institutional and corporate buildings in Boston and New York and academic buildings at MIT, Princeton and Northwestern University.
Within the firm’s portfolio, McKenna has been responsible for the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall in Toronto, an acoustically lively venue that fosters an intimate musical experience between audience and musicians. She was also partner-in-charge for KPMB of the Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex at Concordia University in downtown Montreal, and the environmentally sustainable Jackson-Triggs Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Typically she cultivates a strong reciprocal relationship between outside and inside.
In 2010, The Financial Post ranked McKenna among Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women. She was born and raised in Montreal, and attended Swarthmore College, and then the Yale Architecture School during its Charles Moore years.
Few architects have won the award, and rare is the woman architect.
"In the context of all the ups and downs of practice, it’s encouraging to see women acknowledged equally with men, and not simply as token women. Women’s voices are finally a serious part of the conversation," McKenna says. "It’s wonderful to be part of this evolution. I am deeply grateful to receive this honor, and it will serve me as a daily reminder to create architecture that cultivates innovation and builds community."