10 Years, 10 Buildings

By Peter Burgener

The Telus Professional Building

Over the last 10 years, Alberta Views has earned a reputation for questioning how to make this province the best it can be. The magazine has provided commentaries on significant buildings and how they might affect people. As architecture in Alberta has continued to move toward a more mature design ethic, it seems fitting in this 10th anniversary edition of the magazine to identify 10 outstanding buildings constructed over the last decade. These examples certainly indicate a more vibrant future. Making better
places for people is achieved by questioning conventions, not by timidly following.

Lethbridge City Hall

| Lethbridge | This civic building literally and symbolically makes a place for people. It recognizes the public nature of a city hall, the prime gathering place of a democratic community. Curvilinear form differentiates the six-storey building from private-sector commercial facilities. Its massive colonnade projects civic stability. The exterior public space accommodates both arrival and public gathering. The configuration of the main foyer reflects the interconnection of the formal council chambers with the city itself.

Community Design

The first phase of MacKenzie Towne in south Calgary revealed a new direction for the planning and development of residential suburbs: walkable communities, front porches, a small retail “Main Street” and central public facilities. Unfortunately, it met with limited public acceptance, and subsequent phases largely reverted to the conventionally suburban. But Garrison Woods, in the western inner city, struck a chord, revitalizing public enthusiasm for a “community-based” design approach.

Newer suburban residential development is returning to full integration of the uses that make a community more than a mere subdivision. One great example is Mahogany in southeast Calgary.

Arriva Condominiums

| Calgary | The Arriva development reflects the shift toward greater densification of the inner city. Living close to work and shops and restaurants is a good thing. Construction of the first of three 36-storey towers is just finishing. The unique, stepped building form contributes positively to the city skyline. Arriva provides mixed use: retail, restaurants, health and fitness centres, offices and high-quality residences, in a building that has arguably the most contemporary design of all high-rise developments in the city. The construction uses curtain-wall and other systems typically found only in high-end commercial office buildings. This provides a much higher level of finish and building performance. “Building performance” means many things, including mechanical systems performance (hot or cold or draughty); air and moisture penetration, which affect air quality and mould; acoustical performance; sightlines; ability to find one’s way in the building. Arriva’s high standard is a measure of the increasing sophistication in residential accommodation.

Acqua/Vento Condominiums

| Calgary | Two buildings in the Bridges area of Calgary represent an aspect of residential development that will undoubtedly become increasingly important: energy con-servation and resource management. These two buildings, by the same development team, are designed to use 50 per cent less energy than a conventional multi-family building. This includes using 50 per cent less water. The buildings allow grey-water reuse for irrigation, collection of water in cisterns, high-efficiency mechanical systems, enhanced insulation, toxin-free interior finishing materials and very high indoor air quality. Both buildings are anticipated to be certified as LEED-compliant at a gold level—which may soon become mandatory for buildings.

Telus Professional Centre

| University of Alberta, Edmonton | The Telus Centre represents two key areas of design consideration. Given the significant role of Telus in the funding of this building, it is not surprising that the Centre is all about technological innovation and advanced information and communication systems—a clear direction for all future educational facilities. This building is an excellent example of leaving “old-school” institutional thinking behind and providing a dynamic, invit-ing environment to encourage interaction and learning.

The Centre’s advanced communications systems include “technology-enhanced conference rooms,” smart multimedia classrooms, video conferencing facilities, computer labs, a 300-seat lecture theatre and a digital library. The building also encourages interaction through the use of interior bridges that cross through the main hall, interconnecting the floors physically and visually.

More importantly, the building’s organizational plan and physical expression stimulate interaction. In contrast to “old-school” institutions, generally insular and often not very welcoming, this building has a visually prominent gathering space—apparent even from outside—at the main entry. This is a result of placement, spatial organization and the expansive use of view glass on the exterior.

Rozsa Centre

| University of Calgary | This gathering place and 400-seat performance space is a delightful building, specifically “regional” in its design vocabulary and at the same time understated and elegant. The building and its component parts do not attempt to make any grandiose statements, instead offering a relaxed, warm environment that invites dialogue and listening. Technical considerations alone, even if well carried out, could have created a space with great acoustical capability, “performing” extremely well for an audiophile with no interest in social interaction. But the Rozsa’s blending of technical considerations with materials selection and detailing creates a superb facility. The technical aspects of the Rozsa Centre are indeed extremely good, but the articulated wood side walls and expressed structure also achieve visual as well as acoustical richness. The materials are fundamental to the overall impact and enjoyment of the space.

Francis Winspear Centre for Music

| Edmonton | This is another acoustically wonderful space, though very different from the Rozsa Centre. Much more com-mercial, with a significantly larger main hall (1,900 seats), the Winspear is defined by its approach to design, which starts at the entry doors: the work is consistent from the point of arrival. Each element supports and enhances all the others.

(By contrast, the design of the renovated southern Jubilee most definitely does not start at the entrance. Instead of an entrance with any relationship to the now-sumptuous interior space, one arrives through rather mean-spirited, unattractive doors into what feels more like the entry to a Toronto subway station than an arts facility.)

Throughout the Winspear, a high level of attention has been paid to material and human scale. The classic “compression” of arrival within the building is welcoming and intimate, and gently leads into the expansive concert hall beyond.

The design and construction of this facility are remarkable—and rely significantly upon trust in everyone involved. The commitment of a handshake, which finds its roots in the past, might be a beneficial direction for the future: trust, validated by the achievement of a great building.

Destination Africa, Calgary Zoo

| Calgary | This grouping of several buildings at the Calgary Zoo substantially enhanced the perception of the zoo as a destination. It was a bold move by the zoo to step out of the passé display and building forms of previous eras and lead the way into the use of storytelling and education through experiential involvement. From the outside, the contemporary form and detail of the two primary buildings draw attention and captivate interest. The dramatic volumes of interior space become simply the background to the main event of “discovering” the animals within.

Centrium Office Building

| Calgary | An office building developer tries to maximize the efficiency of the floor plate, achieving the greatest amount of net rentable area while minimizing the non-rentable components such as elevator shafts. But this tower has a unique twist: one entire façade of the building leans out from the primary structure, providing a dynamic and memorable form while also creating larger floor plates higher up the building—where the rental rates are higher as well. This is a brilliant combination: trompe l’oeil and aesthetic expression are coupled with enhanced economic return for the developer. It is a simple yet exciting departure from the typical grey, boxy downtown building.

M Tech Office Building

| Calgary | This is simply a great building. The form and the presentation of materials are sophisticated, intellectual, reasoned, aesthetic and wonderfully executed. It’s a “one-off” that may be somewhat challenging to replicate as a generic office building, but it offers functional and energizing interior spaces and provides many lessons in good design. It includes offices but goes well beyond conventional, static space and offers instead a series of experiences that surprise, delight and make us think. Layout, materials and colours are used to stimulate both visual and emotional perception of space.

The public bus shelter is incorporated into the vocabulary of the building. The harmonious integration of that “amenity” is itself an example of what makes good design. Use of water within the building recognizes principles of feng shui while providing visual interest and excitement. A varied and complementary palette of materials is used appropriately for different purposes. The detailing of exterior wall finishes, the exterior glass and glazing systems—these are sophisticated, urbane and technically excellent.

Conventional thinking in the institutional world often seems predicated upon maintenance and potential damage to buildings, lowest-cost approaches and single-minded philosophy. This ends up producing schools for children that are largely windowless bunkers, that do not elicit joy and wonder and exploration—entirely missing the point of what education is really all about. The same comments apply to “old-school” university buildings, hospitals and other public buildings.

Real leadership within the development community would incorporate LEED approaches into buildings. This would be environmentally and socially responsible. Tenants and purchasers have not yet been sufficiently educated to accept the additional cost associated with such an approach. The challenge is for those who lead the process of development—and indeed the design community—to initiate, rather than waiting for public opinion, and push them along that route.

Over the last 10 years, Alberta architectural design has ma-tured, but at this point too few buildings exhibit better design. This has to do with decision-makers who prefer to be “safe” and designers who are not prepared to challenge their own comfort levels. One hopes that some of the design approaches of these 10 buildings—and the underlying decisions that allowed them to be realized—will lead to consistently better design. A more informed and better-educated public, together with visionary attitudes from key decision-makers, will ultimately produce a climate of better design. #

Peter Burgener is the senior partner of BKDI Architects and a fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

Originally published in the Jan/Feb 2008 print edition of Alberta Views.

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