RAYMOND CHOW, GH3

To Delight the Eye

Edmonton's architectural reinvention

By Omar Mouallem

What do Mordecai Richler, Aimee Mann and Craig Ferguson have in common? As visitors to the Alberta capital, they’ve all marvelled at its hideousness—its drab architecture, its higgledy-piggledy urban design. “On first glance, and even on third, it seems not so much a city as a jumble of a used-building lot, where the spare office towers and box-shaped apartment buildings and cinder-block motels discarded in the construction of real cities have been abandoned to waste away in the cruel prairie winter.” So wrote Richler in 1985 in The New York Times.

Or take Ferguson’s observation of Edmonton’s signature library—the brutalist Stanley A. Milner sitting at the foot of its civic plaza. After a comedy tour, he returned to his Los Angeles studio and remarked during his opening monologue on the Late Late Show that it looked like a prison.

But no critique cut as deeply as the one from its last sitting mayor, Stephen Mandel, who declared something of a fatwa on bad architecture in 2005. During his second State of the City address he said, “Our tolerance for crap is now zero.” His decree would set in motion a series of changes within government that would transform Edmonton from the butt of jokes to a role model for higher design standards.

Following a drought of public infrastructure during the 1990s, the boom-time city spent hundreds of millions on libraries, rec centres and public art, but this time it was aided by stellar competition juries and requests for proposals of the highest quality. The City has opened tendering to all of Canada, sometimes the world, to get the best possible design for its dollars.

The signature library that Ferguson called a prison is going under the knife for a futurist makeover by Toronto’s five-time Governor General’s award winning firm Teeple Architects. Finished works include the playful Jasper Place Library, with its stunning unsupported, undulating roof (Vancouver’s Fast+Epp); the spectacular, angular Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre (Toronto’s MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller); and a carousel-inspired park pavilion (Toronto’s gh3) that Azure magazine called “Canada’s most impressive public washroom.” No more crap indeed.

On a Friday morning, architectural critic Trevor Boddy is driving around his former hometown with a camera around his neck. Ignoring angry horns behind him, he slows and stops for shots of his few remaining modernism favourites. “We all cheered from the sidelines,” Boddy, now Vancouver based, says of Mandel’s declaration and the subsequent shakeup. “The competitions meant it wasn’t the same good ol’ boys and golf buddies getting commissions.”

The quality of design in Edmonton is extraordinary; it’s become a normal way of doing business.

He parks the SUV across from the cool and curvy Art Gallery of Alberta, considered patient zero in Edmonton’s architectural reinvention. Although it was a provincial project, the 2006 international competition to re-envision the Edmonton Art Gallery attracted the likes of Zaha Hadid and Arthur Erickson. Moreover, it inspired locals to consider the value of architecture as never before. But it was not errorless. “So many things come down to management,” Boddy says as he steps outside. “And the way it was managed was bad. Bad brief, bad rules.” Instead of rewarding a design that added to an already impressive, albeit constrained and poorly insulated 1960s modernist museum, it’s widely rumoured that the gallery’s former director overruled the jury’s choice (Hadid) for what Boddy calls a “patronizing” Frank Gehry ripoff by Californian Randall Stout. “It’s one of the greatest scandals in the last decade of Canadian architecture,” he says while photographing the scene of the “crime.”

But at least it got Edmontonians talking—both inside and outside government.

The city promoted its principal urban designer, Carol Bélanger (pronounced “Carl”), to chief architect, letting him oversee virtually every new public project’s design. He was involved with every branch but transit. Bélanger, a stylish dresser with a lumberjack beard and a faint Québécois accent, is known for his unorthodox tastes. “Carol is a terrific buy for Edmonton,” says Boddy, “and in some ways I’m a big fan of what he’s done.”

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Jasper Place Branch Library has an unsupported, undulating roof. (Gerry Kopelow)

Instead of prioritizing the bottom line, as is often the case for governments, Bélanger helped establish a point-ranking system that ensured quality above all else when considering commissions. Architectural firms lowballing a $90-million budget rec centre would be deducted as many points as firms exceeding the budget. A trade agreement allowing interprovincial commissioning on most local projects had opened the doors to the country’s most prestigious architects applying for commissions. “I don’t profess to be the best architect,” says Bélanger, “but that’s why I hire the best.”

Bélanger acknowledges his tendency to reward outsider firms for the majority of public works. His ranking system gives points for past experience with similar projects, something Edmonton’s smaller companies simply may not have. But Bélanger is unapologetic. “We’re just trying to get the best, and paying the same fee to all these firms.”

Dubbed the “Edmonton Model” by the Ordre des architectes du Québec, the city’s rapid architectural reinvention has admirers across Canada. “It’s an excellent model to emulate,” says Calgary city councillor Druh Farrell. She’s asking her administration and colleagues to shake up their design policies, which Farrell says favour utilitarianism and vandal-proofing over excellence. “The quality of design in everything [Edmonton] does is extraordinary and it’s become a normal way of doing business. That’s what we need.”

Bélanger and the Edmonton Model are earning national attention, says gh3 principal Pat Hanson. Since 2011, her firm has won five bids, including a wastewater control centre that in just about any other city would probably be a stout cement box. Instead it’s a sleek, glass-skinned rotunda that defies its utilitarianism and offers passers-by something to delight the eye. “These are important buildings,” says Hanson. “They set the kind of ambition for private buildings.”

Eleven years into Edmonton’s architectural reinvention, it’s unclear whether the private sector has that ambition. As great as the Edmonton Model is, it hasn’t yet inspired private developers, who over the boom years expanded Edmonton’s infamous uniformity and banality at breakneck speeds. There are exceptions, especially around downtown, currently undergoing the biggest construction boom since the 1970s, with condo developers helping turn a formerly derelict warehouse district into the pedestrian-friendly promenade, and a quilt of parking lots birthing the multi-billion-dollar “Ice District” for the Oilers, surrounded by glossy new retail and mixed-use towers. But by and large the city’s rapid growth has rolled out a red carpet for drab buildings and terrible urban design, with little quality control but for a single volunteer design committee established in the wake of Mandel’s declaration. “It’s time for the private sector to pick up the slack,” says Boddy.

The sentiment is shared by Shafraaz Kaba of Edmonton’s Manasc Isaac. The architect helped establish the Edmonton Design Committee and sat on it for its first five years, giving new developments—and city council—letters of support or non-support based on whether their plans upheld basic design and architectural principles. Although some will heed EDC’s feedback (e.g., “proposed workmanship and craftsmanship must be consistent with classical style”), many more dismiss it. The result is buildings only slightly more attractive than those from the decade before 2005. “They need sharper teeth,” says Kaba of the EDC. “The City doesn’t have enough bylaw officers to follow up with everything built.”

He chalks up the private sector’s mediocrity not to economics but to laziness and fear. Kaba’s recently completed Mosaic Centre—a 30,000 ft2 private office building in the deep-south subdivision Summerside—is an example of what can be achieved on a standard $10.5-million budget. Alberta’s first net-zero office, the colourful three-storey structure is as beautiful as it is green. But peer over the solar panels on its rooftop garden and one sees rapidly sprouting big-box stores and sprawling spec offices, many of which have supposedly passed the EDC’s sniff-test. “Everyone wants to do what they know or what they’ve done before, and [they] don’t want to take the new path, because it has more risk.”

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Castle Downs Pavilion. (Raymond Chow)

When it comes to handling higher quality materials and unique designs, architects and their clients struggle to find the required expertise. “Some of the more strategic detailing that we have in our buildings requires that the contractor think outside the box,” says Pat Hanson of gh3. “That’s new for most contractors in Edmonton.” However, she says this has improved over the years and contractors are welcoming the chance to learn the new skills demanded by bolder buildings.

“We’ve done a good job of adapting to what the architectural community wants,” says Art Bundschuh of subcontractors Flynn Canada. A Flynn employee of 18 years, he’s managed glazing, roofing and steelwork at many of the city’s newest landmarks, including the Art Gallery of Alberta, Mill Woods library and forthcoming arena and Royal Alberta Museum. Flynn rode the learning curve in order to pull off these legacy projects. Before the city’s new architectural mandate, a typical local company project, Bundschuh says, would be a Sobeys.

Will we rob future generations of the city’s imperfect yet authentic architectural heritage?

One danger of the Edmonton Model is that makeovers such as the Milner’s rob future generations of the city’s imperfect yet authentic architectural heritage. Edmonton has the tendency to destroy dignified public buildings, as it did with the AGA. (Even Carol Bélanger recently applied to demolish his 1950s flat-roof home, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired building that’s been on the city’s heritage list for 20 years, in order to build three colourful postmodern houses.)

More scandalous than choosing Stout’s AGA design over Hadid’s, says Boddy, is that it erased what he considered to be the city’s finest building from the 1960s. Stark, monolithic and in disrepair as it was, the modern brutalist Edmonton Art Gallery was one of six buildings on Boddy’s list of lost or endangered masterworks identified in his 2007 essay for Capital Modern: Edmonton Architecture and Urban Design 1940–1969. Of those six, only one remains: the Stanley A. Milner library on the other side of the civic plaza.

He snaps a few shots of the AGA and turns in the direction of the boxy six-storey library. Although it has outgrown its interior—claustrophobically designed at a time when book storage, not community service, was the priority—the exterior, to him, is nicely scaled and finely detailed. Boddy is not against Stephen Teeple’s futuristic redesign, but the current library was important to his generation.

The irony of Edmonton’s gradual makeover is that brutalism, a once popular style that fell out of favour for a generation, is currently enjoying a comeback in architectural circles as retaliation against structural expressionism’s extravagance. How many decades will pass before Edmontonians tire of the latter’s showiness? wonders Boddy. “Urban plastic surgery seldom results in enduring beauty.”

He lifts the camera to his eye, pulls focus and takes what’s likely his last photo of the library in its current form.

Omar Mouallem lives in Edmonton, where he writes and edits The Yards and sits on the boards of LitFest and Eighteen Bridges.

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