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A Workplace Shines: Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage, Edmonton, Alberta

A new bus garage in Edmonton builds on the legacy of early 20th-century infrastructure buildings, conceived as architecturally ambitious expressions of civic pride.

PROJECT Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage, Edmonton, Alberta

ARCHITECTS gh3* (design architect) with Morrison Hershfield (prime consultant)

PHOTOS gh3*

One of the few lazy diagonals in a hard-working grid-iron city, Edmonton’s Fort Road is well-named. Dating from the 18th century and by far the oldest street in the city, Fort Trail—now renamed to the blander Fort Road—is a former First Nations then Settler ox-cart trail that meandered from Fort Edmonton to Fort Saskatchewan. During the past hundred and fifty years, first a rail line, then a light rail transit corridor arrived to flank its path.

Fort Road is also the unlikely location of two pioneering works by top Toronto architects, separated by two generations. A spirit of innovation and of taking workplaces very seriously links the two buildings constructed on this site: Eric Arthur’s 1936 Canada Packers Plant and Pat Hanson’s Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage, completed last year in its place.

When Canada Packers planned an ultra-modern meat-packing plant at the height of the Great Depression, they turned to Eric Arthur, a New Zealand-born University of Toronto architecture professor who had worked for Sir Edwin Lutyens. They asked him for a contemporary, no-nonsense design, which was realized in association with the workhorse firm of Anthony Adamson.

Granulated rubber tires are used as a ground cover, set across the site and delineating the preserved foundations of Eric Arthur’s demolished Canada Packers Plant.

Built in red brick just as this building material was falling out of favour in Alberta, the resulting building—with its unapologetic programmatic expressionism, rounded corners and bold massing—earned my appraisal, in Modern Architecture in Alberta (1987), as Edmonton’s first pure example of modernism. Arthur’s design was published and exhibited internationally as a paradigm of the new functionalist style, winning a Gold Medal at the 1937 London Exhibition of Architecture and Allied Arts. The same is true of the recently demolished Calgary concrete grain terminal so beloved by Le Corbusier, and published by him in Towards a New Architecture. These two remain the most famous and influential Alberta buildings of the first half of the 20th century.

Eric Arthur went on to become a prominent preservationist and author of the classic book Toronto: No Mean City. The Canada Packers plant, for its part, fell into disuse in the 1980s, and was bought by a devel­oper and demolished in 1995, save for its landmark 50-metre-high smokestack (which had long spread a perpetual smell of bacon over this entire quarter of the city!) Vancouver has a smaller sister Canada Packers building by Eric Arthur on Terminal Avenue, which is also now threatened with demolition, despite its similar renown. Unlike mayor’s houses, churches and art galleries, workplaces are Dangerfields that don’t get no architectural respect.

A postcard commemorates the opening of the Eric Arthur-designed Canada Packers Plant, which previously occupied the Transit Garage site. The design was considered one of the province’s first modernist buildings. Its smokestack and portions 
of its foundations are preserved on the new building’s site.

Fast forward eighty years, and a similarly distinguished Toronto architect was awarded the commission for a massive transit bus facility on the site of Arthur’s Canada Packers plant. Pat Hanson and her firm of gh3* are one of the beneficiaries of Edmonton’s enlightened procurement program for civic buildings, under the direction of City architect Carol Bélanger (see CA, August 2021 and July 2015).  Hanson and her firm have designed two park pavilions, a fire hall and the Borden Park natural swimming pool for the City of Edmonton. The project for Edmonton Transit is larger than all their public buildings combined.

Twinkling mischievously when seen passing by on Fort Road, the new Kathleen Andrews Transit Centre is a beguiling and serene sight, with its long walls of shimmering reflective metal skin punctuated by stairwells. On their public sides, these stairwells are capped by topographic contours set vertically, a highly successful public art installation. The design by gh3*, in association with Morrison Hershfield Consulting Engineers, is no dumb big box—it’s a far cry from a generic Amazon fulfillment centre or Canadian Tire mega-warehouse. At a time when major employment hubs like these have become the crudest of space enclosures, with barely an inflection evident from their architects, Hanson and her team have applied architectural sophistication to the Andrews Garage’s every element, inside and out, floor plan and elevational grandeur.

Site plan

The entire layout shows deep respect for the important civic business of driving, repairing and storing city buses, including both conventional gas-powered vehicles and a growing fleet of electric buses. Since contaminated soil from previous uses (imagine what dripped down during 50 years of slaughterhouse operations!) had to be removed, bus drivers can park under the main bus level in this excavated zone converted to employee’s garage, avoiding outside treks at -35°C from a staff parking lot. The atrium-lobby, locker and change rooms, and meeting spaces for the union and community groups are all unusually dignified and handsome. 

Part of the same sensibility of deep respect for the art and craft of driving buses, the complex is named after Kathleen Andrews, Edmonton Transit’s first female bus-driver in the 1970s, after a campaign by her daughter advocating for the building to be named after an employee, not some civic worthy or forgotten bureaucrat. Not only is this tough and functional piece of urban infrastructure designed by one of the leading women in Canadian architecture, but it is named after a woman who wheeled out her bus daily from a less amenable bus barn—there were no female washrooms, at first. From its palette of finishes, landscape embellishments, and amenities for workers to its very name, the Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage is a proud burnishment of Edmonton’s deserved reputation as a blue-collar city.

The layout of the facility is designed to optimize the maneuvering, storage, and maintenance of the bus fleet for the city’s northeast quadrant.

The Garage sits at a good spot to send buses on their way—the intersection of the Yellowhead Trail (the Highway 16 version of the Trans-Canada Highway) with Fort Road. According to Pat Hanson, both the overall site layout and internal organization of the building “are all about vehicular movement—from the booker’s shack [where staffing is set], to the caddyshack [where drivers check in], to where they drop their accumulated coin fares at the end of a shift.” From the girdling circuit of bus routes into and out of the garage, Hanson and her team were determined to “let the footprint be what it wants to be: perfect for the maneuvering of buses.” The roadways are set on a circuit, with a huge room for the storage of up to 300 idle buses, packed head to tail, and another section of 35 diagonal drive-through bays for maintenance and repairs, a string of inductive plate charging stations for electric buses, a gas-station for conventional ones, and a bus-wash, much needed in dusty and mucky Edmud-town. Set on a largely diagonal plan at the northeast corner of the complex are the support spaces for the drivers, while the offices for administration and management occupy 5,000 square metres conforming to the exterior grid.

A sculptural stair graces a skylit atrium within the office portion of the building.

A surprisingly elegant atrium is located at the junction of the diagonal and orthogonal floor plan geometries. Within this cubic, daylit room graced with brightly coloured furniture, a sculptural feature stair adheres to the diagonal layout of the driver’s zone, an almost political gesture of reconciliation between the social classes of workers, both being represented through architecture. The original plans included board rooms and an executive suite for senior managers for the entire Edmonton Transit Service. (This particular garage supports routes solely in the northeast quadrant of the city.) But in the course of construction, senior ETS management decided—in my view, foolishly—that they would rather be in an office tower closer to City Hall than near their own drivers. Consequently, much of this office wing—along with an on-site daycare—remains in an unfinished state, awaiting a re-allocation of other City staff and funding. Like Kathleen Andrews waiting for her washroom, drivers will wait for the on-site daycare that will make family life easier.

Ground floor plan

Enclosure for the Kathleen Andrews Garage is a tour-de-force of effective simplicity. Similar to the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg (designed by David Penner Architect, Peter Sampson Architecture Studio, and DIN Projects), the whole complex is wrapped in one of the most cost-effective walls going—freezer panels, normally used for cold-storage warehouses. The Sobotec panels deployed here have a corrugated stainless steel skin. Under the architects’ hand, the corrugations are set vertically, and are variegated in width, adding visual interest at the vast scale of this garage. The building’s most dramatic element is a set of five rooftop light wells and stairs along the Fort Road elevation—a string of unexpected lanterns giving civic scale to this civic building, an effect seldom achieved by infrastructure projects. Hanson speaks of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant in Toronto and Edmonton’s Rossdale Power Plant as precedents from the early 20th century of civic infrastructure with high architectural ambitions.

Sculptures by Berlin artist Thorsten Goldberg cap each stairwell, referencing the topography of mountainous regions around the world 
at the same latitude as Edmonton.

The roof lanterns are faced with that rare public art installation that works at city scale, even when driving by, whether in bus or car. Selected from a call for proposals, Berlin artist Thorsten Goldberg researched on Google Earth to find five mountainous locations around the globe at Edmonton’s latitude, starting with Alberta’s Mount Chown, and including peaks in Alaska, Russia, China, and Ireland. He then crafted their local topographies in three-dimensional steel panels, and set them vertically to crown gh3*’s building. At certain times of day, these topographies have the drama of glaciers calving off the coasts of Greenland, and share a same-but-different visual quality to the corrugated steel walls running below them. Dear Vancouver, with your lame identi-kit public art and your banal Biennale occupying public spaces with elsewhere-unwanted large sculptures, please look to Edmonton for how to commission significant public art, or for that matter, civic buildings.

Goldberg’s conception here was generated by what the artist calls the “globe game”; putting one’s finger on the sphere, then spinning it to see what other places share roughly the same latitude.  When this architectural historian/critic played the game, he came up with the astonishing revelation that the following crucial global design centres are all at the same latitude as Edmonton, plus or minus three degrees: London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin and Moscow.  In other words, Modernism in architecture is overwhelmingly the creation of latitude 53.  Glenn Gould understood the “nordicity” of Modernism, but few in our own field have explored this.

Some powerful landscape embellishments—also designed by gh3*—complete the conception. Set out from the building are metal mesh gabion baskets filled with Alberta river stones. These provide sensual counterpoint to the metallic glimmer, while in places providing some protection from vehicular attack on this essential services building. Providing more security are emergency generators set out from the building for functional reasons, but finished in flat black panels, giving them a sculptural quality that could have them mistaken for even more public art.

Locker rooms are located next to the underground staff parking, allowing for drivers to prepare for work without traversing outdoor parking lots in inclement weather.

Alberta sunlight is laser-like, and reflections off the steel elevations are accentuated by a contrasting ground cover of matte black granulated rubber tires. I came around to this idea, as a native Edmontonian remembering that grass is green there only from May to September, and more often patchy brown with melting snow blobs. As installed, the black ground cover (which is porous to rainwater and aids the recharging of aquifers) is a brilliant framing device, but I wonder what it will look like after several decades of prairie dust settles upon it.

The same rubberoid ground cover is set around the carefully preserved foundation fragments of Eric Arthur’s meat-packing plant, with its heroic smokestack remaining as a reminder of that building’s defiant act of optimism. Feet in the rubber, standing in the shadow of this brick cylinder, and looking across at the Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage glinting in the prairie light, I became convinced that Arthur would approve of what a fellow Torontonian has done here.

Vancouver architecture critic/consultant Trevor Boddy FRAIC has collaborated with Barry Johns FRAIC to co-write and co-produce a feature video on Arthur Erickson’s 1962 missing minor masterpiece, the Dyde House, located near the Aga Khan Garden west of Edmonton, to be released by Sticks and Stones Productions in 2022.

CLIENT City of Edmonton | ARCHITECT TEAM Pat Hanson (FRAIC), Raymond Chow (MRAIC), Louis Clavin, Byron White, Elise Shelley, Joel Di Giacomo, Jeffrey Deng, Bernard Jin | STRUCTURAL/MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL/CIVIL/LEED Morrison Hershfield | LANDSCAPE gh3* | INTERIORS gh3* | HERITAGE CONSULTANT David Murray Architect | CONTRACTOR Graham Construction | COST CRSP | AREA 50,000 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION March 2020

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