Art for Art’s Sake

PROJECT Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta
ARCHITECTS Randall Stout Architects in association with HIP Architects
TEXT Shafraaz Kaba

Edmonton was all abuzz in January 2010 as the new Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) finally opened to the public. Over the previous four years, design and steady construction yielded a structure that brought new excitement to Sir Winston Churchill Square, Edmonton’s civic heart. In 2005, Randall Stout won the design competition for the new AGA. A protégé of Frank Gehry for several years before opening his own Los Angeles-based practice in 1997, Stout set about creating a new vision to transform the handsome Brutalist concrete box that was the old art gallery. The redevelopment of the AGA presented an opportunity to provide new galleries along with climate-controlled space that could attract important revenue-generating travelling exhibitions, the absence of which the old gallery was much criticized for. The new AGA reclaims its corner and has emerged from a reclusive position on a downtown square that is ringed by other significant public buildings, including a concert hall, a theatre, the main public library, a shopping mall, and City Hall.

Just before winning the AGA competition, Stout had completed the Hunter Museum of American Art expansion in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga, along with its Hunter Museum, reads like a twin city to Edmonton. Both cities are manufacturing- and service industry-driven, and Brutalist modern architecture defined both original museum buildings. It is therefore not surprising that Stout used the same architectural language and exterior material palette (zinc and stainless steel) for the two buildings. Similar design elements, such as a stainless steel ribbon undulating around curtain walls and boxy zinc forms, figure prominently in the two projects. Stout also specified comparable interior furnishings in the two projects. He states that rock and river provided the inspiration for the Hunter Museum which is sited on the banks of the Tennessee River, while the aurora borealis became his inspiration for Edmonton. A populist analogy to local natural wonders seems to be the architect’s weakest design justification. Why can’t a sculptural gesture for an art gallery honestly and simply be described as what it is? Particularly in Edmonton, where Stout could have made reference to the local art scene’s past relationship with legendary American art critic Clement Greenberg and the concept of formalism, which advocates for composition rather than content in art.

The previous minimalist two-storey box, named the Edmonton Art Gallery, opened in 1968 and was designed by prominent Edmonton architects Jim Wensley and Don Bittorf. It was criticized at its opening for the “vaguely boring” design in béton brut concrete. Unfortunately, it never won over the majority of citizens who found it remote and cold, although it was well-loved by many architects for its restraint. The main impetus for a new building came from a desperate need for climate-controlled galleries that could attract blockbuster touring exhibitions along with loaned artwork from other collections around the world. The original structure’s building envelope could not deal with the high humidity required for certain delicate pieces of art, nor could it maintain a constant temperature with minimally insulated exterior walls. Renamed the Art Gallery of Alberta to honour a large grant from the province, the building was essentially reconstructed from the basement up to its new third and fourth storeys.

The basement of the old building was reused and refaced, including the 167-seat theatre and art education centre. The basement now also houses the art rental and purchase shop and connects directly to the city’s central LRT station. The reuse of these spaces is a noteworthy effort and minimizes the wholesale demolition of the old gallery, but sadly, there are no hints of the original concrete construction. A new LRT entrance pavilion across the road that was included in the competition drawings remains unbuilt–it was beyond the scope of the City of Edmonton, which was not about to increase the budget for this project any further given the rapid cost escalations occurring in Alberta’s construction industry. The receiving and art preparation areas on the main floor retain their location from the original gallery layout, driven by the existing loading bay access on the east side of the building. One wonders if the receiving area is sufficient for the increased exhibition space, and whether the navigation of so many corners to access galleries will be problematic. There is very little room between the exterior loading bay and the receiving area, a challenge for delivery personnel and art handlers alike.

Stout provided straightforward rectangular galleries of various heights in the AGA, allowing the visitor to focus on the art without distraction from the architecture. He also reused the large Ernest Poole Gallery on the main floor, which itself was an addition to the original Edmonton Art Gallery building. The Poole Gallery received new exterior insulation and zinc cladding, a material that has striking variation in colour and patina. The new Children’s Gallery was placed adjacent to the southeast centre stair, convenient for circulation down to the art education centre. Its long and narrow proportions will allow for easy supervision of children but will prove to be curatorially challenging. Nearby, a small gallery with low ceilings is another adapted space from the original building. The floor-to-ceiling height of this gallery space is intentionally compressed to encourage the viewer to focus on smaller works of art.

The new galleries are placed on the second and third floors, in a box that is clearly expressed on the building’s exterior and which is slightly skewed from the east-west orientation of the ground floor. These new spaces are self-contained and cocooned to enable ultimate control over light and air. The high ceilings of these new galleries mean an abundance of flexible and grand volumes for a variety of art. On the third floor, the City of Edmonton Sculpture Terrace provides one of the more delightful moments, as it offers not only a great view of Sir Winston Churchill Square, but also of the city and of the refineries in the distance that remind citizens of what drives the local economy. However, the fourth-floor offices, members’ lounge, and boardroom all prevent any natural daylighting opportunities from above into these new galleries. The wavy white and stainless steel ribbon also obscures views to the outside from the gallery foyers. Surrounded by this steel ribbon and hovering over the atrium is the members-only Borealis Lounge on the fourth floor. But one of the most surprising views can be enjoyed from the fourth-floor boardroom roof deck, where a rectangular opening frames a view of City Hall across the road. This opening is the prominent void in the composition of the protruding box in the west elevation. Unfortunately, the public is not likely to appreciate the view, as this vantage point is privy only to staff and board members of the AGA.

The grand stair and light column identifying gallery patrons and donors greet guests as they walk in the front doors. Immediately opening up in front of guests, the grand atrium provides an unexpected and awe-inspiring space. Upon closer examination of the swirling stainless steel ribbon, the limitations of faceting flat materials into double curves begin to appear. On the interior, there is an awkward shift from stainless steel to white baked enamel panels in the ribbon to yet another white fabric material which was required for acoustic reasons. On the exterior, stubby little cleats for snow retention as well as a recessed gutter detract from the concept of a smooth and flowing ribbon. The snow cleats were the result of a study by the engineering firm of RWDI, who raised the potential public hazar
d of falling ice that needed to be mitigated by the addition of the cleats. 

Like the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, the Art Gallery of Alberta was described as a catalyst for downtown redevelopment. It aspires to kindle more street life by becoming a tourist destination. The AGA has definitely succeeded as an unusual landmark that visitors to Edmonton will inevitably flock to, but it remains to be seen if it will spur revitalization further east of Sir Winston Churchill Square. It is without a doubt successful in asserting itself, and it lures people to come closer to explore what is essentially an undulating stainless steel sculpture plunked atop a zinc plinth. Upon seeing the building, Christine Macy, Dean of the Dalhousie Faculty of Architecture, remarked, “squint and it will make sense.” Perhaps that is the best way to view the Art Gallery of Alberta and other sculptural architecture in the context of museum building today. CA

Shafraaz Kaba is a partner in the Edmonton-based architecture firm of Manasc Isaac.

Client Art Gallery of Alberta
Architect Team Randall Stout, Niel Prunier, Rashmi Vasavada, John Murphey, Manzer Mirkar, Sandra Hutchings, John Locke, Sean Anderson, Cynthia Bush, Jonathan Grinham, Eric Jones, Jennifer Lathrop, John Michl, Ry Morrison, Aleksander Novak-Zemplinski, David Rodriguez, Bryan Smith, Nicolas Sowers, Joel Webb
Associate Architect HIP Architects (Allan Partridge)
Interiors Randall Stout Architects (excluding café and gift shop)
Café Zinc Interiors II BY IV Design Associates Inc. (Keith Rushbrook, Dan Menchions,Grant Hill)
Gift Shop Interior Black River Architects, Inc. (Arch Horst)
Structural DeSimone Consulting Engineers, BPTEC-DNW Engineering Ltd.
Mechanical/Electrical IBE Consulting Engineers, Stantec Consulting Ltd.
Curtain wall/Envelope Read Jones Christoffersen, Ltd. 
Lighting Lam Partners Inc.
Acoustics Newcomb & Boyd
Code GHL Consultants Ltd.
Fall Protection Citadel Consulting Incorporated
Snow, Ice and Wind Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin Inc.
Specifications Digicon Information Inc.
Commissioning ICX Solutions
Geotechnical EBA Engineering Consultants Ltd.
Contractor Ledcor Construction Limited
Project Management Architecture | Arndt Tkalcic Bengert (Rick Arndt, Melody Whitehead)
Area 84,000 ft2 gross
Budget $66 M
Completion January 2010