Big D Design in The Big E

TEXT Graham Livesey

When Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel was elected nine years ago, he stated that the City’s tolerance for architectural “crap” was zero. He has since made it clear that he sees architecture as vitally important for the transformation of Edmonton. An articulate and knowledgeable advocate for urban redevelopment, Mandel is willing to position Edmonton on a larger stage by sourcing expertise not only locally, but also nationally and internationally. The mayor’s vision is realized by an energetic civil service, including the infectiously enthusiastic figure of Carol Bélanger, chief architect for the City of Edmonton. As a result, Edmonton currently has an ambitious range of initiatives on the table, including a host of new architectural projects and urban design master plans. 

To realize the mayor’s vision, the City administration has changed procurement procedures in ways that have allowed Edmonton to engage outstanding architectural firms to design new civic buildings. Previously a senior urban designer for the City of Edmonton, Bélanger has guided the adoption of stricter RFQ and RFP processes. When specific building types are being contemplated, the RFQ call solicits firms from Edmonton and elsewhere with expertise in that area. Out-of-province firms typically enter into joint ventures with local practices. Based on shortlists produced by the selection committee, firms are likely to be awarded projects during a given three-year budget cycle. The revamped RFP process is comprehensive in that expertise and design excellence are emphasized. Proponents are also asked to provide a “vision” of their project, which is not an actual design but a holistic approach to specific project parameters. The City is additionally committed to environmental stewardship, requiring at least a LEED Silver or higher rating on new projects. 

Some of these changes have been enabled by the New West Trade Agreement, which eases exchanges of professional experience between British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Further, Bélanger has also worked closely with the Edmonton Design Committee to raise design standards and with the Edmonton Arts Council’s “percent for art” program to integrate public art into new projects. 

Edmonton and its surrounding communities are situated in a flat landscape, bisected by the deep, forested North Saskatchewan River Valley. Historically an industrial city, it is home to the Alberta legislature, the University of Alberta, many fine inner-city neighbourhoods, and an extensive park system. Like most contemporary cities, Edmonton also suffers from undistinguished suburban sprawl. As part of its overall strategy, the City has ambitious plans for improving the downtown core, which has suffered from its fair share of urban blight. A number of urban design master plans are underway including the Capital City Downtown Plan and the Quarters Downtown Plan, which are intended to densify the core, making it more liveable. 

The civic centre of Edmonton is organized around Churchill Square, which went through an extensive redevelopment in 2004. Arranged around the square are the city’s major institutions including City Hall (Dub Architects), the Citadel Theatre (Diamond and Myers), and the Francis Winspear Centre for Music (Cohos-Evamy). The new Art Gallery of Alberta, formerly the Edmonton Art Gallery, also sits on Churchill Square and was completed in 2010 based on a design by the American architect Randall Stout in collaboration with HIP Architects. Commissioned after an invited competition was held in 2005, the project was designed to provide a signature “image” for the city. While the resulting building is controversial, the process that surrounded the selection of the architect generated a lot of discussion and interest among Edmonton residents. 

Following the lead of the Art Gallery of Alberta, other civic institutions are now being redeveloped. In a hockey-mad environment, the proposed new City of Edmonton Downtown Arena has been very much the focus of public attention. Designed by 360 Architecture of Kansas City, the concept for the downtown arena features dramatic forms that respond to the inner-city site northwest of the civic centre. While there is widespread enthusiasm for a state-of-the-art arena–NHL Oilers owner Daryl Katz has threatened to move the team if it does not get a replacement for the aging Rexall Place–it appears that the City and Katz are struggling to come to terms over financing. The Royal Alberta Museum, for its part, is moving to a new site just north of the civic centre. Projected to open in 2016, the provincial design-build project involves DIALOG (Edmonton), Lundholm Associates Architects (Toronto), and the Ledcor construction company. The relocation of such an important institution will greatly enhance Edmonton’s civic heart.

Edmonton is also committed to smart infrastructure and development, evident for example in an ambitious plan to expand its light rail commuter system. The city currently has a line that services the core and the south and northeast sectors, and plans to add new lines to service the west, north and southeast. To finance this project, Council has recently approved a $1.5-billion public-private partnership. Another important inner-city initiative is the redevelopment of Blatchford Field, the former municipal airport site (see CA, November 2012). A master plan has been developed by Perkins+Will (Vancouver), Civitas (Vancouver), and Group2 (Edmonton), who were selected from five invited proposals that included submissions by Foster + Partners among other international firms. The project will transform the abandoned airport lands into a thriving inner-city eco-community including mixed housing for 30,000 residents and elements of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology campus. 

Beyond the inner city, many of the newest projects are located in the suburbs. For example, Edmonton has embarked on a bold program to build a series of multipurpose recreation centres to enhance neighbourhoods and to revitalize existing civic infrastructure. One of the first projects to be completed under the new procurement process is the Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre (CCRC) by MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects (Toronto) and HIP Architects (Edmonton), which opened in 2012. The project renovates and adjoins Commonwealth Stadium, and provides new community recreation facilities for the surrounding communities of McCauley and Parkdale, and Alberta Avenue. The intention is to provide the Edmonton Eskimos with indoor training space while creating an outstanding recreation facility for simultaneous use by locals. The CCRC is also a venue for large-scale sporting events and concerts. A similar project, currently under construction and slated to open in 2013, is the Clareview Recreation Centre and Branch Library by Teeple Architects (Toronto) and ATB Architects (Edmonton). Located in a lower-income suburban community, the design is a daring exercise in surface and volumetrics that incorporates an existing twin arenas facility and includes a school. Eight stakeholder groups, including library, school and recreation users, came together in a productive collaboration towards what will become a vital piece of northeast Edmonton’s fabric. Another recreation centre, the Meadows Community Recreation Centre by Perkins+Will (Toronto) and Group2, is scheduled for completion in 2014, and further recreation centres are planned in the coming years.

The Edmonton Public Library system is one of the busiest in North America, and is currently undergoing renewal. At the centre of the system is the 1960s Stanley A. Milner Library on Churchill Square, slated for restoration. The City has additionally planned a series of new branch libraries, including the Jasper Place Public Library and the Mill Woods Library by Vancouver&
rsquo;s Hughes Condon Marler Architects (HCMA) and Dub Architects (Edmonton), and the Highlands Library by schmidt hammer lassen architects (Denmark) and Marshall Tittemore Architects (Calgary and Edmonton). The two projects by HCMA and Dub Architects demonstrate a healthy and productive collaboration between firms. The Jasper Place Library features an iconic wave shape formed out of a dramatic layer of structural concrete, whereas the Mill Woods Library incorporates a library, seniors’ complex and community centre in a daring formal arrangement. 

Alongside these major projects, Edmonton has initiated a program designed to encourage participation by younger firms. In 2011, the City held a national design competition for five park pavilions spread across the city, which attracted submissions from 65 firms. The winning schemes by gh3 (Toronto), the marc boutin architectural collaborative (Calgary), Dub Architects, and Rayleen Hill Architecture + Design (Halifax) represent diverse approaches to the design of public washroom and change-room facilities. gh3 won two of the projects, including the Borden Park Pavilion, a distinctive circular structure in timber and glass. Dub Architects combine notions of billboard design with a photovoltaic array in their Mill Woods Sports Park Pavilion. Once built, these facilities will add another layer to Edmonton’s fabric by introducing design excellence to small civic buildings. Bélanger has raised the possibility of another competition in the near future. 

Among members of the local architectural community, Mayor Mandel’s initiatives are meeting with mixed reception. Some architects, including long-time Edmonton architect David Murray, believe Edmonton will benefit from the national and international attention it is garnering through the mayor’s initiatives, and bringing in design talent from outside Alberta will strengthen the quality of work by local firms. Others, such as Allan Partridge of Group2, are unsettled by the demand for out-of-province firms to team with local firms, and are convinced that local firms are equally capable of producing outstanding work when challenged to meet higher design standards. Nevertheless, even Partridge is cautiously optimistic that the results of the mayor’s general initiative will be significant in raising the bar for Edmonton’s architectural community.

The City’s initiatives aim to bring about a wave of design renewal by, as Bélanger puts it, “sprinkling high design across the city.” The City seeks to ensure that inspiring environments are available to all residents–not just visitors to major cultural institutions. Edmonton has largely avoided the “starchitecture” syndrome through implementing an open, rigorous, impartial and transparent procurement process structured to produce design excellence. 

The competition for Canadian architectural firms to secure work is on the rise. Institutions, governments and corporations have high expectations for expertise in planning, systems design and sustainability. Local firms can no longer assume they can subsist only on local work. As evidenced in the widespread amalgamation of firms repositioning themselves in the contemporary marketplace, it is incumbent on firms to cultivate expertise moving forward. 

So far, Edmontonians have been pleased by what their civic representatives are undertaking, and there has been an enthusiastic response from the various public agencies involved. In the past, Edmonton has prided itself on homegrown work by Don Bittorf, Peter Hemingway, Douglas Cardinal and Barry Johns, as well as landmark projects by firms from further afield, such as Diamond and Myers’s HUB Mall and Citadel Theatre. The strategy of tapping expertise from near and far has served many of the world’s metropolises, and the current transformation occurring in Edmonton demonstrates that mid-size cities can also benefit from such a renaissance. CA

Graham Livesey is a professor in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Calgary.