Cities on the Plain

Laser-etched under a broad sweep of sky, the visual power of prairie cities is undeniable. For all of them, city-building is relatively new, and a sense of landscape leaks into the holes of even the densest downtown blocks, a continuity of city with hinterland seldom found in eastern North America or Europe. Urban design for prairie places takes on an importance unseen in places where the broad mattes of 19th century settlement set directions less likely to be disturbed. In many ways, the visual character of western downtown cores matters more than it does in the East, our prairies being–contrary to the stereotype–by far the most urbanized region in Canada. The reason for this surprising fact is the low density of surrounding rural populations (because of harsh climate), combined with low levels of early industrialization (meaning no network of mill towns as found in Eastern Canada, nuclei for their wider ranges of small and mid-sized cities.) With their boom and bust economies, these cities continually remake themselves, but now architects are shaping their layout as never before.

The current state of prairie urbanism can be read in the stories of three urban design competitions: the City of Edmonton’s contest for the remaking of Sir Winston Churchill Square; Calgary’s quest for housing ideas for its former General Hospital site; and Winnipeg’s “City Re-Emerging” competition for its East Exchange District. These design competitions for the three largest prairie cities have been tantalizing affairs, promising much at inception but stalled in execution.

Ever competitive with its corporate sibling city to the south, blue collar Edmonton came, 20 years ago, as close as a city can to destroying its downtown. While the oil price collapse of the early 1980s did not help, the precipitous decline of its once-vital downtown was the result of a string of urban planning mistakes. In the late 1970s, City of Edmonton planners badly misjudged where downtown would grow. While their policies and plans attempted to social engineer new development into skid row fringes, private development (big surprise) chose to ignore these efforts. Instead, developers hovered near the Provincial Legislative Building, erecting a raft of ignoble buildings.

Next came the construction of its Light Rail Transit system in 1979-80, closing or confusing Jasper Avenue, the city’s main boulevard, for almost two years. This drove away pedestrians and merchants, many of whom never returned. Next was City Council’s approval of a huge rezoning for West Edmonton Mall in 1980. The world’s largest shopping mall drained nearly every major merchant, nightclub, cinema and tourist out of an already-struggling core. Finally, planners underestimated the importance of housing to a lively downtown, making only nominal plans for it. Consequently, they laid out large cash incentives for downtown housing over the past five years, only partially successful. (To indulge a prairie figure of speech, City Council closed their barn door after the horse had run–to graze out by the monster mall!)

Created through an urban renewal effort of the 1960s, Sir Winston Churchill Square has undergone irregular fits of improvised improvements such as tree-planting, the introduction of a skating rink, and a hard surface zone for ethno-cultural festivals, but never a coherent design by a professional. In 1982, a national architectural competition for Edmonton City Hall, with a jury led by Norman Foster, picked a scheme by architect Gene Dub. Despite a downtown rapidly heading south and Dub’s personal influence as an Alderman, City Council would not invest money in what they perceived as a “frill” like a city square for the public, even though they did manage to build the hall for themselves.

Last summer, Dub used the op-ed pages of the Edmonton Journal to criticize the winning scheme in the recent design competition for the city’s most important, if under-performing, public space. “I’m having trouble loving a paved-over Churchill Square that removes 30 of the large existing trees and adds two large buildings and 10 large columns” he wrote on their pages on July 2, 2002. Dub’s is not the only snub; the scheme received such a weak public reception when published earlier this year that it was forced into revision. The irony is that the winning scheme, by Edmonton’s Henderson Inglis Partridge Architects in association with Portland’s Stastny Brun and landscape architect Doug Carlyle, is deeply respectful of Dub’s city hall, with many of its details and geometries generated directly from it.

This team was picked from a competition open to all Alberta architects, and the scheme draws on Stastny’s 1986 Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon, which is also hard-surfaced and ringed by ceremonial free-standing PoMo columns. Carlyle says of their Churchill Square design: “The main issue is one of scale, bringing it down, making it human” and their plans consequently use such devices as a winter garden, information and caf pavilions running along the square’s western and southern edges, plus a string of commemorative columns angled along the eastern edge, referred to by Dub as “Napoleonic.”

Typical of the problems confronting architects committed to public space in an era of changing concepts of polity, urbanity and style, some of the scheme’s best ideas are likely to be problematic in execution. For example, Dub reminds us that Edmonton is the northernmost large city on the continent, and then notes that a proposed two-storey, block-long caf building across its south end will rob the square of sunlight in cold seasons when it is most needed. This massing move seems intended to screen views of a recent addition that compromised the Churchill Square faade of one of Edmonton’s best-loved Modern buildings, the 1967 Stanley Milner Library by Rensaa Minsos. The recent addition’s sky-lit central visual axis and palette of materials is unrelated to its host, and seems like a metallic mask on the face of a wise civic elder. Kill two design birds at once, I say, by removing the small library addition–which contains only a lobby, caf and small reading room–obviating the need for urban design camouflage and letting the sun shine into the square. Partner-in-charge Craig Henderson of HIP Architects says his team has listened to the criticism from Dub and others, and a new Churchill Square design has been presented this fall.

The most encouraging of my three prairie tales comes from Calgary. With its Bow Valley Centre redevelopment, Calgary’s problem is not ill-considered or inappropriate urban ideas, but prevarication in their implementation. In 1998 the City of Calgary picked an urban design scheme by Calgary’s Sturgess Partnership in association with ex-Edmontonian, now New York-based urbanist Keith Orlesky plus, again, Doug Carlyle. The scheme’s integration with its host Bridgeland-Riverside neighbourhood, green development strategies, and rich variety of housing forms and tenures gave them the win over fellow finalists IBI (the Calgary office) and Urban Forum Associates of Vancouver, these three chosen from 17 firms originally invited to compete. The City-owned 30-acre former site of the Klein-demolished General Hospital abuts the bouncy Bow River, with fine views of downtown’s nearby glass buttes as backdrop. Yet only recently has work started on the park which is the centrepiece of Sturgess’ plan, and the first of its planned 1,500 units of housing is at least two years from opening. Why so long?

There were inevitable conflicts between its competing civic sponsors, the City’s Corporate Property and Planning Departments. Then there are the ambitions of newly-arrived bureaucrats, sober second thoughts at Council, plus not enough money for needed design and environmental studies. Contrary to the popular perception of Calgary as Canada’s hometown of cowboy capitalism, where one would expect the invisible hand of the marketplace to be given free rein, the City of Calgary has long been in the land development business, and is the largest developer of industrial land in the city. In fact, the
City of Calgary devotes an entire department to these all-too-statist activities, heretofore focused on suburban sites in Canada’s most suburban big city.

Calgary’s suburban character will find a needed counter-argument if we see construction of Sturgess’ scheme, inspired as it is in equal parts by Vancouver’s False Creek redevelopment and European perimeter blocks. Massing matches its stick-built neighbours on portions of the site away from the river, but the scheme rises to blocks of eight to 12 storeys along the riverside Memorial Drive. The Bow Valley site’s design guidelines were produced by Burgener-Kilpatrick Design International with Carlyle designing the large park that is the scheme’s centrepiece. The public domain has not been forgotten here, as 47% of the land on site will go for parks, boulevards and infrastructure costing an already-authorized $25 million of public money, creating Calgary’s highest residential densities (120 units/ acre) in the flanking new housing districts. The only remaining decision for Calgary City Council is whether the site will go to one large developer or be broken into packages for a variety of smaller ones. “I hope it is the latter,” says Jeremy Sturgess, “because frankly Calgary does not have a large developer with a commitment to innovation that could take it on, and besides, phasing may go better with a variety of builders than just one.”

While Calgary seems to be getting its urban act together–albeit belatedly–more plaints from the plains arrive from Winnipeg. “City Re-Emerging, Ideas Winnipeg 2002” is that rarest of creatures in Western Canada, an open international design competition seeking innovative new ideas for city-building, the first in Western Canada, to re-iterate a point, since the 1982 Edmonton City Hall competition. The competition was sponsored by Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray, who hopes to make it the first of an annual series looking at other downtown sites. Judging by the schemes selected, the commitment to new ideas in this first go was weak. Moreover, the competition was dogged by questionable management decisions, actions even those responsible admit must be corrected for any future competition.

Some of the conditions surrounding the eligibility and subsequent winners in the Winnipeg competition were questioned by entrants, even though competition organizers insist that due process was maintained.. The Winnipeg competion’s conflict of interest rule, in which “architects closely associated with the management of the competition” are ineligible as entrants, saw a perceived violation when landscape architect Michael Scatliff won the competition in association with GBR Architects, after having served on the organizing committee when it picked the competition site and set its program. Professional advisor and Winnipeg preservation architect Wyns Bridgman confirms that Scatliff was a member of the Steering Committee for this competition, resigning in early March when he decided he would rather compete than run the thing. While Bridgman concedes that there is an appearance of conflict, he contends that Scatliff resigned at exactly the right moment to avoid any conflict, leaving just before the Committee decided which site to feature in the competition. According to Bridgman, Scatliff had no more information about the competition than any other entrant could have gleaned from personal knowledge of the city or competition briefs.

Other deviations from the competition rules have raised complaints from some of the 67 teams of architects who laboured on their entries. The competition brief listed a second prize of $15,000; however, the jury elected to give out two third prizes, but no second prize. “As a group we did not think one worthy of second prize,” says jury head and University of Manitoba Architecture Dean Dave Witty, “we had a common mind about the first place, but the others were in a different class.”

Another irregularity: competition Conflict of Interest rule 2.1.6.(c) states that anyone having “an employee or employee-type contract with the Organizing Body, the Professional Advisor or the Jury” is ineligible to participate. Members of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture and Public Works Canada employees were permitted to submit entries on condition that they not discuss the competition with jury members Dean Witty or Yves Gosselin, Director of Buildings for Public Works and Government Services Canada. Although Bridgman insists that this honour system was not violated, Witty concedes that “in hindsight they should have been told no.”

Finally, in marked contrast to the practice in most architectural competitions, Dean Witty not only served on the organizing committee, but also acted as the head of the jury. In his words, “I wore two hats for a while–being chair involved moving the process forward.” Some architects question this double duty, blaming it for the jury’s pragmatic selections in what was termed an ideas competition.

Each of these irregularities may have seemed minor, even inconsequential, to the organizers, but taken together they created a situation that has drawn fire from some participants. In a June 7, 2002 open letter to Mayor Murray and Winnipeg City Council, prominent local architect and entrant Stephen Cohlmeyer complained of a “procedural and ethical error… that has seriously compromised the entire process, and has taken the bloom off the rose.”

In a CBC Winnipeg television interview just after the controversy started, Bridgman admitted that there were “ethical but not legal problems” with the way the competition was run, later telling me in an interview for this review: “If there have been errors along the way, it was in the spirit of opening up new ideas for Winnipeg and the architecture scene generally.” Dean Witty is more blunt, admitting that the next competition should “look for people with a less direct interest, and I would ensure that all jury members are from outside the city, and of national and international stature.” Good advice, and I hope that Mayor Murray continues using open competitions in the re-shaping of downtown Winnipeg. Judging from some of this year’s also-ran entries, there is ample evidence of what new competitions might bring to Winnipeg.

The ideas from the competition were shown at the RAIC Festival of Architecture in Winnipeg’s Millennium Centre, a magnificent temple-like former Bank of Commerce at Portage and Main designed by Toronto’s Darling and Pearson and now converted into a multi-purpose meeting centre. The winning scheme, by Scatliff in association with GBR Architects, is a rationalization of land uses on the competition site between the East Exchange District and the Red River, and looks like something an earnest and competent consultant would produce. Actually, this is exactly what it is: Scatliff had done a number of previous planning studies in the very same area for civic and quasi-public development agencies. But with its inner city in economic decline, an emerging First Nations ghetto, and a lack of bold new buildings, Winnipeg is a city sorely in need of some radical new ideas for its future, not pragmatic incrementalism.

One of my favourite entries is that put together by a team led by University of Manitoba professor Eduard Epp, Winnipeg architect David Penner and New York critic- urbanist Michael Sorkin. Theirs is exactly the type of profound whimsy that ideas competitions are supposed to generate, and I hope it and other also-rans get a second look. This team’s drawings demonstrate a clear Archigram influence, proving that while one might be able to mismanage architectural ideas, one cannot suppress them.

Several clear lessons emerge from these three essays in prairie urban design. All three would have been better served by professional advisors with more experience in the complex mechanics of architectural competitions. Once a scheme is selected, there is a need for clients with a rigorous commitment to urban and ethical principles and a delight in architectural ideas, but these days our corporations and bureaucracies are seldom home to such principled idealists.
It is a tribute to the vision of the individual architects who entered the Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton contests that the results are as strong as they are. The best work here is also an encouraging sign to future competition organizers, telling them to park their prairie pragmatism for a moment and commit to risk-taking and innovation–the very qualities that first built Western Canada’s farming communities and cities.

Vancouver critic Trevor Boddy’s writing on urbanism includes a chapter in Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space.