Commonwealth Conversion

PROJECT Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre and Edmonton Eskimo Fieldhouse, Edmonton, Alberta
ARCHITECTS MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects in joint venture with HIP Architects
TEXT Alexandra McIntosh
PHOTOS Tom Arban

Large-scale professional sports facilities often make for daunting surroundings. While animated during events, in the off-season their banal construction materials, superhuman scale, suburban location and automobile-centric access result in hulking structures, afloat in a sea of asphalt.

Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, built for the 1978 Commonwealth Games, is one of the largest outdoor sports venues in Canada, and until recently, one such lonely giant. Located north of the downtown core and bordered by vacant grounds, light industry and post-WWII bungalows, the site was largely inaccessible, due as much to a lack of means as to one of desire.

The recently opened Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre (CCRC) results from a partnership between the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Eskimo Football Club. Designed by MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects (MJMA) of Toronto and HIP Architects of Edmonton, the project builds on and expands the 1978 facilities, combining stadium activities, football operations, and a fitness and community centre. Along with several other large-scale infrastructure projects (see CA, January 2013), the CCRC participates in a citywide plan to revitalize neighbourhoods through civic-minded facilities and good design. 

The new four-storey construction adjoins the south end of the stadium and projects outwards in a triangulated plan. Three main masses–gymnasium, aquatics area and field house–define the structure and frame a central lobby. Built into the canted geometry of the site, the facility meets the underbelly of the stadium, filling in awkward angles and underused spaces. 

A playful façade clad with standing-seam metal siding begins at ground level and angles upwards to form a canopy above the main entrance. Undercut with pale-stained Prodema panels and supported by slender columns, the canopy dips down to grade and rises to frame the aquatics area, projecting like a ship’s prow toward the street. Generous ceramic-fritted glazing offers partial views into the pool, lobby and upper floor fitness area, where patrons on treadmills run their interminable race. To the west, the frontage zigzags around the indoor field house, dipping below grade for delivery and service areas. From all sides, the angular geometry and bold gestures of the roofline mimic the skyward thrust of the stadium seating, jutting into the air like the extended arm of a football player following through on a pass. 

Inside, sunshine streams in through ground-floor windows, clerestory glazing and baffled skylights. The generous use of reflective and transparent surfaces results in a striking interplay of light and shadow, with views through and beyond the building. Light reflected by the water of the pools mingles with shadows from the patterned glass, multiplying and bouncing off the polished concrete floor, white walls and ceramic tiling. 

From the central lobby, the three distinct masses of the building are discernible. Deep window wells overlook the gymnasium one storey below, while on another side, an enclosed poolside lounge is furnished with lozenge-shaped seats and tables. Lining the glass wall that separates the field house from the lobby, poured concrete benches evoke Le Corbusier’s integrated chaise longue at Villa Savoye. Across the green expanse of artificial turf, further glazing allows for views of the adjacent grounds and stadium outbuildings. Within the field house, a series of enormous industrial fans combined with windows that open directly onto the practice field provide natural ventilation and air circulation. This connection of interior and exterior expands the sense of space around the indoor field, resulting in an open-span structure that seemingly hovers above the ground plane. 

The architects’ ample use of glazing throughout the ground floor of the CCRC was initially resisted by the clients out of fears it would become an easy target for vandalism–but also because they felt there was nothing worth looking at outside. The bordering communities of McCauley, Parkdale and Alberta Avenue–ethnically diverse areas with median household incomes that fall significantly below the city average–saw little urban development over much of the 20th century. According to city architect Carol Bélanger, however, the CCRC has seen a reduction in vandalism. An increased sense of security is achieved through these “eyes on the street” along with well-lit entrance courts and exterior pathways. In addition, openings at the upper storeys create lines of sight onto the park and frame glimpses of the stadium at unusual angles. These vantages offer new, intriguing perspectives–both literal and figurative–on the surrounding area, framing the once disregarded as a place worthy of attention. 

Access to the fitness area and running track on the upper floor is gained by a central stairway wrapped in laminate panels, machine-milled with patterns of circular holes. This material recurs on the upper storey as a railing alongside the fitness area, overlooking the lobby. Exercise bikes and weight machines are aligned along the glass frontage of the building, with views of the pools and street rather than the usual wall-mounted gym televisions. Around a corner, a punchy orange running track wraps above the rectangle of the field house. A series of cardio machines on a platform adjacent the track act like a VIP box, offering privileged views of the field, park and stadium.

With its curlicue waterslide, spurting fountains and heated whirlpool, the light-filled aquatics area is a delight for children as well as adults inclined to messing about in water. The lap pool has a tendency to be usurped by non-lap swimmers, but this is perhaps more an issue of education than of architecture. Each pool has a gently sloping access ramp for patrons with reduced mobility, particularly appreciated by this writer with a knee injury and sore back. 

Balancing transparency and obscurity is a theme throughout the building, apparent in the dot patterning on interior and exterior glazing. The frit pattern in the fitness area, for example, increases in density as the weight machines become heavier, creating a visual parallel to the requisite muscular exertions. Exercise classes are glimpsed through partially screened glazing, providing a sense of privacy for those who consider themselves unfit, uncoordinated or arrhythmic. Accounting for comfort and privacy was intentional, according to MJMA principals Viktors Jaunkalns and Ted Watson. They explain that the visibility of multiple activities, from Zumba to community art classes, “creates a sense of the overlay of activities at the Centre, serving to both condense and boost the use of the space.” The architecture itself encourages participation.  

Beyond the publicly accessible spaces of the CCRC, the Edmonton Eskimo Football Club’s administration and athletics areas directly connect with the stadium. In marked contrast to the light-filled airiness and transparency of the community centre, the football team stipulated an aesthetic somewhere between golf and gentlemen’s club. Liberal use of the team’s green and gold colours was clearly a non-negotiable. 

The original, mostly subterranean, sports complex adjoining the stadium was torn out and replaced with offices and meeting rooms on two levels. Floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony overlook the playing field, where on this visit, a disproportionately small tractor was engaged in the Sisyphean task of clearing snow from the field. One floor below the offices, a sequence of meeting rooms opens onto a large deck which projects over
the field. Used for coaching sessions, the rooms are convertible into event spaces that may be rented by community groups but seem more suited for corporate schmoozing–upscale gameside tailgating, as it were.

The Eskimos’ locker and equipment rooms as well as areas for physiotherapy and medical treatment are located at the playing-field level, two floors below grade. No metal closets or pungent odour here: the locker room is an elliptical space with carpeted floors, wood panelling, and curved walls lined with throne-like seating for players. The not quite football-shaped area contributes to the team’s sense of unity prior to playing, not to mention the impossibility of avoiding eye contact after a particularly bad play. 

For training, the players share the community centre’s gymnasium, fitness centre, field house and outdoor Clarke Field, all of which are accessible through interior stairwells. One of the principal advantages of the club’s reconfigured spaces, according to Eskimos staff, is their proximity to the fitness areas and the stadium field. The locker room gives almost directly onto the field, so players can emerge through the new glass frontage into the stadium in proper ceremonial fashion. 

As a partnership, the CCRC’s program is uniquely polarized: aiming to enhance and offer services to underprivileged neighbourhoods while meeting a professional sports team’s administration and athletic needs. Since the CCRC opened last spring, use of the facility has continued to climb exponentially. As one front-desk attendant remarked, there has been a steady influx of people, “and not just New Year’s-resolution types.” The CCRC’s managers have responded in kind, in one instance converting a multipurpose room into a drop-off day-care centre. On an average Saturday, the lobby is teeming with parents pushing strollers, twentysomethings in workout gear, kids bouncing basketballs, and–apparently inevitable in new buildings–a fashion shoot. Muscles freshly exhausted, two 6-foot-tall linebackers with a combined weight of at least 500 pounds amble past the weight machines in that slow, stiff-limbed gait that is the province of the overly fit. Meanwhile, an elderly gentleman stretches on a mat and teenagers do full-out time-trial sprints around the running track.

The CCRC’s mixing of pools and play, of pro-sports athletes and low-income families, of public good and private enterprise, seems positive and sustainable. The considered effort in creating views between and beyond differently programmed spaces provides legibility to the building and its combined functions. Visual and physical connections to the surrounding neighbourhood, including new formalized pedestrian and parking areas, also help to identify the site as a destination. The building is a democratized, permeable and participatory space where the community can see and recognize itself, or perhaps envision what it would like to become. 

The heroic Modernism of the 1978 stadium was the product of an era vastly different in terms of social and economic optimism. The new Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre aspires to its namesake, balancing the needs of its diverse user communities, and creating a space for common wealth. CA

Alexandra McIntosh writes on architecture, design and visual arts. She is based in Banff, Alberta.

Client City of Edmonton and The Edmonton Eskimo Football Club
Architect Team MJMA–Ted Watson, Viktors Jaunkalns, Aaron Letki, Andrew Filarski, John Maclennan, Lukasz Kos, Troy Wright, Kyung Sung Hor, Jason Wah, Cohen Chen, Bi-Ying Mao, James Andrachuk, Siri Ursin. HIP Architects–Stewart Inglis, Craig Hendersen, Erwin Rauscher, Gareth Leach, Jim Dobey, Brent Conner, Christian Paroyan, Bob Murray
Structural Read Jones Christoffersen Engineering
Mechanical/Electrical Hemisphere Engineering
Landscape/Civil ISL Engineering
Interiors MJMA/HIP
Contractor Clark Builders
Code David Hine Engineering Inc.
Specifications Digicon Information inc.
Sustainability Cobalt Engineering
Commissioning CDML
Geotechnical EBA Enginneering
Envelope Building Science Engineering Ltd.
Elevator Lerch Bates
Survey Navland Geomatics Inc.
Rendering Cicada
Area 220,000 ft2
Budget $96 M
Completion Spring 2012