Edmonton’s Capital

TEXT Shafraaz Kaba

Edmonton is in the midst of another oil- and gas-inspired boom. Like past booms, it has become a period of prolific building. But when compared to the Modern architecture built in the period of the 1940s to the 1970s, it is hard-pressed to match the quality of design produced from that era. By examining the work of the past in relation to the current climate of architecture, one can make inferences for guiding future architecture.

The Modern movement in Edmonton began to take shape in earnest after World War Two. The discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947 fuelled an incredible building boom, and this era of wealth and confidence led to unprecedented building development that created some of Edmonton’s most progressive buildings. In the recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta entitled Capital Modern: Edmonton Architecture and Urban Design 1940-1969, drawings and photographs of modern buildings along with furniture, art, and artifacts of the period captured the exuberance of Edmonton’s past.

By examining several buildings from the exhibition, one can begin to see how the use of architectural detail and materials helped fuel Edmonton’s most prolific and significant decades to date. The need for preservation of this architectural heritage also becomes clear after the value of Edmonton’s Modern building is revealed.

Massey-Harris Building

The Massey-Harris Building was one of the earliest examples of modern building in Edmonton, and housed the international farm equipment company Massey-Harris. It later became the Massey-Ferguson Company, which is still a recognized leader in farm tractors, combines, and other equipment. Designed by Edmonton architects Blakey and Blakey using the language of the International Style of architecture, the Massey-Harris Building (1947) incorporates an asymmetrical composition with a podium-on-columns design. A refined sense of detail was brought to the building: continuous ground-floor glazing and long, framed horizontal windows stretching along the second storey take advantage of the building structure being separated from the exterior walls. The podium-on-columns composition was popular at the time because it allowed a completely open ground floor for the display of equipment and vehicles. Office space was located above the main-floor showroom. Clad in red brick with Tyndall Stone trims, the building is currently used as an automobile dealership in the warehouse district of Edmonton. It retains its key formal elements, but it has been altered with unflattering canvas entrance canopies.

Paramount Theatre

With Italian travertine, marble columns and large planar surfaces of Tyndall Stone, the Paramount Theatre on Jasper Avenue was a tour de force of Modern design when it opened in 1952. Stanley and Stanley Architects used craft, detail, and material to express modern ideas. A ladder to change the marquee signage was delicately inserted as part of the design. The ladder rolls out on steel channels from the faade to allow easy access to the marquee. The front entry is angled and recessed in order to funnel movie-goers into the lobby. Even the mechanical intake and exhaust grilles were carefully detailed into the faade to read as a linear element just before the exterior wall reaches the roof. Jutting out slightly over the front faade, the roof creates a distinct top to the building. The theatre has aged gracefully because of the fine materials used in the initial building; it does not scream out for attention in garish colours and oversized forms as some recently built theatres in Edmonton do. It is rumoured that the Paramount Building will be demolished to make way for an unremarkable 40-storey office tower, and the developer has expressed little interest in retaining even the faade of the Paramount Theatre, seeing more potential in starting with a blank slate.

AGT Building

The Alberta Government Telephones or AGT Building (now the Legislature Annex) was probably Edmonton’s most innovative and daring building of the 1950s. Designed by H.W.R. MacMillan of Rule Wynn and Rule, the AGT Building was a bold statement within a stone’s throw of the Provincial Legislature. It was built using concrete poured into wood forms rather than a structural steel frame due to chronic postwar steel shortages. This building also used poured concrete pilings rather than structural steel for the first time in Alberta. The most remarkable aspect of the AGT Building is the fact that it was the first “curtain wall” building in Edmonton. This structurally independent exterior wall used green Aklo glass, set between plate glass windows made by Pilkington Bros. Shapes & Glass. The unadorned Modern style was something very new to Edmonton’s burgeoning city centre, and is typified by the use of square tower composition, horizontal emphasis in the expression of the floor levels, the use of coloured spandrel glass, and integral screens for sun control. The windows did not open on the AGT Building because of the central air-handling and air-conditioning system, yet another step forward in modern building and construction. The Provincial Government of Alberta has expressed a strong desire to demolish the AGT Building and redevelop the grounds of the Legislature. Only the Conservative government’s lack of priority for this site in its capital spending has saved the AGT Building.

Edmonton needs to be reminded yet again about the perils of unconsidered demolition. Trevor Boddy had warned his readers in Modern Architecture in Alberta of the dangers of neglecting our modern built heritage, even though it was barely a generation old in 1987. “Seldom has a city so wantonly sold off its architectural heritage to the highest bidder as Edmonton did and continues to do,” says Boddy. “Alberta now faces a serious problem with respect to the preservation of its Modern architectural resources–we must shake the idea that history, as represented by the shells of buildings, ends in Alberta about 1925.” The recent demolition of the Central Pentecostal Tabernacle (a two-building design by Peter Hemingway and John Laubenthal) fulfills Boddy’s prophecy written 20 years ago. It is unclear whether a serious effort to find a use for this obsolete building was undertaken, but it is apparent that the City of Edmonton had no political or administrative will to save an important piece of architectural culture.

Architecture critic Christopher Hume wrote in the Toronto Star on March 6, 2005 about his experience in Toronto: “Before a building has a chance to grow old, we tear it down to make way for something else that will also be destroyed before its time–once a building hits, say, 75 or 80 years old, it becomes venerable and is deemed untouchable, protected by vigilant preservationists. But between its 40th and 70th year, it is at its most vulnerable.”

In January 2005, the City of Edmonton amended a zoning bylaw to include a special area entitled the Heritage Area Zone in an effort to curb the rise of nasty high-rise condominium developments that took no cues from their surrounding context. Unfortunately, the Heritage Area Zone has not been successful in implementation, as the many “explanatory notes” referencing neoclassical detailing in the bylaw seem to be adopted as design parameters by the architects of these new buildings.

The new urban design review panel (named Edmonton Design Committee) has helped champion better architecture for Edmonton’s downtown core. Within the Heritage Area Zone, Arndt Tkalcic Architecture’s redevelopment of the derelict Cecil Hotel site on Jasper Avenue and 104th Street had received encouragement to move forward with ideas that do not mimic history. This key downtown site will see a new urban grocery store with two offices above that incorporates a cantilever over the 104th Street sidewalk. The bold use of dark-coloured brick will create a landmark corner on 104th Street, and the building respectfully acknowledges the Birks building to the ea
st. This building is an example of how the Heritage Area Zone overlay should be read.

Contemporary Edmonton architecture has many lessons to learn from the daring ingenuity of mid-century Modern buildings, and the city deserves to showcase its capital. Without a perspective on the past, particularly with our Modern legacy, it is difficult to strive for an improved future. We must protect our architectural heritage, or we will forfeit part of our valuable history.

Shafraaz Kaba is a partner with Manasc Isaac Architects and is the founding member of the M.A.D.E. in Edmonton Society.