Looking Back: Grande Prairie Regional College, Grande Prairie, Alberta

A view of the presentation model for the GPRC project, which was one of the first to use the bold curved forms that would become characteristic of Douglas Cardinal's architecture.
A view of the presentation model for the GPRC project, which was one of the first to use the bold curved forms that would become characteristic of Douglas Cardinal’s architecture.

TEXT Kristen Gagnon

Completed in 1976, Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC), designed by Douglas Cardinal, FRAIC, was an early embodiment of many of the architect’s principles of design. From its poetic, ribbon-like masonry exterior to its carefully laid-out plan, the architecture of GPRC embodies Cardinal’s understanding of both organic forms and user-focused design.

The college appeared in The Canadian Architect in February 1978, in an article written by the late Edmonton architect Peter Hemingway. As Cardinal reflects on the project almost 40 years later, it is clear that he intended the twin themes of people and nature to be GPRC’s legacy.

The idea that buildings need to serve people and work with their community was first and foremost in Cardinal’s mind. For GPRC, this meant extensive consultation with the college’s dean, faculty, students and surrounding residents. According to Cardinal, “My concern from the very beginning was: what were the needs of the college itself, what was their vision, and what were the ideas that come from the students themselves? Because they were the ones the college was to serve, providing a meaningful environment for their education.”

This bottom-up planning, Cardinal says, was not the norm within educational design in the mid-1970s. Most designers did not ask what was being taught in spaces, or how the design of classrooms could influence teaching methods. Nor was it common practice to consult the future user during the design process of such facilities. Rather, standards from the Department of Education often acted as established guidelines for projects at the time.

Yet the desire to meet the actual—rather than perceived—needs of the user was behind Cardinal’s characteristic organic forms, most notable in the lack of orthogonal lines in plan. “When you are designing a building around the needs of people, it’s not only that you design functional layouts,” Cardinal says. “There is nothing boxy about any living being…including our own natural bodies.”

Teardrop-shaped music rooms emerged after Cardinal investigated the multiple ways that musicians could be arranged for a rehearsal. He laid out a dozen different configurations for the instrumentalists on the gym floor in tape, then “saw a pattern on the floor emerging. That became the shape of the room.” Similar reasoning led to the free-flowing form of the overall campus, as well as Cardinal’s broader philosophy on architecture.

Today, GPRC continues to serve the needs of its students in Cardinal’s original building, as well as in an addition designed by Field, Field and Field Architects in 1991. In 2004, the college’s theatre was named after Cardinal, in honour of his work in bringing the college’s vision to life through architecture. Cardinal reflects that ultimately his goal was not about bringing his personal views to the project, but rather “the excitement in capturing the passion” of those involved. “It was their project, their community,” he says. “They were a pretty dynamic community, and still are.”

Kristen Gagnon is a doctoral student in the Azrieli School of Architecture + Urbanism at Carleton University, and the Ottawa editor of Spacing magazine.