Hat Trick

Project the Esplanade, Medicine Hat Performing Arts and Heritage Centre, Medicine Hat, Alberta

Architect Diamond and Schmitt Architects, Cohos Evamy Partners

Text Andrew King

Photos Tim Griffith

Medicine Hat is in many ways a typical southern Albertan town. Born of its proximity to natural resources and developing into a node for farmers and local government, Medicine Hat, like the nearby cities of Lethbridge and Red Deer, strikes a contemporary traveller as somehow “inside out.” These towns are all structured around the railroad and the typical colonial grid system, manifesting the much larger-scale organizational pattern of the prairie farms and landscapes on which their economic existence depends. However, with their stations, central parks and Main Streets, these towns have turned their backs on the natural features that to one degree or another informed their initial founding. While Medicine Hat avoids the South Saskatchewan River, Lethbridge saw its coulees as a coal bed and waste dump. Even the early parts of Banff ignored the Bow River and the surrounding mountains.

Over the last few decades, many of these small cities have begun to engage the surrounding landscape through new buildings. This discovery of the local topography has coincided with the development of a new culture- and arts-based identity while becoming less dependent on Calgary and Edmonton for its critical art contributions. Today’s Lethbridge has the Southern Alberta Art Gallery and the Trianon Gallery as well as the dramatic new Galt Museum designed by Kasian Kennedy which, in addition to Arthur Erickson’s University of Lethbridge, addresses the coulees, one of Canada’s most intensely dramatic landscapes. Then there is Banff, with its eponymous Centre for the Arts set on Tunnel Mountain and delicately sited to embrace and articulate the presence of the surrounding Rockies. Medicine Hat now has the Esplanade, a project whose very name recognizes the existence of the South Saskatchewan River. Designed by Toronto-based Diamond and Schmitt Architects, the Esplanade was built in 2005 as one of Alberta’s Centennial Legacy Projects. A multidisciplinary complex, it brings together the Medicine Hat Museum and Art Gallery and a new performing arts theatre. There is much about this project that makes it remarkable. In one fell swoop it has transformed a significant part of this small city of 50,000 by shifting the focus of a few downtown blocks towards the river and creating a new urban venue. Both as open forecourt and interior space, the project embraces the history of the site while incorporating the footprint of an old post office building into its massing strategy. The building is handsome, finely proportioned and carefully detailed.

A key element of the Esplanade precedes the engagement of the architects. Led by Carol Beatty, the Medicine Hat Cultural Development Department devised a consultative and educational strategy that brought together the arts community, local government and its citizens to explore the making of architecture. Once the initial functional programming document was produced and the site was selected, several local and national architects were invited to present their work through a series of public lectures that brought critical architectural ideas to an open-minded and engaged community. This process resulted in both a client group and community with a high level of sophistication, and the benefits of this extended process are clearly articulated in the layered quality of the resulting project.

The methodology for the making of this building is a model for any cultural undertaking involving multiple stakeholders and users. It is a process that embraced the community without allowing the project to be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Exposing both the client and stakeholder to a deep well of work and ideas, this preparation, education and momentum could have resulted in disappointment, which luckily was not the case. Diamond and Schmitt’s building succeeds as an object, an urban intervention, a gathering place and a new fulcrum for a small city.

The site chosen for the project is not particularly resonant. Located two blocks from the river and characterized by a significant grade change, the building faces the historic Law Courts building and the Governor General’s Award-winning Town Hall designed by Chris Roberts in 1983. The Esplanade makes friendly and delicate gestures to its context, allowing the almost completely glazed north and river-facing First Street elevation to sit back from the street, which then opens up to a piazza-sized public space as a forecourt, providing a generous entry sequence. The building is clad in aluminum-and-glass curtain wall and grey brick, a nod to Medicine Hat’s second industry, I-XL Industries Ltd. who donated the custom-made slate grey, smooth-textured faade brick–eschewing the common red brick ubiquitous to southern Alberta.

The entrance faade is deceptively simple, drawing the individual into the building beneath a large canopy. The long curtain wall sits slightly forward of the masonry massing, while brick and panelled elements are seen beyond the glass screen. Once inside, a large programmatically nebulous space presents itself–the space is not quite a foyer but succeeds in presenting the next series of spaces as possibilities without demanding a specific choice. Acting as a true public space, this open area is animated by the primary formal element of the project: a beautifully detailed spiral staircase moves through three storeys of this quasi-atrium. Strangely, the stair begins on the second floor and terminates on the roof with a glazed box at the terrace. It is frustratingly dissatisfying to be unable to engage this element from the ground level.

Moving to the left of the central foyer space allows access to the 700-seat theatre, while to the right is the gift shop and restaurant. Beyond the public area are the art gallery, museum, and archives, all accessed under another beautifully detailed linear stair element. The gallery spaces on the ground floor are unremarkable but serviceable. At best, this is a lost opportunity given the strong critical art community working in and around the Lethbridge-Medicine Hat area. On the second floor, and from the spiral stair landing, there is access to the theatre mezzanine and educational spaces. Administrative spaces are on the third floor. The theatre space itself is stunning: a combination of wood and exposed concrete in a fragmented matrix of panels of varying sizes are both acoustically and aesthetically satisfying.

This building is resoundingly honest. The formal and programmatic elements, material strategies, and objects such as stairs and ramps are well articulated or visually accessible. The project is straightforward and resolved at the level of massing, materiality and detailing. This honesty is perhaps too overt on the west and south elevations, particularly the exterior walls of the gallery, museum and archives. These are long, relentless expanses of brick embellished with an underwhelming strip of etched glass tumbleweeds. The “art vitrine” fails the Herculean task of turning and animating the corner of a difficult urban condition. Perhaps these elevations are reminiscent of the site’s recent predecessor–the straightforward modernist post office with its tiled faade.

In so many ways this is a great project: one of the best in Alberta. It is both appropriate and ambitious, quiet but challenging, and acts as a good citizen. It is an exquisite jewel of a building that is perfectly and sensitively placed to suggest a future for Medicine Hat while embracing and celebrating the history of the site. It shows the way forward for the city and cities like it in the manner in which it was made: intellectually, politically, conceptually and physically.

There is one fly in the ointment of this story: what the creation of this building says about the Alberta-based practice. The
process allowed a plethora of practitioners–local and otherwise–to put their best foot forward by engaging with a client and community. But selecting Diamond and Schmitt Architects to design this significant cultural project can be seen by some as evidence of a lack of confidence in the critical architecture community of Alberta. If this were a singular example, then perhaps this criticism would be unjustified. But it is only one of several examples where signature or out-of-province firms are designing important projects. Diamond and Schmitt Architects are also in the process of designing a master plan for the Banff Centre for the Arts. Stephen Teeple is designing a museum for Grande Prairie and Randall Stout is working on the new Edmonton Art Gallery. Bing Thom and Norman Foster are building towers in Calgary where several other significant cultural institutions have stated their intent to engage “signature” or “world-class” architects. Meanwhile, the established large practitioners in Alberta seem content to provide local, technical and presumably profitable support for this work. This fate is somewhat deserved, and the situation does not bode well for the future of a “homegrown” critical architectural culture in Alberta. Other models for commissioning new work exist, such as the design competition structures of Quebec and Europe, but in Alberta most projects do not substantiate the critical design process as part of an evaluation matrix for new architectural commissions. For more architecture of the quality of the Esplanade to be realized in the coming decade, this must change as it will benefit both Alberta’s critical design community and the Albertan communities themselves.

Andrew King is the recipient of the 2003-2004 Prix de Rome in Architecture for Canada, and practices in Banff and Calgary.

Client The City of Medicine Hat

Architect Team Diamond and Schmitt Architects: A.J. Diamond, Michael Leckman, Jarle Lovlin, Suzanne Graham, Winga Lamb, Frank Bisci, Hans Rittmannserger, Jana Lyskova, Doug Mayr

Associate Architect Team Cohos Evamy: Alan Collyer, Greg Sereda, Dieter Janczak, Dave Johnson

Structural Yolles Partnership Inc.: Lead Engineer Brent Lodge, Partner in Charge John Kooymans

Mechanical Crossey Engineering Ltd.: Andrew Pratt

Electrical Crossey Engineering Ltd.: Wally Eley, Barry Dempsey

Landscape Cohos Evamy Partners: Larry Paterson

Contractor Ellis Don Construction: Project Manager David Bartle

Theatre Fisher Dachs Associates, Inc.

Cost Spiegel Skillen & Associates Ltd.

Code Lmdg Building Code Consultants Ltd.

Acoustics Aercoustics Engineering Limited

Exhibit Design Aldrich Pears Associates Ltd.

Building Envelope Yolles Partnership Inc.

Area 115,000 Ft2

Budget $32m

Completion October 2005