Viewpoint (June 01, 2005)

Facing the newly created urban landscape of Churchill Square, the Edmonton Art Gallery (EAG) is about to be transformed into a 21st-century cultural facility. The gallery cannot house any notable exhibitions and it needs more space for its exhibitions and educational programs. It remains to be seen what a design competition for a $27-million building will yield for a city in need of some architectural confidence. One hopes that the gallery will not turn its back on the fragile nature of a downtown that extends well beyond the immediate periphery of Churchill Square.

During the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Festival of Architecture in May, I had the opportunity to witness a drama in a city known for its theatre when the EAG’s four competition finalists presented not only their work, but provided glimpses of their professional ethos. The four finalists were, in order of appearance: Will Alsop, Arthur Erickson, Zaha Hadid stand-in Stephane Hof, and Randall Stout. The four protagonists–associating with their respective teams–will each present four schemes for the new gallery this fall.

None of the finalists presented their thoughts on the Edmonton Art Gallery per se, but all of them spoke of their respective approaches, along with a presentation of their design portfolios. The scene opened with Alsop, armed with an obviously unedited and unscripted multimedia retrospective of his work. Alsop relied on his brash charm and wit to discuss his approach to public art, colour, Toronto, drawings, South London, community planning, Shanghai, himself and Bradford. Overextending his 20-minute allocation, he demonstrated to the audience his inability to locate a video amidst his massive presentation. If only the presentation had been more carefully edited, as his work merits a more serious and professional discussion. Exit Alsop. Enter Erickson. Frazzled, he acknowledged the dynamic presentation of Alsop–thirty years his junior–and joked that he should have come on stage with castanets. At 81 years of age and embodying an old-school approach to Canadian architecture, Erickson settled into an eloquent discussion of some of his most memorable works: the 1970 Osaka World Exhibition for the Canadian Pavilion, the Museum of Anthropology, and the Provincial Law Courts in Vancouver, to name a few. The third finalist was supposed to be Zaha Hadid. But as in opera, sometimes a singer is unable to perform and an understudy must be flown in. Hadid seems to have a lot of work in progress and this might explain why she sent Stephane Hof, a junior member of her office to Edmonton. Complaining of jet lag, the young European slowly worked his way through a roster of projects that were much more impressive than his ability to convey their architectural significance. For the fourth act, the audience heard Randall Stout from Los Angeles. Stout’s work is not very well known outside of the US and Germany, but his architectural philosophy is concerned with community, technology and sustainability. Stout worked for Frank Gehry for several years before starting his own firm in 1993. His architecture would not be out of sync with Gehry’s, albeit delivered with a softer edge that is reflected not only in his work, but in his southern accent and manner of speaking.

To witness these four protagonists present their bodies of work was fascinating, as it exemplified four approaches to architecture delivered by professionals whose age ranged from twentysomething to eightysomething. Let us hope that the preview to the EAG’s expansion will flourish into an exciting reinterpretation of Edmonton’s ways and means of showcasing visual culture, and let the drama unfold. Ian Chodikoff