Viewpoint (March 01, 2006)

While it remains to be seen how the new Conservative government will prioritize the agendas of cities, sustainability and affordable housing, it is interesting to observe how Alberta–the centre of current Conservative thinking–continues to support initiatives that push for stronger culture through better architecture. Riding high on revenues from the energy sector, many Albertans are living in affluent suburban communities where sprawl, multi-lane roads and design-build expediency continue to dominate issues of sustainable communities and quality design. Describing Edmonton’s downtown as a “jumble of disconnected boxes with ways to escape the streets,” Lisa Rochon recently caused some controversy in Edmonton when she chastised that city for destroying its parkland landscapes, building big-box stores and cowering to the demands of motorists. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to take note of the occasional glimmers of noteworthy architecture that are emerging from an urban environment fuelled by a provincial tax-free consumer and construction market.

While Alberta is largely perceived to be conservative and pro-oil, the province is actually further advanced than many other Canadian provinces in terms of energy-saving and progressive urban initiatives. For example, the City of Calgary demands that all new civic buildings be designated LEED Silver, and its new LRT system should be the envy of many municipalities across Canada. Both Calgary and Edmonton have implemented urban design award programs to promote higher-quality designs, and in Pincher Creek, an impressive wind farm has been developed that is already producing enough energy for 35,000 homes. Meanwhile in Toronto, a lonely, laughable and experimental windmill intermittently spins above snarled commuter traffic while coal plants continue to produce electricity for energy- insatiable Ontarians. Lamentably, City Councillors continue to debate the (obvious) merits of green roofs.

In many ways, Alberta is a land of eternal optimism where there are groundswells of support for progressive architecture in smaller communities like Grande Prairie. Located 455 kilometres northwest of Edmonton and in the middle of Peace River Country, the city of Grande Prairie (pop. 45,000) has an economy based in forestry, agriculture, and oil and gas. Confirmed reports describe the community of Grande Prairie as replete with jewel-encrusted consumers loading giant plasma televisions into new SUVs hogging the sprawling parking lots of Costco, and other various power centres. In 2005, nearly $125 million in new residential construction was built in Grande Prairie, with a total of $200 million for all types of construction. This represents an increase of 25 percent from 2004 and nearly double what was built in 2003.

With a lively community supporting the arts and culture, Grande Prairie has recently decided to hire Stephen Teeple and Kasian Architecture, Interior Design and Planning to design the new Grande Prairie Library and Prairie Art Gallery. The city already has a fine arts gallery, but local officials want to improve their cultural milieu with a new $16-million facility with an expected completion date of in 2008. Grande Prairie–like Banff, Lethbridge and Red Deer–has an amazingly sophisticated cadre of people with an enthusiasm for good design and culture. The Grande Prairie Regional College for example, originally designed by Douglas Cardinal, has a vibrant fine arts program. Meeting with clients and the community in Peace River Country for the new Grande Prairie Library and Prairie Art Gallery, Teeple was impressed by a generally high level of knowledge and understanding of global architectural trends: they know of Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library, as well as the work of Will Alsop and Toyo Ito. Despite the cultural and economic stressors that often push for utilitarian responses to building, there is always hope, as cities like Grande Prairie learn to recognize that beyond building booms and big-box retail, there is always room for well-designed buildings.