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Edmonton gives the green light to new park pavilions and library updates

For any city, big or small, mashed up or middling, being labelled for a commitment to architectural crap is a fearsome blow. Edmonton would know. Its reputation as the Canadian fiefdom of sprawl, power centres and built oppression looms even bigger than its brutal winters.

But these days Edmonton is waking to the promise of invigorating architecture and enlightened design competitions, initially provoked by the grenade lobbed by newly elected Mayor Stephen Mandel six years ago when he declared: "Our tolerance for crap must be zero."

Crawling out from the shadows of ugliness is what the city has been doing ever since. The Edmonton Design Committee, created in 2005, has played a critical role in advocating for new aesthetic heights in architecture. Without compliance, development permits are no longer issued: All public buildings in Edmonton are now required to be publicly tendered and sustainably designed. With today's unveiling of five competition-winning designs for park pavilions, the city has entered a springtime in which architecture is being fully embraced, transforming even modestly scaled change rooms on cricket fields into markers of beauty.

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Scouring the country for talented architects has been integral to that blossoming, both for small and grand civic projects. For the parks competition, 65 firms submitted schemes. A stellar jury was assembled, including Edmonton City Architect Carol Bélanger, Toronto landscape architect Janet Rosenberg, Vancouver architect Steve McFarlane and Quebec City architect Pierre Thibault.

Gh3, a 10-person architecture-and-landscape firm based in Toronto, won for two of the pavilions. For the historic Borden Park, located east of downtown, gh3 lead designers Pat Hanson and Diana Gerrard created a contemporary glass-and-wood homage to a carousel, recalling the amusement park that once existed there. In their $1.2-million scheme, in which robust, recycled wood columns march along the inside of an elegant glass rotunda, small is perfectly magnetic. The cafés and civic gathering spaces in Parisian parks are small spaces too, but, elegantly designed, they always draw a crowd.

Castle Downs, a district park located on the northern fringes of Edmonton, is nearly triple the size of Borden, with a pavilion budget to match. Brightly coloured portals, which reference a Hudson's Bay blanket, define a permeable loggia that runs 60 metres down the middle of a large playing field. Clad in highly polished stainless steel, the linear building provides storage for playing fields, two maintenance offices, and washrooms. Its bold geometric shape is intended to welcome, shelter and define the park.

"It's not the bleakest area of Edmonton," says gh3's Hanson, "but it's in one of those completely faceless, density-less suburban conditions, with no sense of place. We made the pavilion out of reflective materials so that the kids can engage with it while looking at it."

Other winning schemes include pavilions for the Mill Woods Sports Park by Dub Architects of Edmonton, Victoria Park by Rayleen Hill of Dartmouth, N.S., and the John Fry Sports Park by Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative of Calgary.

If postwar Edmonton was damaged by a suffering of architectural fools, its devotion to the North Saskatchewan River Valley and its adjoining ravines allowed some of the city's ugliness to be compensated by the power of nature. Victoria Park, which occupies the north bank of the river, hosts a rifle range, horse stables and Edmonton's first cricket pitch. A golf course also runs through it. For her design, Hill has inserted a generously scaled two-storey building that, as she describes it, "floats along the treetops, providing a lantern for activities." The pavilion will house washrooms, a skate-change area, and meeting rooms for groups such as the Edmonton Speed Skating Association.

Bélanger, a native of Quebec who studied at the University of Manitoba and Dalhousie, was appointed Edmonton's city architect two years ago. Since then, he has effectively channelled the early despair of Mayor Mandel into a campaign of urban healing. The city requires LEED Silver accreditation for new buildings. As well, all city projects, from schools to bridges, are required to donate one per cent of construction budgets to public art, as administered and juried by the Edmonton Arts Council.

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"There's been a need and a want for better architecture. Now we're scoring for design," says Bélanger. "The Art Gallery of Alberta provoked a whole new interest in competitions. There were many lectures for the shortlisted competitors. It definitely got a lot of people interested."

Beyond the park pavilions, several new civic buildings under the direction of Bélanger are moving from design to construction. The $75-million Clareview Recreation Centre and Library expansion, scheduled for completion in 2013, by Teeple Architects, is a long, exuberant shed that tucks its roof down low like a protective apron before lifting it up to feature a big glass room.

Hughes Condon Marler Architects is creating, with Dub Architects, the Jasper Place branch library, branded by a boldly undulating roofline. Marshall Tittemore Architects and Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects of Denmark - the firm that's also designing the boldly transparent Halifax Central Library - are creating the brick-and-glass community-anchoring Highlands branch.

Roofed with recycled pine-beetle timber, designed to LEED Gold standard, and landscaped with a skateboard park and skating trail, the Meadows Community Recreation Centre and Public Library, by Shore Tilbe Perkins + Will with Group 2, is about to start construction in southeast Edmonton. Sports are further celebrated by MJMA of Toronto with HIP Architects' Commonwealth Stadium, whose new field house is a joint venture between the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Eskimos, and which will be completed next year.

Although all of these projects are being produced in association with local firms, there have been murmurs of discontent among some Edmonton firmsunaccustomed to competing this hard for commissions with outsiders.

This is a city pushing toward one million people. Excellent architecture should not be decided by firms that happen to be paying local taxes. For the sake of the city and the citizens who live there, let the superior architect win the race - and let the reputation of Edmonton rise up above the frozen ground.

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