Shape of things to come
As the business of architecture consolidates, it becomes harder to create beautiful, challenging buildings. But thanks to one unorthodox architect, Edmonton is opening its doors to a brighter future
There is a symphony of movement around me. A black steel running track curves through the air above my head. Through a glass wall to the left, teenage boys are shooting hoops on a purple basketball court; to the right, a sculptural hunk of drywall points upward to a gym, where three women are sweating on exercise bikes.
This building – a massive multipurpose community centre and library – is a giant crystal full of moments like this, juxtaposing views, forms and experiences. It's an architect's dream brought vigorously to life. It belongs in some design-savvy Northern European city.
But it's not.
It is in northeast Edmonton, on a suburban road across from a Mr. Lube.
Tom Arban Photography
And it was built on a standard city budget, about $94-million for the 190,000-square-foot complex.
It is a huge accomplishment, and according to Edmonton's city architect, Carol Bélanger, who's showing me around this fall morning, the explanation is simple: "When you hire architects," he says, "you get what you pay for."
Edmonton is sending a message: Civic architecture matters – and it is ready to pay for the best.
Since Bélanger took his current job in 2010, Edmonton has constructed a string of buildings, from tiny park pavilions to a waste depot and this massive rec centre, which are as ambitious as anything in Canada (Clareview won a City of Edmonton Urban Design Award on Friday night). Just in the northeast quadrant of the city, we encounter a branch library by the Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen, who also designed Halifax's new showpiece Central Library; a sleek recycling depot by the Edmonton office of Dialog; and the spectacular Commonwealth Community Rec Centre, by Toronto's MJMA. They are each unusual in their design details, skilfully built, and beautiful.
All of them were built to standard budgets. "But I know more creative architects," Bélanger says, "know how to spend the money."
Bélanger, a trained architect, is the one ensuring they have the room to do so. A former "military brat," he uses his Québécois accent and faintly Maritime manner to mask a steely idealism. It's his job to oversee the city's hiring of design professionals and then to ensure the quality of public buildings. It is a task he takes to heart. "I ask, what is going to be our stamp on the city?" Bélanger asks. "What is our era going to leave – cinder-block bunkers?"
Not long ago, that is exactly what the city was building. Then came a new agenda. In 2005, then-mayor Stephen Mandel signalled that Edmonton was committed to building well: "Our tolerance for crap," he said, "is now zero." The city's architectural high points lay mostly in the 1970s; yet, Mandel understood, as other smart civic leaders have always done, that design has the power to make a place more distinctive and attractive. That agenda continues under Mayor Don Iveson.
In 2011, a public design competition for park pavilions set the tone, opening the door to firms from outside the province and emphasizing quality. The small, brilliant Toronto office GH3 won two of them. The finished buildings are extraordinarily good. One in Borden Park – another city award winner – is a tautly designed drum of wood and glass, while the other, at Castle Downs Park in the northeast, is wrapped in a glossy skin of stainless steel. Containing such humble functions as washrooms and a meeting room, it is a sculptural object of great, unlikely beauty. "These small buildings reflect the city's interest in quality design," says GH3 partner Pat Hanson, who credits Bélanger with supporting her firm's concept through the trials of design and construction.
But this attitude carries on in the way the city hires architects for its everyday needs. Bélanger routinely reaches out across the country and beyond to invite architects to compete for work; once they have been qualified, the city's interview process does not necessarily choose the lowest bidder. Fees are pegged to guidelines established by the Alberta Association of Architects. To win, architects can't overcharge; nor can they low-ball. "You can't buy the job," Bélanger says. "We pay a full fee and we expect a full, great result."
Vancouver architect Darryl Condon, whose firm, HCMA, designed Edmonton's Jasper Place Branch Library together with the local firm Dub Architects, credits Bélanger for the atypical creative freedom to pursue that library's unusual design. It features an undulating concrete roof which hangs, unsupported, across the entire expanse of the building. "We were able to push further than we usually do," he says, "to innovate further, because of the support we got."
This resolves one of the great problems with contemporary public building: The battle within the architectural profession between business and art. In fact, architecture is both. It's a professional service, like law. But unlike lawyers, architects don't bill by the hour; they bid for most jobs with a flat fee. This leaves a financial incentive to leave the job half-baked, not to explore different directions, to haggle over extras and manage overhead instead of exploring creative solutions.
And it is hard creative labour, often long and unprofitable, that makes great architecture.
"Architects are their own worst enemies," says GH3's Hanson. "We haven't had the solidarity to make sure the fees are what we need to do the work well.… It really affects, in a fundamental way, architectural quality across Canada."
This is especially true today, as the business of architecture consolidates. Conglomerates such as the publicly traded Stantec can and do make good buildings – when they can do so at an acceptable profit margin. But these are tightly run businesses: When fees are at issue, they will bid low and then grind out the work as quickly as possible. That is economically rational behaviour. And it kills creativity stone-dead. Edmonton and Bélanger have found a way to account for beauty, and it pays off in subtle ways. Stephen Teeple, the iconoclastic Toronto architect whose office led the design of Clareview, says that building's design evolved thanks to Bélanger's quiet and expert advocacy. "There is a moment in the design process," he says, "when somebody says the right thing, and a project goes in a direction of value to the world. Sometimes just a little smile can take things toward the best outcome and the best quality."
Clareview's odd form is not purely the product of the architects' whim. The new part of the building snakes around an existing arena and soccer field; it gets its complexity from the existing site, and it sends out a new pedestrian path angling toward a light-rail transit stop. What is apparently whimsical is also, when seen from a distance, highly logical.
And that artistic achievement only happened because Teeple and Architecture Tkalcic Bengert rearranged the city's existing urban design for the block, which had imagined a more straightforward, blocky arrangement for the centre. In other cities, that would have been a chore. Not here. "Carol looked at us," Teeple recalls of one meeting, "and he gave a little shrug, and said, 'Sure: If the area's the same, we can move it around.'"
Just like that, a block gets rearranged, and a city gets transformed for the better.