Academic Architecture

Post-secondary institutions keep pace with Edmonton’s building boom.

Photography Curtis Comeau; The University of Alberta Wilson Climbing Centre, January 2015

At times, it seems like Edmonton’s construction boom has been happening for most of the millennium. Certainly, downtown’s multi-billion-dollar makeover has revitalized the city’s core, turning an afterthought into a hot spot over the last decade. And there’s more to come. Much of the money and media attention has focused on marquee projects, and for good reason. The arena, art gallery and condo towers are signposts marking Edmonton as a city that’s finally made it – complete with things to point to and say, “Hey, we have that too!”

But the city also has some of the best post-secondary institutions around, and they aren’t all downtown. One could argue that from a purpose and design perspective, their roles are even more vital in attracting the best and brightest, and bolstering the city’s reputation.

Since 2008, NAIT, NorQuest College, the University of Alberta and MacEwan University have each undergone major constructions. Some have been additions, or the first steps of major redesigns. Some have started from scratch. Given their common era and construction timelines, they share some similar styles and themes, but what’s most apparent is their primary focus: Meeting their students’ unique needs.

The University of Alberta opened the Wilson Climbing Centre – the third and final phase of its 183,000 square foot Physical Activity and Wellness Centre (PAW) renovation – in January 2015. The 2016 fall semester was the first for NAIT’s Centre for Applied Technology (CAT). And both MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture, and NorQuest’s Singhmar Centre for Learning, will welcome students in September 2017. While each institution faced distinct challenges, the goal was always the same – serve the students.

Among all four, the use of stairs, space and light are the most obvious shared themes. The glass-coned climbing centre, on the corner north of the Jubilee, is a landmark on the U of A campus, while the Singhmar Centre (240,000 square feet), CAT (555,000 square feet) and the Arts and Culture Campus (430,000 square feet) are predominantly glass enclosures.

NAIT’s Centre for Applied Technology (CAT), Fall 2016

A two-panelled sail-like structure¬†reflects light down from the ceiling onto Singhmar’s open-air atrium. Two blocks south, world-renowned architect Bing Thom, who worked with local firm Manasc Isaac, used clear glazing to allow an optimum amount of sunlight in from 104th Avenue onto the Arts Campus’s articulated study nests, which overhang from each floor.

Cheryl Harwardt, Director of Campus and Community Recreation at the U of A, cites the physiological response people have to sunlight, which boosts serotonin and benefits the health and wellness of all students, whether they’re being physically active or not. “The high windows create a completely different feel, and the light brings good vibes,” she says. “The more you can bring in, the better,” something any student in a winter city can appreciate.

One thing that’s not noticeable in any of the facilities is elevators. This was intentional, with wide, welcoming staircases (or in the case of the PAW Centre, ramps) designed to encourage what CAT Project Director Lou Zoldan describes as “collision space,” where students,¬†instructors and staff have “serendipitous meetings” as they crisscross between the centre’s scattered classrooms and offices. They also get the blood flowing for students who remain seated most days, and provide exercise for staff who include them in their step-counting regimens. Likewise, the MacEwan Arts campus’ labyrinth-like staircases maze above the common area, creating sightlines and sound deflectors in places they wouldn’t otherwise exist.

High ceilings, exposed piping and concrete, and vast expanses for students to study and socialize are common to all the structures, breeding a stylistic hope that more neutral environments will look less dated in time. Beyond that, each institution’s space becomes more purposeful for its students’ specific needs.

NAIT’s Centre, for instance, needs so large a space to house the state-of-the-art, hands-on labs. There, Health and Life Sciences, and Applied Sciences and Technology students work with real equipment in simulated scenarios, including oil and gas pipe fitting, operating on life-like mannequins and virtually driving a fully fitted-out ambulance with pre-programmed software of Edmonton’s streets – potholes and all.¬†

Lou Zoldan, CAT’s (Nait) Project Director

MacEwan University built the entire Arts campus with sound in mind, not just the professional recording studios or its crown jewel, the stunning Proscenium Theatre. Sound-absorbing plaster coats the ceilings in the nesting areas, and every single space (performance spaces are connected to the recording studio) wires into the main sound system, allowing students to record a performance from anywhere. The cement slabs supporting the dance studios and rehearsal halls are separate from the main structure, ensuring no vibrations leak through.

The U of A and NorQuest’s uniqueness comes from the specific relationships each has with their students. Not only was the PAW Centre the university’s most extensive renovation in 50 years, it also included students like few comparable projects ever have, from the initial vote to design input and even repaying half of the $60-million loan. This resulted in Social Street, the main gathering area for students, and the Hall (previously Wall) of Fame, where the school celebrates its rich history of athletics.

As arguably the most diverse post-secondary institution, NorQuest focused on inclusivity. As president Jodi Abbott explains, “About 60 per cent of our students were born outside of Canada, and about 65 per cent are female. We also have a large indigenous population.” The spiral staircase and other wooden touches bring a sense of nature, and the Indigenous Student Centre offers a calm space for all students to gather and ground themselves, celebrate and smudge. Staff and students will also share the day care centre.

With all the continuous, high-profile downtown construction, it’s easy to see how four post-secondary projects – each spread across the city – could blend into the background. Unless you live near, work or study at any of them, they don’t affect your daily life. But these $645 million facilities are what attract the 30,000 students who will soon affect the city’s future – and may prove to have provided the best bang for their buck.

MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture, Fall 2017
Norquest’s Singhmar Centre for Learning, Fall 2017

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