The City According to Carol

Edmonton’s head architect wants citizens to believe in the power of great design.

Photography by Adam Goudreau and Dwayne Martineau. Photographed on location at at the Edmonton Public Library Mill Woods Branch. 

Some of Carol Belanger’s most important work happens on airplanes. This is where Edmonton’s city architect – a friendly guy with the look of a hipster cresting middle age, with fashionable modern eyewear, a trimmed beard and grey hair long enough to straddle carefree and career-minded – takes an evangelical bent. Gregarious and energetic, and with a noticeable francophone accent, he’ll introduce himself to seatmates as “Carl” and ask where in the city they live.

Described by Mayor Don Iveson as having “a vision for what Edmonton can look like and feel like,” Belanger will steer the conversation toward the new recreation centre or library or public art going up in or scheduled for his row-mate’s neighbourhood. He could mention the sheets of purple carpet in the Clareview Community Recreation Centre, the Stanley A. Milner Library renewal that he believes trumps Calgary’s stunning New Central Library project, or the avant-garde murals at the Ambleside Eco-Station (yes, art at the dump). He shares this “just so they know,” he says. But, of course, it’s bigger than that.

Belanger sees his job as involving more than enacting a municipal mandate to get beautiful buildings up and running during what’s become one of the city’s biggest public construction booms in years. He wants to get citizens re-energized and re-engaged with urban design. He wants them to be proud of our aesthetic maturation and excited about where it could lead. He wants this because the physical transformation of the city is underway. And it’s happening under his watch.

Since Belanger took the senior role in September 2010 after serving as an architect in his department, he has overseen the new Commonwealth Community Rec Centre, two library branches (Jasper Place and Highlands), two rec centre-library complexes (Clareview and The Meadows) and a park pavilion (Borden Park), to say nothing of new transit centres and numerous redevelopments. Before all these, the last new library was opened in Riverbend in 2000, the last rec centre completed in Mill Woods in the ’80s. Since the latter, the city’s population has grown by about 300,000.

“We weren’t building anything for a long time,” says Belanger, who got his start in Edmonton with the private sector in the early 1990s, arriving with an undergrad degree from the University of Manitoba and a master’s from Halifax’s Dalhousie University. Money went to basic infrastructure and “potholes,” he recalls. The new growth represents “almost a pent-up demand.”

That said, none of it was hastily erected. Each project is the product of a design philosophy that has earned more than a dozen municipal, regional and international awards over the last five years. An unconsidered response might have met the need well enough, but Belanger developed a taste for innovation during his earliest days with the city’s urban design and planning department. There, he saw beautification opportunities in existing policies. “You can interpret them in the broader term,” he says. For example, a new fire hall, not being a public destination, wasn’t required to allocate one per cent of its construction budget to exterior art, like other civic buildings. “What do you mean [it’s] not publicly accessible?” Belanger asked. “It’s sitting in the middle of the neighbourhood!”

But what would eventually aid him most in a quest to honour former mayor Stephen Mandel’s now-folkloric 2005 declaration – “Our tolerance for crap is now zero” – was a new trade policy. A 2010 agreement between western provinces required that project bids be openly tendered across provincial borders. For Belanger, that meant exposing the cityscape to creativity from across the country. What’s more, it satisfied his taxpayer’s conscience, as fees remained tied to local standards – profound need not cost any more than practical. “I can spend $10 on something that’s ‘meh,’ or I can spend it on something that’s excellent,” he says.

And so, that 10 bucks has produced – to name but a few – the soaring, pillared facade of the Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre, the Borden Park pavilion with thick inner wooden beams partitioning its glass faade like a cut gem, and the Edmonton Public Library’s Jasper Place branch, its undulating form a reminder of the swirl of the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Like the gallery, each one is a design award winner. Unlike the gallery, not one is the work of a “starchitect.”

“What we’re seeing in the municipal work in Edmonton is a real focus on contemporary and modern architecture,” says Peter Osborne, vice-president of The Alberta Association of Architects and immediate past chair of the Edmonton Design Committee, which recommended to council many of the design  proposals Belanger and his team brought forward.

Arguably, the city hasn’t seen such a push for strong contemporary design since the 1960s and ’70s. Back then, it was a sandbox for the European-inspired Modern movement, producing Peter Hemingway’s Coronation Pool and Muttart Conservatory, and the boldly bunker-like original Edmonton Art Gallery.

Today, that creative spirit is written into municipal development plans: Among the goals of The Way We Grow is that “high-quality urban spaces, buildings and streets make Edmonton a great place to live and visit.”

“Carol was given a mandate a few years ago to ensure that city buildings, both new and rehabilitated, are actually beautiful,” Mayor Iveson says. “That’s something we didn’t concern ourselves with maybe as much as we should have in the past.”

One reason might have been lack of a tangible advantage. Truth is, there still isn’t. “It’s not entirely in practical terms,” says Iveson. “There’s a question of civic pride to it, which is, I guess in practical terms, about ensuring that Edmontonians are excited to be here and feel like this is a compelling city – a city that cares about design, a place that can be inspiring, as opposed to just another mid-sized city.”

Belanger’s strength, Iveson believes, is his ability to turn that sentiment into concrete and steel. “I think he captures the council’s and the public’s aspiration and channels that very effectively when working with design teams.”

In some ways, the architect has done this simply by inviting risk then managing it. The Borden Park pavilion, for example – along with new pavilions in Castle Downs, John Fry, Mill Woods and Victoria parks – emerged from a nationwide open competition that attracted more than 130 designs from experienced and emerging firms. “It’s a lot of work on our part,” Belanger says about the administrative work and judging. Yet he finds the unpredictability of competitions exciting; he hopes to see more of them.

That appetite for risk also fit Edmonton Public Library’s aims for “iconic” structures, says deputy CEO Pilar Martinez. As an intermediary between the library and the architects of its new buildings, Belanger “really pushes and stretches the boundaries” of his client’s initial vision, says Martinez, who is on the design team for  EPL building projects. She appreciates it – she wants the libraries to draw patrons as well as it serves them. “It’s absolutely necessary that they be functional, but we want them to be beautiful.”

Managing relationships ranks among Belanger’s talents, says Osborne. And he believes design firms appreciate it as much as clients. Architects need that guidance, he adds. “We’re no artists.”

Belanger has encouraged a full embrace of “iconic” design, but he has also been able and willing, upon EPL’s request, to rein in an architect about interior elements such as table or shelving configurations that would have hindered service.

That said, their work tends to be viewed as functional art, allowing emotions to colour criticism. Take EPL’s Jasper Place branch, shortlisted for the World Building of the Year award at the 2013 World Architecture Festival. “It has received mixed reactions,” says Martinez. “Some people love it; some people don’t. That’s architecture.”

While largely positive in his critique for Canadian Architect, architect Trevor Boddy questioned the library’s sunken floor sections, the cold lighting, the busyness of the art, and other features.

But this discussion is exactly what Belanger wants. It shows a capacity for caring about how Edmonton looks and, when the conversation happens among citizens, can serve as the bedrock of the belief that lives can be made and futures unfolded here better than in other mid-sized Canadian cities. By broaching the topic with fellow outbound fliers, Belanger may risk blame as much as praise, but he can’t bear the thought of his projects being met with silence.

“I’d rather have love or hate than indifference. Isn’t that the worst? Indifference?” he says. “You want to solicit a reaction.”

Currently, more than a dozen projects are entering concept, design and build phases, including a rec centre/library for Lewis Estates, a new swimming facility at Borden Park and an addition to the Edmonton Valley Zoo, the latter two of which Canadian Architect acknowledged with recent awards. After this, municipal construction projects will likely drop off. With the city’s aesthetic future in mind, Belanger hopes support for thoughtful design doesn’t follow suit. He sees too much at stake.

“Design is not an add-on,” he insists, seeing in it a kind of value that’s just as important as the price tag.

“We’re only here for a short amount of time, but this is for our children and our children’s children – every generation building on the next,” he says. “We’ve been given a lot of responsibility.”

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