The New Dubai?

It’s time for Edmonton’s architecture to reflect its economic muscle.

In The Edifice Complex, London-based architectural critic Deyan Sudjic writes, “Architecture is about power. The powerful build because that is what the powerful do.” The most impressive structures tell stories about those who built them, or at least about how they viewed themselves, in such a blatant way that seduces and even intimidates those below. The masterminds of Pharaonic Egypt, 1920s New York and modern Shanghai all knew this, but the architects of Edmonton? There’s little one can read from its skyline but modesty, complacency, even inferiority, although much of the opposite is true. 

Here we are, the second youngest workforce in Canada, the gateway to the continent’s largest oil reserves, with one of the best economies in North America. We’re the capital city of a province quite literally fuelling one-sixth of the nation’s GDP – and yet vital parts of the city look as though Red Green wrapped duct tape around them and said, “That’ll do.”

“No more crap.” It is impossible to have a critical conversation about Edmonton architecture without these three words uttered by Mayor Stephen Mandel in his now-famous 2005 speech that dared designers to think further than the mere functionality of new buildings. Today, as he prepares to hand over his keys after nine years in office, he denies that his desire for more impressive architecture had anything to do with the renewed political power of Edmonton. “It’s all about image and respect for ourselves. You go to cities around the world and much of the definition of who they are is in their architecture,” he says.

Regardless of his intentions, the speech lit a fire under local planners and developers, says David Holdsworth. The heritage planner recalls a swift cultural change within City Hall. “When your leadership at the top changes to say, ‘We want something better,’ it allows us to ask for more,” says Holdworth, pointing to the evocative design of the Art Gallery of Alberta and the coming new arena as evidence. “The pendulum is swinging now.”

This would not be the pendulum’s firstswing in another direction. According to historian Ken Tingley’s book, Building a Legacy: Edmonton’s Architectural Heritage, Edwardian Edmonton had renewed vigour in the wake of becoming the capital city and attracting two railways. He writes, “[O]ther building materials became more readily accessible and grander buildings more common … highly ornate structures were the order of the day.”

But with each boom-bust cycle the flair tapered off into classical, then modest, and then, in the 1970s, brutalist buildings with the sole task of containing Edmonton’s ballooning workforce until the hour it fled back to the suburbs. Edmonton was, as Mordecai Richler observed in The New York Times, “a jumble of a used-building lot where the spare office towers and box-shaped apartment buildings and cinder-block motels discarded in the construction of real cities have been abandoned to waste away in the cruel prairie winter.” 

The biggest sting was his use of the phrase “real cities.” At a time when the world’s greatest winter sports athlete and biggest mall called Edmonton home – when maybe for the only time in history it had international stature – a Montrealer was calling it a charade because of its own drabness.

Twenty-five years later, we’re refueled by the continent’s biggest energy source, which to some has made us an incredibly attractive place to live and invest, and to others a fearsome oil state ramming pipelines down people’s throats. Whatever the impression, we couldn’t be better positioned to show this strength than with major developments like the Quarters and Blatchford redevelopments, or the forthcoming Walterdale Bridge, Royal Alberta Museum, Kipnes family’s performing arts centre, MacEwan University campus additions and two hotels. “There will be 12 cranes downtown over the next two years,” says Brad Ferguson, President and CEO of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation. “We’ll need to have hardhat parties.”

The question now is: What else are we going to wear to the party? More concrete slabs? More boxy, multicoloured modular condos that are turning central neighbourhoods into Legoland? Or something that tells our story as a powerhouse? The opportunity isn’t much different from Dubai’s at the turn of the millennium; in a single decade it didn’t just build remarkable architecture, but an entirely new identity, and now the collective image of the Emirate is immediate and even taller than the Burj Khalifa

The designs for most of these coming projects are finalized and when you compare their sketches to their surroundings, another city starts emerging, one that’s aware of its own gravitas, which is perhaps best signified by the forthcoming arena – a steel, oil drop-shaped edifice in the centre of the city. “These signal a more progressive, metropolitan-based culture,” says Ferguson, “and that signals to the world and the rest of Canada that we’re entering a new phase.”

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