Conversation Piece: Tower in the Sky

Edmonton’s tallest building impresses from bottom to top

Whether you’re south side or central, coming in from Sherwood Park or Spruce Grove, Edmonton’s newest marquee building is visible from afar, twice as tall as its nearest downtown neighbours, reaching higher than any Canadian structure outside of Toronto. And it’s not even completed yet.

Stantec’s 66-storey cloud piercer was meant to make a statement — both that Stantec is an international, New York Stock Exchange-traded company, and that Edmonton, where Stantec started, is well-suited to house its headquarters. But like the district it borders, the Stantec Tower is not just a business and civic crown jewel. It’s a tower intended to meld the public and private, and help transform the downtown core into the spot, for people in and around the city, to convene in celebration, any time of year.

“To create a great place, we have to create great edges, and the great edges are the great works of architecture,” says architect Michael Shugarman, who’s worked on the Ice District since before the final site selection. “It’s very much like what the city has successfully done, I think, with Churchill Square — there are beautiful works of architecture surrounding it, it’s engaging, and there are festivals, but it’s not commercial in any way. There are no restaurants to sit in front of and blab with a good glass of wine.”

Shugarman understands the desire to think of the tower as one single thing, but clarifies that it’s really three: A podium, beneath a tower, which itself is divided in two, like a well-crafted stone monument built up from the garden below. “The tower is a little tougher and stronger and bolder in the sense that it’s this rectangular, very efficient tower. In this case it is true to say that form follows function to a great extent,” he says.

Of course, there’d be no tower if not for the hockey team, and while the architects were never going to slap a giant oil drop on each tower face, it would be weird to not reference the Oilers in some subtle way. The tower’s windows are deep blue (the less expensive default is green), the building’s base has orange terra cotta tiles and the soffits and canopies are white. It could be tough to take it all in up close, but no one will miss the dual vertical fins with programmable lights running up the tower’s north and south sides, culminating in two giant screens that will generate images and scenes for generations to come. Ideally, said scenes will involve a certain silver cup, but there will be plenty of Pride, Canada Day and other celebrations to capture until then.

“If people don’t get [the colour scheme], that’s ok,” Shugarman says, “because it’s part of the city, and just like a piece of art, some people take one thing from it, others take something else. But we wanted that subtle coherence between buildings that are different in scale, in shape, and even material, because it will all come together.”

And coming together is the point. With a public skating rink and fire pits, the plaza is a privately managed space that’s open to everyone, based on winter city principles. It starts from Stantec’s main entrance, which opens right into the plaza — unlike most private buildings, which open onto the main street — so it serves as both Stantec’s lobby and a public pathway to the plaza. “That was a very overt decision,” Shugarman says, “to say we can be both a private lobby, but to also allow families and fans to hang out here when it’s cold, right off the public plaza. That was a fairly big leap. It was all about that public connection.”

The building’s podium has a rooftop patio that can fit 700 people. There’s a food court, a gym and restaurant bar, and it all surrounds the plaza that can hold 10,000 people. It’s easy (and fun) to imagine it all packed for celebrations, but the goal is to make it something people will seek any day. “Everything around here is about this public space,” Shugarman says. “We’re in the bar, and from the developer’s point of view, this is the asset, this is where the money is generated. But the reason people want to be here, is because of the public space. What’s generating the value? The public. How is the public defined? By the private. As an architect, as someone who loves cities and believes we’re all doing something for the benefit of the city, I think this is a game changer.”

Before final site selection, Shugarman was tasked with traveling to a few other arena district developers around the continent, to study and see what went right or wrong. Get it done fast, they said, and make a memorable statement. But the biggest lesson was about the stuff that wasn’t there. You aren’t creating objects, they told him, you’re creating spaces — real, evolving parts of cities. “It’s very different than constructing a single building,” he says. “The spaces in between and around are really the end game. It just so happens the tower is the strongest surrounding piece.

This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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