Gone Modern / from the archive / issue 3

In 1957, the London Borough of Edmonton was preparing a gift for its young, commonwealth cousin to the west. The Borough’s namesake, the City of Edmonton, capital of the Western Canadian province of Alberta, was celebrating the opening of its grand new City Hall. The young city was presented with a mayoral chair hand-carved in oak and brandishing the coats-of-arms and mottos of the two cities.

It is hard to know for sure how the building’s designers would have perceived this prudent gift. They may have been slightly perturbed; how would the oak fit in with the ‘pre-cast concrete panels’, the ‘exotic American gumwood’ or the ‘polished red granite’ imported from Sweden?

This nine-storey curtain-walled structure with pilotis was a distinctly modern building with bold, bright colours, modernist landscape design and almost futuristic amenities, including central vacuum cleaning and adjustable office walls. As then-Mayor William Hawrelak put it: ‘The design of the City Hall is in keeping with contemporary architectural trends. Succeeding generations will be able to place it in its period of history and, by so doing, will pay their tribute to our citizens of today.’

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Edmonton had been booming since the discovery of oil ten years earlier. Between 1947 and 1957, the city’s population more than doubled. This period marked the rise of international modernism in the city. Businesses and city planners were eagerly looking to architecture to project the confidence and optimism that came with its newfound industry and growth. The bronze Canadian Geese statuary on the grounds of the City Hall were christened symbols of Edmonton’s ‘exceptional expansion and continuing progress.’

Since the 1950s, Edmonton’s identification with progress has rarely waned. The inevitable lapses in architectural development, which might otherwise mar this image, are dealt with accordingly. Latent economic and social anxieties are projected onto those buildings which signify the unrealised ambitions inherent to the preceding boom period – something which Edmonton-born historian Trevor Boddy has pointed out:

‘Boom/bust cycles as extreme as ours have a direct influence on architectural ideas and styles. With each new onset of mania, the look, even the layouts of the previous cycle are discarded as un-wanted mementoes of the depressing era of no-growth that followed those once-new buildings. Edmontonians come to hate their recent past with vehemence that does not exist elsewhere.’

Boddy’s comments were made in a catalogue for an exhibition at the Alberta Gallery of Art, called Capital Modern: Edmonton Architecture & Urban Design, 1940 – 1969. Ironically, the exhibition was housed in a temporary location because it coincided with the gallery’s decision to demolish and replace what was arguably the best piece in its collection, a subdued but sophisticated 1969 brutalist building designed by local architects Donald Bittorf and James Wensley. It was clear that Edmonton could no longer see the relevance of a building that reflected the cultural airs of a previous generation.

In recent years, Edmonton has suffered the loss of many of its most significant modernist buildings. Mayor Hawrelak’s prophesy about the City Hall being an emblem of pride for ‘succeeding generations’ was proven wrong in 1990, when its haughty flying geese were demolished and the City Hall replaced.

The fate of other modernist landmarks is much less fair. When the Central Pentecostal Tabernacle was demolished in 2006 it was replaced with a parking lot. Designed by Edmonton’s most famous architect, Peter Hemingway, the Tabernacle was built in phases between 1963 and 1972, and warranted the local press’ accolade as Edmonton’s  ‘most striking works of modern architecture.’

In 2006, the city was ridding the slope of yet another building boom, fuelled by the controversial tar sands project north of the city (starting point of the proposed Keystone Pipeline). But unlike in 1947, when the untethered oil seemed to erupt from the earth like wild horses bolting from the gate, today’s extraction happens as a result of a laborious technology that squeezes oil out of a previously useless sludge of sebaceous sands.

Needless to say, it’s a specialised, large-scale industry, which has meant that Alberta has been largely isolated from the grim economic forecast that daunts much of today’s western economies.  In 2011, a new site and £200 million were announced for the reconstruction of the city’s natural and social history museum, the Royal Alberta Museum. It’s a larger investment in cultural infrastructure than any seen during the unanimous boom years a decade ago, perhaps the biggest since the original museum was built in 1967.

Characteristically, little has been revealed about what the government plans to do with the old building, which was designed by a once-formidable group of city-staff planners and architects. Like the former art gallery, the museum was executed in the pervading architectural language of the day – brutalism. But its use of natural materials, sculptural elements and pavilion-like layout also reveals a deft ability on the part of its designers for interpreting, rather than simply mimicking the idioms of mid-century design.

In response to a deluge of criticism, which has lambasted the designs for the new museum as ‘Dull. Dated. Uninspired. Generic.’ the province’s minister of culture retorted simply, ‘this museum is about what is inside its walls’ - a far cry from the lofty but considered architectural expressions that the government seemed so keen on conveying in previous years.

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Edmonton has long represented a curious blend of international aspirations and isolationism, adolescent brashness and assured complacency. At times the city seems eager to mirror the world’s arts capitals – as was the case with the City Hall in 1947, the museum in 1967 and even the new Alberta Art Gallery in 2009. At other times it seems indifferent to such measures of design. The current ambivalence about the city’s best modernist buildings and the apathy about the design of the new museum, the city’s newest flagship building project, are part and parcel of an acute growth complex. Counter-intuitively, they are both signs of the city’s sense of progress and its ‘maturing’ role in the global stage. In coming years, it’s unlikely whether Edmonton city officials will feel the need to entertain any twee gifts from its ageing and hard-up cousin across the pond.

© Christien Garcia

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST