ESSAY: Trevor Boddy

EDMODERNTOWN: FOUR FACTORS SHAPING EDMONTON ARCHITECTURE

Trevor Boddy
2007  

The bridge is a black iron tunnel in which patterns of parallel lines and acute angles are repeated and repeated until they knock at the senses like a film run too slowly; each picture is both separate from and like all others.1

Robert Kroetsch
The Studhorse Man

As is true for each of us as people one by one, the best and worst qualities of cities dwell closely together.  The story of the rise of Modern architecture in Edmonton just before and after World War II demonstrates this city’s latent strengths, its sense of possibilities as wide and shining as the horizon. At the same time, our architecture gives built evidence of Edmonton’s cultural insecurities, its lack of a sense of identity and direction, the assorted urban neuroses of Alberta’s capital city coming of age, perched as it was, at the very edge of the Western world.

Architecture is a cruel but accurate indicator of the spiritual and intellectual state of a city. Because assembled bricks, mortar, steel, concrete and glass endure for decades, sometimes centuries—if treated with respect and regular maintenance, all too often missing in Edmonton—architecture does not permit the quick shifts of cultural identity to be found in literature or the fine and media arts. This is why architecture can be more interesting than these other arts, as its profundity is earned and supported sparingly by clients, never invented in a bohemian vacuum. Architecture reveals, sometimes brutally, Edmonton as it really is—not how it imagines itself, not how others picture us—but this town-becoming-city, its values, it businesses, its personalities, its institutions, its politics, its talents, its ethnic mix, its sense of place, and sometimes, but very rarely, its sense of play.

The story of the rise of architectural modernism here is in large part a global story, played out at all latitudes and longitudes using the same well-worn script written by Wright, Gropius, Mies, Le Corbusier and the others listed elsewhere in this volume. Modern architecture congealed first in the bitter aftermath of World War I in Europe, then spread in altered forms to South America and the United States, then Canada, Oceania and the rest of the world. Recognizing this pattern—and my first book, Modern Architecture in Alberta, written as a 3rd year architecture student, may have recognized this pattern too much—the rise of modernism is simultaneously the most local and the most international of all possible stories.2 But the best Modern architects also deal in an immediate and honest way with how to live in a single place with infinite potential. Thus the best architectural Modernism inflected specifically to sites of its construction, exploited new local building materials (like composite wooden Glu-lam beams in Western Canada), even tried, in a tentative way, to deal with climates different from those of Northwest Europe.

The ethos of modernism was key to the transition from our agrarian past to a natural resource-exploiting future, but this shift happened in as unique-to-Edmonton way as the wild horse chase across Edmonton’s High Level Bridge, a complex and powerful image at the heart of Robert Kroetsch’s 1970 novel The Studhorse Man.3 What better description is there of so-called “International Style” Modern architecture than, borrowing from my mentor Kroetsch, “Each building is separate from and yet like all the others,” the optical effect of them being “patterns of parallel lines and acute angles repeated and repeated until they knock at the senses.”

By way of introduction to the remarkable collection of Edmonton buildings assembled here for you to see, read about, and by far the most important, get out to tour for yourself, I hope to give you something to think about. This essay proposes four factors in Edmonton’s urban psychology that have shaped our architectural culture. To the degree that this is an attempt to get below the surface and into the character of the city where I was born and educated through age 22, what follows is a psycho-analysis of Edmonton from an anti-Freudian.

The Virtues of Isolation = Autonomous Re-Invention

Speaking of age 22, Canada’s most famous and influential public intellectual—Marshall McLuhan—spent his entire life in Edmonton and Winnipeg until departing for graduate studies at Cambridge at that age. Late in life, McLuhan reflected on his Edmonton birth, then Winnipeg education through an undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba. McLuhan described as what was in the 1920s—and truth be told, is still now—the edge of the world, these prairie cities serving as the source of his innovative thinking about the power and modalities of communications media. Borrowing an idea from Harold Innis, McLuhan holds that empires are best understood from their edges, not amidst the splendours of London’s Somerset House or Pall Mall, or Moscow’s Red Square, but rather at the furthest extension of their influence.4

Thus Canadian plains cities served as the perfect perch to understand the ways in which magazines, newspapers, radio and the cinema were transforming society, all the more so because geographic isolation and the nature of the information industry meant they were almost solely consumers of mass-media, not producers of it, being at the outer orbit of the empires of Madison Avenue and Hollywood. Proclaiming another Western Canadian virtue often thought to be a liability, McLuhan argued that the non-specialization of life on the prairies (a harsh landscape and extremely low populations densities forced farmers to be meteorologists, mechanics, accountants, botanists, veterinarians, builders, managers, politicians and poets), imparted an admirable independence of thinking amongst its residents. Prairie cities made McLuhan’s mind, and it is high time that this city names a building or street after a man who is easily the famous Edmonton-born intellectual.5

In their rush to appear cosmopolitan, Edmontonians tend to miss the advantages—such as McLuhan knew—of our city’s isolation, often diminished by its own inhabitants with labels like “North America’s northernmost major city,” “The world’s coldest provincial capital,” or one current when my father was growing up in Thorsby, “Gateway to the muskeg.” With a bow to our postmodern cultural theorists, it is no so much that Edmonton was actually isolated, but that we thought it was, revealed through phrases like these.

The architectural advantages of isolation are many. For one, no matter what other architectural ills this town may possess, fey metropolitan flummery is not one of them. Edmonton’s isolation leads to strikingly advanced buildings like the Varscona Theatre, decades ahead of its time by expressing its rooftop air conditioning unit as an architectural element. By the same token, being out of the metropolitan loop sometimes means a substantial delay in architectural thinking.  Edmonton’s Federal Building, not completed until the 1950s might well be the last major Stripped Classical/Art Deco public building to be completed in Canada, designed as it was in the 1930s by a politically-connected architect even then nearing the end of his career. Only a place as isolated as Edmonton would break the rules and innovate, as at for the Varscona; only a place as isolated as Edmonton would push ahead with a 20 year-old design simply to save on design fees.

Another positive feature of isolation is the freedom of a city such as Edmonton—like that enjoyed by an individual living out in the bush, or on an extended international trip—to re-invent themselves in an un-fettered way.  Paris has many wonderful qualities, but the millennia-old momentum of its urban form and culture means that it cannot re-invent itself on a whim. As will be seen in the next section, Edmonton can and has re-invented itself with every major commodity price boom/bust cycle.

Discontinuous History of Boom/Bust = Messy Vitality

With global warming and extreme economic cycles, the fiction that we live in stable environments is at last starting to be questioned. Architectural and urban historians have tended to under-emphasize the role that extreme booms and subsequent busts play in shaping built environments, proposing easy narratives of incremental shifts over time, rather than the rapid change followed by stasis that is actually truer to conditions in the natural world. Architecture progresses in skips and starts, just like biological or geological evolution.

From its days as a fur trade hub, through its marshalling of immigrants and settlers into the hinterland, to its current core business of servicing Canada’s gas and oil exploration/manufacturing (tar sands) industry, Edmonton has experienced a series of extreme building booms, and much less talked about, in fact openly denied fallow periods with precious little construction.  Boom/bust cycles as extreme as ours have a direct influence on architectural styles, as with each new onset of mania, the look of the previous cycle is discarded, being a memento of the depressing era of no-growth that followed those once-new buildings.  Edmontonians come to hate their recent past with a vehemence that does not exist elsewhere. This is surely why Edmonton has chosen to demolish the very best building from each of the decades covered in first the Art Gallery of Alberta “Capital Modern” exhibition, and now, this guidebook (for more on this theme, skip to  my Postscript section).

When cities grow discontinuously they leave gaps: they lack architectural consistency, portions of city blocks remain undeveloped; land uses and infrastructure evolve in frustrated ways; and more poetically, the “bush and the garden” co-exist in strange relation, nodding to one of Northrop Frye’s favoured dualisms about Canada’s culture.6  Raw poplar grove next to tended rose garden is Edmonton in a nutshell, and it is time we started understanding and celebrating the specific aesthetic that comes with this.  In Robert Venturi’s hugely influential manifesto against the tyranny of puritanically abstract Modern architecture, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture he argues the virtues of a needed corrective: “messy vitality.”7

There are few better descriptors for Edmonton’s look than “messy vitality.”  Think of springtime streets strewn with gravel after the first serious thaw melts the snow and ice; think of arterial streets blinking with dozens of assertive portable signs; think of the dog’s breakfast of architectural styles and forms that is the Calgary Trail, or for that matter, Jasper Avenue.  When New York art and architecture critics first started coming regularly to Los Angeles after World War II, they could not understand it, because everything looked tacky, provisional, not real.  Through artists like Ed Ruscha, critics like Reyner Banham8, and I suppose comics like Woody Allen (the New Yorker helpless in a sunbelt convertible), the world has come to understand the particular environmental ethos and aesthetic of L.A., and it is high time that someone did the same for E.A.

Social Gospel + Oil = Entrepreneurial Communitarians

Architecture is the most social and public of the arts, impossible to understand without first acknowledging the particular forces that play on its institutions, businesses and politicians, as they are the clients that make it all possible.  Perhaps more acutely than elsewhere in Alberta, Edmonton demonstrates the collision of a set of communitarian values born of the early 20th century’s Social Gospel movement, with a small business, community-service mindset born of the oilfield service companies at the core of our economic modernization.

With the 1978 Commonwealth Games, annual Folk and Heritage Festivals, Community League movement, and other institutions, Edmonton has an astonishing rate of volunteerism, so extreme as to almost become a form of entrepreneurship itself (just try getting near a high profile unpaid job at the FolkFest!)  With this blend of post-Christian community spirit and a small business-derived attitude of “Pitter, patter, let’s get at ‘er,” it is no wonder that Edmonton has a reputation for the arts, for festivals of all types, for an openness of spirit and caring not found in its ultra-corporate sister city to the south.  There are strong historical reasons why the Capital City, in relative terms, votes “Redmonton.”

The architectural net result of this is an enduring tradition of innovative public buildings in Edmonton.  Some examples: the constructions on the University of Alberta campus (note the original emphasis on student lounge spaces in the Student’s Union Building, followed by the always-open public agora of the HUB Mall); advanced designs for crown corporations like Alberta Government Telephone’s original constructions right up to its Jasper Avenue double-tower; the finer than most Canadian equivalents detail in Edmonton’s Edwardian main Post Office (demolished, alas, to make way for the Westin); our late and lamented Space Ago goes Le Corbusier 1958 City Hall. With these and many more, Edmonton has a collection of public buildings the equal of any city in country.

By contrast, and noting welcome exceptions like the Milner Building, constructions for private businesses in Edmonton tend to be el-cheap, throwaway, derivative, clutzy or just plain boring. Our businesses like to  build what they know—work-sheds—with the largest and most famous of them being that vast Edmonton mall. W.E.M is all mirrored faux-glam on the inside, oilfield service warehouse on the outside. It is revealing of this tendency that there are precious few constructions in this volume which are not private homes or public buildings, and the reason for this is the communitarian entrepreneurship forged by our economic, social and religious history.

The Idea of North = Latitude for Innovation

My attitudes to my hometown of Edmonton evolved with repeated trips to arctic Canada to visit my polar explorer brother.  Hay River, Yellowknife, Iqaluit, then Cambridge Bay, each of his northern towns of residence told me a little bit more about the city where Brent and I were born. There is messy vitality in all of these towns, to be sure, but there is also a way of seeing and a way of looking unique to the north.  Glenn Gould’s truly brilliant sound collage and narrated text called “The Idea of North” was an important first essay in the aesthetics of all things northern.9  With the subsequent turn to global media culture, there has been precious little more of this type of inquiry, even from our artists, writers or national public broadcaster.  Maybe this will change when celebrities start going north, or with a cold war anew over arctic natural resources and shipping lanes.

Stars of another type, it is not just the northern lights or the extended sun-days, but a general obsession with light at the core of our northern sensibility, and in our best architects palettes.  There is no northern equivalent to the generic, grey light of Paris, Vancouver or Amsterdam, but rather high latitude light renders all with laser-like precision.  With intense light amplifying construction details and boosting the perception of building proportions, our best architects are able to render simple boxes in exquisite ways, using modest design device to deliver a maximum of architectonic expression. It surprises most people, here and elsewhere, to learn that Edmonton shares almost the same latitude as London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Moscow.  These were the four cities where, more than anyplace else, Modern architecture has seen continuing re-invention, and there is a strong argument that the Modern Movement itself is a northern phenomenon.

Edmonton has been home to significant architectural invention for a city its size, but remoteness and a near-total shunning of self-promotion means the world knows little of it.  Thanks to a fine exhibition and book team—volunteers, wouldn’t you know it—initiatives like this guidebook can make a real difference.  In many ways this volume, even my essay is a tease, as the true golden age of Edmonton architecture falls directly after 1969 terminus date for this book and related 2007 CAPITAL MODERN exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

This is because by indices like prizes, publication or attraction of talent, in the early to mid-1970s, Edmonton was the most architecturally advanced and interesting city in all Canada, when an oil-fired construction boom coincided with a new generation of architect-intellectuals. These designers were afforded enormous latitude to experiment, innovate, even make mistakes.  Edmonton is home to Toronto’s Diamond and Myers’ best two buildings, the HUB Mall and Citadel Theatre, both completed then in association with R. L. Willkin, plus such plastic and romantic works from Douglas Cardinal as Grande Prairie College and his own Stony Plain residence, plus almost the entire architectural output of the early 1970s from Don Bittorf and Peter Hemingway.  Inspired by the buildings and ideas collected on these pages, I hope a second book and exhibition follows on Edmonton architecture after 1970. Whenever our buildings are constructed, you will find the same four factors, those Edmonton equations of advantage and liability, that are the calculus of creativity for this city.

Trevor Boddy, Vancouver
August, 2007

 


1.  Robert Kroetsch, The Studhorse Man: PaperJacks, 1970, page 44.

2. Trevor Boddy, Modern Architecture in Alberta. Edmonton; Alberta Culture and Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1986.

3. I studied critical theory with Heisler-born Kroetsch in a remarkable 1980 University of Calgary graduate seminar that included bellte lettrist Aritha van Herk, Alberta Views founder and philanthropist Jacqui Flanagan, novelist Geraldine Rahmani, longtime One Yellow Rabbit theatre company member Kirk Miles and video artist Leila Sujir.  Kroetsch went on to be my co-supervisor on a Master’s architecture degree thesis there: “Sources for a Prairie Architecture.”

4. Please see Harold Innis’ 1950 book, Empire and Communication.

5. Inspired by the successful campaign, led by architect Vivian Manasc, to re-name Coronation Pool after its architect, Peter Hemingway, I think the adjacent high school—named after former school board official Ross Sheppard—should become “Marshall McLuhan High”. The library, gym or best of all, the staff room of my old high school might instead retain the name of that fine bureaucrat.  Canada is riddled with place names inspired by the most minor of royalty (who were Louise and Alberta, really), surveyors (half the towns on the CPR and CNR mainlines), and minor bureaucrats, with artists and intellectuals rarely, if ever honoured.

6. Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination; Toronto, House of Anansi, 1971.

7. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture; New York; The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

8. Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.  Penguinbooks, 1971.

9. The sound collage “The Idea of North” was first broadcast on CBC Radio December 27, 1967.

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