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Master builder or enemy of the people?

Do you suppose that Edmonton Mayor Steven Mandel has ever heard the name "Robert Moses"? By my count, and leaving aside the demolitions required by various LRT extensions, the mayor and his retinue now intend to dig up our downtown airport, blow up the world's 10th busiest multipurpose events venue, and knock down an astonishingly anachronistic International Style building, all within a fairly short timeframe. Even if you're in favor of all these projects individually, isn't there a case to be made that we are incinerating an awful lot of history all at once? We're basically allowing one municipal regime to do more to re-engineer the city than has been accomplished in, say, any 20-year period since the big war.

It might not bother me, except that I'm not a totally ahistorical idiot; so I am aware that most of the inconvenient arrangements and structures we now wish to eradicate were products of prior intersections of boosterism, prosperity, and journalistic frenzy. That is certainly the combination that gave us a downtown airport, just as it is now the combination that seeks its destruction. How can Mayor Mandel get away with implying that the Alberta Legislature Annex is too ugly and boring to live? Because when it was built, it represented the bleeding-edge architectural trend of its time—a trend embraced with wholly accurate foresight by a city eager for excitement and renown, which then proceeded to see the sun blotted out by several thousand of pretty much the same goddamn glass box. The Annex now looks like any old crate erected in the year 1966, and is of no interest whatsoever unless you happen to know it was put up in 1951.

The same fate awaits the Art Gallery of Alberta mere blocks away, but only if it is not regarded as a preposterous embarrassment almost immediately. That's the choice you face when you follow an architectural fad for the sake of doing so. When the Edmonton Journal's Elizabeth Withey told the AGA's architect "Obviously the new AGA will be a hot, sexy piece of architecture" in a recent interview, I spent about a day screaming "Obviously??? Obviously???" in no particular direction. (The interview is otherwise excellent and unflinching, but Jesus.) The real danger, however, isn't that the AGA won't be worth imitating; it's that it will be worth imitating, and the benefit to the city in the coin of prestige—exactly the same benefit we tried to extract from the previous, hypersupermodern Edmonton Art Gallery building!—will evaporate in about thirty seconds. When there are a thousand giant shredded beer cans atop buildings in 500 North American towns, who will remember or care that ours was the first?


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Comments (13)

Maybe it's different in person, but I looked at the photo of the new AGA before I read the article, and I thought "someone's been cribbing from Gehry's playbook."

But silly me! The interview put that worry to rest:

Some critics have called your design a Frank Gehry knock-off. What do you say to that?

It's a complex subject. Clearly I contributed quite a bit to Gehry's office during the 7-1/2 years I was there. Gehry clearly was a mentor and influenced me as well. I will say there are things I do very differently in terms of process, and there are language differences. I do not believe Frank has done anything like the singularity of the borealis, where all the pieces pull together as a single fluid surface. Clearly there are influences but there are also differences.

With that, um, cleared up, the grand innovation of the AGA appears to be draping sheets of Gehry's excesses atop chunks of Koolhaas nonsense.


1. Mandel's "retinue" is pretty large when it comes to the downtown airport - say, in the hundreds of thousands who see the land as having more opportunity as LRT corridor/NAIT expansion/new housing in the city's core than as an airport.
2. Mandel can express an opinion about the Leg Annex but has precisely zero authority. If you want to dump on someone for wanting to tear it down, talk to Alberta Infrastructure. While you're at it, perhaps you can ask why a $100 million underground parkade was needed for a building that's literally steps from the LRT and a bus transit centre.
3. If you spent a day screaming about Liz Withey's use of a word in an interview, I respectfully submit you should spend at least half that time re-evaluating your purpose in life.


I'm a little curious to see how city spending under Mandel compares to the previous regime. a lot higher, I'm thinking.

I have never fully understood why gov'ts can't just put up four walls and a roof, like the private sector does. It seems like even a new elementary school has to be a unique architectural marvel and cost tens of millions more than it needs to (and then they wonder why they can't afford to patch the roofs on the old ones).

The art gallery - it looks like half-melted strip of plastic draped over a cinder block. I'm not a particularily sophisticated guy, so maybe I'm missing something. It would seem to me that the interior is far more important, it being a space to display art and all, and that a building like that is only going to distract visitors and compete with the collection inside.

A replacement for Rexall . . . one of the arguments for building a new arena is that cromdale area is scungy and crime ridden. That's why it's so amusing to see the potential locations for a new one.

Point 1: NAIT, though only to the untutored eye of someone who lives near NAIT, appears to have expanded to about 400% of its original size in the past ten years without infringing upon the airport's footprint, An LRT corridor takes up pretty much the width of two LRT trains. I would be more sympathetic to the "imagine what could be put on the airport lands" argument if the demand for retail amd residential Lebensraum in precisely THIS area (and I say "this" because I am there as I write this) did not already vastly exceed the supply. E.g., the wasted, rotting hulk of the Palace Bingo at 118 Ave. and 102 St.

Point 2 I will accept unconditionally, complete with observation about sunk LRT costs. Re point 3: well, I don't know if you have any vested interests you want to declare or anything, Largely Anonymous Interest Commentator, but my complaint is not really with a single word, as I had thought was obvious.

In search of a location for New Rexall, the Katz Group seems to have quite assiduously avoided any neighbourhood in North Central downtown that could actually use massive, radical "revitalization". They have picked a corner that's already quite bustling, and close to Oliver, which is a standing example of "revitalization" if there is one, and can only be threatened by the presence of new stores and LRT-driven foot traffic coming from the west (as it will, according to the plans).


Oliver is itself not exactly a pristine area - you need only walk a few blocks south and find the same crack dealers and vacant lots you'd find on the other side of downtown, where the most festering pit of petty crime in the capital region stands smack across the street from police headquarters.

Take a walk just north of oliver some night at 2 or 3 am. It's probably worse than your own block, Cosh, which is at least residential. Walk past the light industrial and the tattoo parlors and liqor stores.

Your argument about the city center airport closure makes sense - except we decided to close it more than twenty years ago.

No, in 2009 you don't really need the real estate. But through three peaks since the late 80s when we all supposedly decided it needed to go, it would have been completely developed by now.

The fact that we waited too long is no reason to wait even longer! The small carriers can go to villeneuve if they can't afford the international. We can keep a strip of land to commmemorate blatchford.


I don't know how frequently you get around Edmonton, but while the blight of the muni and the scrubby strips of light industrial space, the broken down walkups and third world specialty stores, the tattoo parlors, the ridiculous zoning to protect the airport itself - while all of that has helped to prevent any real development in what is a maybe a 10 km square chunk in north central edmonton, the city has been sprawling like mad in all directions.

It's not just that there's been dozens and dozens of developers who would have been eager to develop the area - it's that the presence of the airport there, and resultant zoning, has actively frustrated any attempt!

NAIT had space to develop because they had a frikken 5 block parking lot.


Hate to post so many comments, but btw, placing a big concrete venue and entertainment complex doesn't revitalize a neighboorhood. The present northlands and Rexall site is probably the main reason why everything surrounding it is a shithole.


the ridiculous zoning to protect the airport itself - while all of that has helped to prevent any real development in what is a maybe a 10 km square chunk in north central edmonton, the city has been sprawling like mad in all directions.

Out of the most idle of curiosities, when the city has been "madly sprawling" in other directions, did you happen to notice it was madly sprawling in exactly the same manner as if this "ridiculous zoning" spread all the way from Fort Saskatchewan to Devon? New commercial and residental development south of Terwilliger Drive overpass on the Henday, or south of the Whitemud along 17th street acts as if there was a municipal airport in the way. There's no reason to believe that suddenly the market would reject single family walkups and strip malls with Liquor Depots and 7-11s in them. The downtown airport could be something extremely special: instead it gets crippled for a decade and then shut down when the intended consequences of the previous decision comes to roost. Meanwhile the Camsell Hospital (curiously taller than buildings further from the runways that are supposedly forced to stay low) is an abandoned hulk, there are empty warehouses littering northeastern downtown, and a former railway corridor along 121st street is so littered with drug mules after dark that its employment capacity may exceed Edmonton Transit. Excepting the later example, none of the last major booms have seemed sufficient to justify interest in these sites.


Thanks, Russian guy. Assuming its me you meant to laud.

It's bad form to spam, but then it's bad form to leave a string of posts. It should have all been a single post, and normally it would have been. But today was not a mental peak for Sand.

I know NAIT's neighboorhood well. They still have five blocks of parking lot.

They have a massive cone of parking lot, leading to a defunct traffic circle near the junction on 101 and 97 streets, no doubt confusing any number of visitors to our fair city. Most of it is still parking lot, with a sprawling complex of old and mostly unused single story dots in the center.

They turned a parkade right off the fence of the muni into a building, then later developed the extreme SW corner of the parking lot into a new IT building. The rest remains fallow.

Even when the muni gets parcelled out, NAIT is irrelevant. They still have 4.5 square blocks to develop.


I'm sure Cosh is already getting sick of my spam, anonymous, but I have to respond.

I'm forced to conclude that you're completely clueless about the edmonton capital region.

I'm a blue collar guy, and I've served both residential and industrial clients over the years.

Casual residents don't notice the ridiculous industrial strips that line the muni. Nor do they notice the crazy, developer-designed road plan in the newer rambling sprawls.

The market will reject anything that is unprofitable. You want to give selling lofts in an industrial shithole with whores at the door, be my guest.


Man, Cosh, you need to upgrade so we can log in and edit comments. Because six or seven posts is just going too far, even for me.

Anonymous, if there were a host of new developments instead of a blight of light industrial, vacant lots, and nothing else surrounding the city center airport - that's all zoning allows.

If the city center airport had dissapeared when it was supposed to - decades ago - there'd be nothing there but new homes, skyscrapers, and opportunity.

If you can't see how that blight perpetuates its own zone of fail - that's your problem.


"Even if you're in favor of all these projects individually, isn't there a case to be made that we are incinerating an awful lot of history all at once?"

Dunno, once you've trashed most of society's institutions (flag, national anthem, marriage), aren't you kinda left with old buildings?


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