Arts Visual Art

Amnesiac city

Edmonton needs to stop tearing down history

Last Friday, I attended a talk by Kirsten Murray, one of the principles of Seattle-based architectural firm Olson Kundig. Brought in by MADE's Edmonton Design Exposed Festival, Murray showed an hour's worth of images on projects that completely repeated and reiterated the value of history.

Describing Seattle as a brick and mortar kind of town, one that has gone through many booms in its civic history, Murray's main theme was on giving precedence to the craft, context and collaborative nature of any architectural design.

The most interesting part of the talk for me was the emphasis on giving value to the history of a building, from using timeless technology like steam-engine hydraulics and a pulley system and integrating them into the design and function of everyday spaces. Focusing on concepts of building both residential and commercial projects that are appropriate to their land size, or responsive to the site, and acknowledging a regional architectural aspect in relation to building for a year-round climate, Olson Kundig's design philosophy was somewhat ironic to hear in the lower level of the new AGA: while it's coming up to the gallery's first anniversary, we have now seen the much-contested design shine or fail through all four seasons.

Coming up the steps of the gallery entrance for the talk, the surface of the steps had been freshly torn up. While the reason for the latest facade construction wasn't announced, a flashback to last winter recalled sheets of ice that collected on the smooth cement, and one can only hope and surmise that the landing and stairs are now being winterized.

Shortly after the gallery opened, I had a special guest post on Prairie Artsters by Kristine Nutting, whose main lament was how we always tear down our history and replace it with buildings not suited for the prairies. This boils down to the issue of belonging, what belongs here and what we want to belong here. While pictures of the old library still break my heart and the only sense of history is down in a soon-to-be-animatronized Fort Edmonton Park, the gallery and the probable soon-to-be downtown arena will come to represent a new era of urban design in our amnesiac city. Love it or hate it, these buildings belong to us, and our history.

On the way to the talk, I passed by the Gene Dub-led Alberta Hotel reconstruction on Jasper Avenue, which was news to me that this project existed at all. As one of a multitude of turn-of-the-20th-century buildings that came down in the last 30 years as glass towers shot up, The Alberta Hotel was built in 1901 and carefully dismantled brick by brick in 1984 with the promise of a resurrection.

In one of his always-fascinating articles, Lawrence Herzog in the Edmonton Real Estate Weekly goes into detail about the history of the hotel, about how it had the city's first running elevator and how Edmund Grierson, who co-commissioned the hotel, rode the publicity of the project into a political life and a civic legacy. The concept that we will have a historical building resurrected in downtown Edmonton is bittersweet to me, as while I am elated to witness such a tremendous undertaking of civic pride, there is a hollowness in me when I wonder why we couldn't have just maintained the Alberta Hotel, or the Selkirk or the Tegler, with all this land around us, that we had to destroy and build over top of what came before us. It's hard to understand what and who belongs here, when we have so few reminders still left around us. V

Amy Fung is the author of
Prairie Artsters.com

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