What will we do about Edmonton’s built heritage?

Edmonton has a problem with “built heritage” (old buildings).

This week in the news is the pending demolition of the Graphic Arts Building, presently studio space for artists, and the Reed Auction House, former home of the Artery. That city-owned – perhaps not heritage, but certainly old – buildings can’t seem to be saved is a repeat of so much of Edmonton’s brief architectural history.

Few today remember the glorious old Main Post Office that stood where the relatively featureless brick of the Westin Hotel now sits.  And who remembers the Varscona Cinema that stood on the corner of Whyte Avenue and 109 Street, replaced twice since its demolition?  The MacDonald Hotel was almost demolished once upon a time.  A Mayor not long ago is said to have described the old AGT Building, now the Legislature Annex, as “crap architecture” or words to that effect. In fact, the AGT Building is something of a landmark, a glass-curtain-wall tower built in Edmonton, of all places, before Mies van der Rohe’s iconic glass-curtain-wall Seagrams Building in New York.  Recent lamentation over the lost Etzio building on Whyte Avenue and now over the Graphic Arts Building and the Reed Auction House is refreshing.  I fear, however, that the two buildings on Jasper Avenue are doomed, in large measure by Edmonton’s historically consistent attitude to contemporary construction, which all old buildings started out as.

Edmonton’s boom and bust history has been discussed endlessly in a great many contexts. It is our reality.  We have usually built quickly and for the short term.  The Etzio building was a hastily built wood-frame building.  It was remarkable that it lasted ten years in Edmonton, let alone a century.  We rarely build to last, and when we do, we grow bored with it in a generation and tear it down or wrap it in the tin foil of architectural fashion. The Stanley Milner (formerly Centennial) Library has been the victim of this once already, having a tumorous stucco thing pasted to the front.  Soon the Library is scheduled to have a more complete and superficial exterior remake, being wrapped in literal tinfoil. Does anyone remember the architectural coherence of the original design?

The growing concern in Edmonton over preserving old buildings, Heritage designated or not, is, I think, a good thing.  But if we are to effectively preserve our built heritage in the years to come, we need to change out attitudes toward young and newborn buildings.  We need to encourage architects and developers with a long term vision, who build to last.  We need to look at our ten year old and twenty year old buildings and ask whether our grandchildren will rally to preserve them.  And, most of all, we need to encourage the proper maintenance, perhaps through some sort of financial incentives, of interesting buildings that are in danger of decay.

This last item needs a fine balance, however.  The Graphic Arts Building and the neighbouring Auction House are today valued by the arts community as affordable space for studios and events.  And the spaces are so affordable precisely because they have been allowed to decay.  If owners half a century ago had had incentives to maintain and upgrade the buildings, there would be a more general desire today to continue to preserve them but property value and rents would be higher, and the arts community would still be looking for affordable space.  We cannot ignore the affordability offered by what are effectively temporary buildings, but it would be nice if affordability were also offered by something other than decay.

I don’t have a clear road map for preserving Edmonton’s built heritage. I don’t know if such a map is possible.  But I’m certain that if we don’t build at least some buildings with a century-long vision, if we don’t look at young buildings with that vision, our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be protesting the demolition of affordable, quirky, but, in the final analysis, fatally run-down temporary buildings.  And we’ll forever have very few century-old buildings.

Personally, I’m going to try to look at the relatively featureless brick of the Westin Hotel, and a whole lot of Edmonton’s young architecture, with a more positive, century-long vision.

As an endnote, I highly recommend Capital Modern, a website dedicated to educating Edmontonians about our Modern Architectural heritage from 1940-1969.

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2 comments on “What will we do about Edmonton’s built heritage?

  1. […] For far too long in Edmonton and Alberta the default response to buildings older than a quarter century has been neglect followed by demolition. […]

  2. Trevor Compton says:

    a well written article… Edmonton frustrates me to no end… I tried to buy the building and have it moved…I was road blocked at every turn.

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