In the Parking Lot of Walmart I Sat Down and Wept

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down,
Yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.
– Psalm 137

A few days ago I went to get my hair cut at my usual place, which is in one of those suburban “outlet malls” which plague North America. After I parked, I realized I needed a bathroom break. The only obvious place for a discrete trip was the Walmart in the distance. The fact that it seemed necessary to get back into my car and drive to the Walmart at the other end of the parking lot should have been a hint of the epiphany to come.

Anyway, after seeking and finding relief, I walked back out into the sun. I faced west. The mid-morning sun was behind me and to the left. A vast treeless plain of asphalt dotted with a few cars stretched away before me. Around the edge of this desolation stood the low retail blocks done up in stucco and architects’ memories of childhood Lego projects. The haze of distance softened the contrast of faraway objects.

And suddenly I realized that the faraway objects weren’t a distant city on a hill or mountains or forests away at horizon’s edge. No. The haze of distance hung over the other end of this lifeless, horrid, inhuman parking lot.

Images of suburbia came into my mind. Of entire residential neighbourhoods turning their garage doored backs on the streetscape. Of rows upon rows of puce coloured boxes, no windows to the street, postage stamp yards. Or, next development over, monster houses with one acre foot prints on one acre lots with ubiquitous garage doors, as welcoming as closed Hell Gates, here four or five to the house, the public face of whatever family might try to find joy within.

I immediately said to myself, with a small and joyless internal laugh:

“In the parking lot of Walmart I sat down and wept.”

Then I tweeted it, because that’s what is done.

There is a tragic inhumanity about the architecture of North American cities. This inhumanity stretches from the design of the home all the way up to e the neighbourhood plan. The car is the reason for the layout of the home. The car’s room is the part of the house that greets the visitor. The car is the intermediary, the gate keeper, between the family and the outside world.

The streets are wide, the sidewalks narrow. I have seen couples our for walks in the suburbs unable to walk side-by-side on the single-file afterthought sidewalks. The parking lots are obscenely large and desolate, the parks, particularly in newer developments are pitiful token bits of green. There is no school or even space set aside for a school in many of these new developments.

I am writing this sitting at a table on the small patio at the front of my inner city house. This outdoor office/dining room is what welcomes visitors. There are trees filled with singing birds and chattering squirrels around me. Cyclists pass by in the bike lane. A car goes by now and then. People are walking side-by-side, chatting and smiling at each other on the wide sidewalks. Every house has a front facade punctuated by many windows and the front door. This is the open streetscape that is both welcoming to and engaged with the community of people who inhabit it.

Later this afternoon some neighbours will be getting together in the back alley, thankful that the warm weather has finally returned. Tables and chairs will be brought out, the doors of small detached garages thrown open. More neighbours will gather to chat.

Before that get together, I may walk over to the book shop seeking a second-hand Golding novel. I could walk to anything I would normally want or need: the grocer, the baker, the butcher, live music venues, live theatre, restaurants, bars, all manner of shops and parks and schools. . . .

When I stood outside Walmart and thought of Psalm 137, I certainly didn’t feel the shattering desolation of the Israelites taken in bondage to Babylon. But I did feel very strongly that with our unthinking automobile-driven suburban sprawl, with our simple lack of foresight and human sensitivity, we have exiled far too many urban North American’s from a truly humane urban existence.

Living in a large garage with attached house a short drive – but a long walk – from a giant parking lot with a scattering of indistinguishable chain stores built of polystyrene and ticky-tacky – appropriately termed “big boxes” – and working an hour’s commute away is decidedly not a humane urban existence.

I began with a Psalm. Let’s end with a song:

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On the destruction of the Royal Alberta Museum building

Incomprehensible.

 

That’s the only word I can clutch at to describe the news that broke last week.  Alberta Infrastructure has put out a Request for Proposals to demolish the beautiful historically and architecturally important Royal Alberta Museum  building and replace it with a park:

The purpose of this project is to complete a comprehensive demolition/deconstruction assessment of the building and site and develop schematic design to redevelop the site into an open green space

For those unfamiliar with the Museum site in Edmonton’s Glenora neighbourhood, the Museum grounds are already a park. The centrepiece of this green space is the venerable Government House, home to a marvellous publicly-owned but difficult-to-view art collection. The site is a popular location for wedding photos and the Museum building has long been a terrific hall for wedding receptions. The Museum building has a well appointed theatre, a commercial kitchen with restaurant space, offices, exhibition space that could be repurposed easily in a multitude of ways, and vast areas of back room and basement which have always been closed to the public and surely offer tantalizing potential.

The people of Glenora seem to want the building preserved and repurposed.  Margaret Robinson of the Old Glenora Conservation Association is quoted by Global News as saying:

We want to see the [museum] remain intact. It’s a very fine, high-quality building. It would be a very bad thing to see it demolished

But no. Preservation is not a part of Alberta Infrastructure’s Request for Proposals. The only question is the design of  space once the building is removed.

 

Incomprehensible.

 

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

 

Surely the Minister, Brian Mason, and Premier Rachel Notley, Edmontonians both, will step in to order the broadening of the Request for Proposals to include the possibility, cost, and benefits of preserving and repurposing a gem of Alberta architecture and history. Not at least investigating that possibility would be — obviously — incomprehensible.

 Update, March 9th, 2026: A petition to save the RAM started by June Acorn is picking up steam. Take a look and consider signing.

Update, March 13th, 2016: Minister of Infrastructure Brian Mason tonight in a comment on this post offered reassurances that repurposing the Royal Alberta Museum building is not off the table. Because I so often advise “Don’t read the comments!”, I’ll paste Mr. Mason’s comment right here:

No decision has been made on the future of the former museum building, nor will it for some time. It will take nearly two years to organize the exhibits, including those in storage, and move them to the new museum. We are simply gathering the information needed to evaluate our options. Re-purposing the building is definitely an option. We will discuss with the community before making any decision.

Mr. Mason’s comment on my little bloggy thing is reassuring (and flattering to me!) but I have to suggest that more reassuring would be a parallel Request for Proposals to repurpose the RAM. I hope such is forthcoming. Soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Soaring, Farming, Upgrading the Oil Sands, and the Failure of Modern Society

Well, that was a very interesting and emotion- and thought-provoking afternoon.

I’ve just come back from a quiet time in the Alberta countryside . . .

The beginning is the fact that my seventeen year old neighbour is a flying fanatic.  For the past while he’s been ripping through his certification as a solo sail-plane pilot with the Edmonton Soaring Club  at the lovely, grass-covered Chipman Airport just north of the town of Chipman, Alberta,  population 284 reportedly supporting seven churches (I could only find four).

So, after yet another visit to the Art Gallery of Alberta, we headed East on the Yellowhead through Elk Island National Park and clouds of smoke from the raging out-of-control Boreal Forest Fires threatening La Crete and other Northern Alberta communities.  Visibility was frighteningly short and I feared that flights out of Chipman would be cancelled for the day.

A short while after spotting a pair of bison in the Park, we turned north on the newly (almost) paved Highway 834.  A short distance south of Chipman we were stopped by a jolly flagman with an absolutely epic belly who chatted through the window of the truck ahead of us.  After about ten minutes I realized that the epic belly was actually on a flagwoman.  Ooops!

So, on North in a convoy to Highway 15 and then east to the other side of Chipman and a short drive north on Range Road 185 to the Airport on Township Road 550.  We arrived just in time to see our 17 year old neighbour  land solo and then see his fifteen year old sister take off as a passenger on the next flight.  Despite the hopelessly reduced visibility, the cheerful members of the soaring club and my neighbour were taking turns flying short circuits around the field at about 1000 feet.  At one point everyone started asking “Where’s so-and-so?  Did he land and go to the hanger?”  Finally someone in the Control Trailer got on the radio and called the missing pilot.

“I’m at 4300 feet about two and a half miles southwest of the field” came back the answer, followed by a scramble on the ground to work out which direction that was.  We soon found him, a bright silver speck against a bright silver sun in a bright silver sky.  He came back to earth what seemed like half an hour later.

What a joyous, relaxed afternoon it was watching the bright yellow retired cropduster tow the gleaming white gliders into the sky and then see them all drift gracefully back to earth, only to do it all again.

About seven p.m. we pulled back across Highway 15 to take a quick drive through Chipman to count the churches — still only four made themselves apparent — and then East into the sinking sun and Boreal Forest smoke toward Lamont and Fort Saskatchewan, the site of the original fur trade fort in the Edmonton area.  I found it fascinating to look to my left and try to decide if the faintly darker silver band on the horizon was a ridge paralleling the highway or a cloud bank visible through the smoke.  As we passed Lamont it became clear that it had been a ridge all along, and now we were set to climb over it.

Farmland, all the way.  Fields of canola in surreal yellow flower and alfalfa in various stages of harvest.  The only breaks from farmland had been Elk Island Park’s native aspen forests and the rustically technological twine and bailing wire Chipman Airport.  Even as the old crop duster belched its way into the sky, this had been a bucolic idyll. But, a change was coming . . .

As we approached Fort Saskatchewan from the North East, we paralleled not only the North Saskatchewan River, but the bitumen refineries of Upgrader Alley.  Not since driving through Coatzacoalcos, Mexico at midnight have I beheld such an overwhelming image of the human modification of Nature.  Here were endless towering fuming fossil fuel factories stretched along the banks of one of the great rivers of the world, a river that had witnessed little in the way of humanity, let alone human industry, until about two centuries ago.  Here were great steel fractioning vessels rooted to the clay that had been exposed by stripping the topsoil from some of the best agricultural land in North America. On the other side of the highway, to my left, the farmland still stretched to the horizon.  But here was a nerve centre of the extraction of the sticky  riches of the Alberta Oil Sands.  I suppose I should have been horrified, and then driven on with shaking, hypocritical (I was driving, wasn’t I?) head.

But my actual reaction is an embarrasment to my left-wing, environmentalist, artsy-fartsy, pretensions:

I was exhilarated!

I was blown away by this monumental expression of human industry!  I felt a strangely Randian thrill at the unfathomably huge fields of a poisoness plant made food by the human hand, by the vast barns filled with descendants of the Eurasian Aurochs, made tame (and food) by the human hand, by the incomprehensibley complex metropolis of Better Living Through Chemistry on the banks of the North Saskatchewan.  I found the fountain and the flower garden spelling out “DOW” to be remarkably attractive.  These were no dark Satanic mills!  I did not look on these works, be I mighty or not, and despair!  I rejoiced with the heart of Hugh Ferriss!  Here was the glorious, indominatable soul of Humanity made manifest in Its own works.

A few minutes later we came into Fort Saskatchewan and the architecture along the highway was all North-American-polystyrene-lego-inhuman-garbage-and-parking-lot.

We got KFC/Taco Bell at the drive through and ate while we drove.

And here was the pitiful, stupid, lazy soul of humanity.

What am I to do with today’s experience?

Here is a young man, no older than Icarus at his death, rising into the sky on wings Daedlus could have made, and gracefully returning to earth, over and over, with a huge grin on his face and the respect of men three times his age.

Here is the agricultural legacy of hundreds of generations of farmers and herders whose names will never be known, who have provided the fundamental basis of our human society today through their experimentation over millenia.

Here is the inconcievable grandure and power that has grown from the Industrial Revolution, power which has made possible the parkland which lines the North Saskatchewan River Valley virtually uninterupted from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan and beyond, parkland that a century ago was  denuded of forest, filled with coal mines, lumber yards, brick yards and countless other unregulated industries.    We drove between the forested river bank and a soccer game just to the west of Upgrader Alley when we lost our way for a bit.  Fort Saskatchewan uses sheep to mow the grass in its parks, for goodness sake!

And then, here is a “restaurant” built of various combinations of three substances serving a “menu” of various combinations of three substances.  This is what seemed the only true ugliness of the day:  that horrid contemporary strip mall architecture and the matching cuisine in its restaurants and the matching products in its retail outlets.

I try to imagine what beauty, what glory, what joy could be produced if all that energy, all the legacy of our shared past were turned toward actually making beautiful, glorious and joyful things instead of toward another order of cheese fries, another bean burrito, another warm paper cup of flat “diet” Pepsi, another “Zinger” with regular mayonaise “because we’re out of the hot and spicy mayonaise”.  What would our world be like if no one had imagined the “drive thru”, if children still looked forward to the Voyager Restaurant at the Esso on the Trans-Canada because the hamburgers were really, really good and you got to sit down in an air-conditioned place with a table because no one had even thought of eating while driving in a hot car — What if?

Believe me, I have no illusions about the benignity of the extraction of the Oil Sands or of the fossil fuel industry in general.  And please also believe me that I don’t think that the world was a better place in the 30s or the 40s or the 50s or even in the 60s when I was I child.  But I do know with great certainty that, even in the depths of World War II, the dreams of the future and even the dreams of what the present could be were better in the past than they are today, and all of those dreams included airplanes, agriculture, fossil fuels and, yes, nuclear power.  And none of those dreams involved stultifying architecture, cheese fries, or women’s shoes that looked like pigs’ trotters.

My disappointment on good days, horror on bad days, is not with what underlies our modern society — fossil fuels and oil sands and factory farms —  but with what our modern society overwhelmingly chooses to produce: ugliness.

I’m going to go back to Chipman soon to look for the other three churches.  But I heard today that the gas station/corner store, the Chipman Market, which I noticed as I drove by, had closed.  A tragedy.  It’s a magnificent piece of small town architecture.  I think it might be a new construction rather than something historic.  It’s made of bricks, not stucco-covered styrofoam.  If it’s still closed when I return, I’ll be reciting some Shelley beside it’s darkened gas pumps.

Then I’ll flick my blue mantle and hope to find some new pastures and fresh woods and maybe a decent bit of architecture.

And maybe I’ll get a ride in a glider!