Royal Alberta Museum designs draw little praise

The first wave of reaction to the four proposed designs for the new Royal Alberta Museum is subdued.

The first wave of reaction to the four proposed designs for the new Royal Alberta Museum is subdued.

Coun. Ben Henderson said it's hard to judge based on the few drawings that were released Thursday but he's not a big fan.

"There's nothing in them that's particularly jumping out," Henderson said.

"I  mean, a number of them really struck me as what I would describe as late-20th-century box, and I know that that's part of the conversation [in] architecture right now, but none of it really seems to me to speak of here. And I think that's one of things I would hope that that building could do."

Architect Anneliese Fris says an architectural competition would have generated 'larger design ideas.' (CBC)

The $340 million museum, which will be built at 103A Avenue and 99th Street in downtown Edmonton, will replace the existing structure in Glenora. When it was announced in April, Mayor Stephen Mandel hoped it would rejuvenate that section of downtown.

But Henderson, the councillor for Ward 8, worries that in 30 or 40 years people will want to tear down whatever gets built there.

"And I think we really need to stop doing that. I think we need to build things that will last," he said.

Design process led by builders, not architects

Local architects say the province is using an unusual method in the design process. Usually, architects design buildings and then construction firms are contracted to build them — but not this time, they say.

"In this case, the contractor is trying to assemble a team where they can design and build a project," said architect Shafraaz Kaba with Manasc Isaac in Edmonton.

Architect Shafraaz Kaba wonders whether the contractor-led process contributed to the conservative designs. (CBC)

Kaba suggests this process may be the reason for designs he calls subdued and conservative.

"You kind of wonder if — because it's led by a contractor, essentially — whether there is some sort of restriction on going a little too far and being a little too daring because of budget issues," he said.

Anneliese Fris, an architect and chair of the municipal design committee that advises city council on significant development projects, said there are better ways to undertake the museum project.

"In an ideal world, I would have preferred to have seen an architectural competition much like we saw with the Art Gallery of Alberta," she said. "I think an architectural competition allows architects some freedom to explore larger design ideas."

Infrastructure Minister Ray Danyluk said the design-build process is faster and offers the best value. He said the end result will be a "building of quality."

The public has until Aug. 24th to give feedback on the proposed designs using a link on the Alberta Infrastructure web site.

Marla Daniels, a member of the selection committee and president of Friends of the Royal Alberta Museum Society, urged people to take a broader view before they pass judgement.

"You need to take into account that part of a museum is not just the external shell of the building but also the collections, the importance, the treasures, the programming that goes on in the facility," she said.

"It's all part of part of the inspiration to visit the facility. It's a collective package. It's not just the shell of the building."

The provincial government announced the project in April and will choose a proposal and construction firm next month. Completion is scheduled for 2015.

Henderson believes the project is being fast-tracked so it can be finalized while Ed Stelmach is still premier of Alberta. Henderson understands the rush but says it's important to get the right design. 

EllisDon Construction Services, Graham Design Builders, Ledcor Design Build and PCL Construction Management made the short list, and their visions include star-power architectural names like Jack Diamond and Raymond Moriyama.