Edmonton City Architect BĂ©langer Talks Canadian Design

Paul Steinbach Headshot
[Photo by Adam Goudreau]
[Photo by Adam Goudreau]

This article appeared in the June issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.

As city architect in Edmonton, Alb., for the past seven years, Carol Bélanger has been integral in hiring the designers of some 20 recreation projects for a community that boasts dozens more — all during an era of modern architecture that has elevated Canada to something resembling gold-standard status. Of the past 40 projects to be named AB Facilities of Merit™, 18 are Canadian. "That's crazy, considering we have 10 percent of the population base" as the United States, says Bélanger, who saw Edmonton's Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre garner FOM recognition in 2013. Paul Steinbach asked Bélanger to explain why Canadian architecture is so cool.

Is there something in the water up there?
I don't know. I've heard some things from a design perspective that are different between the States and Canada. Most of our buildings are public buildings and not so much beholding to a benefactor who then starts pulling the strings design-wise — "It has to be Jeffersonian," or this or that.

Is the modern aesthetic limited to recreation facilities?
No, we approach everything with that in Edmonton. Even our garbage storage building at our recycling center is a modern design. We take the same high-level designs to all our public buildings — from transit centers to a publicly held zoo, fire stations, libraries. Everything.

Does the recreation dynamic inspire design creativity?
I think so, and what we're finding is our rec centers are becoming more multi-use, and they're truly becoming the heart of their communities. As an example, we have one with everything from a library to a rec center to a rehab of two existing rinks to a school, a multicultural center, synthetic turf and change rooms, parks — all different budgets put together. We definitely work at trying to make it a true integration, so they're not separate. The children's library overlooks the diving board, and the fitness area actually pokes into the library.

What will "state of the art" look like in 20 years?
I don't know, but I do know there are exciting things happening currently. We have another $100 million rec center happening on the west end of our city. It's a tighter sight, and we're actually looking at using the roof as part of the landscape, so the building becomes less of an impediment on the site and more a part of the topography. I know in Edmonton there have been really strong policies put in place — age-friendly guidelines — so we're trying to design facilities for all abilities. It's not just about accessibility from a handicap perspective, but it's recognizing that an older person might require benches at closer spacing, or maybe you put grab bars in a normal bathroom stall as opposed to just handicapped stalls, so facilities are more usable at all ages. And the other thing is we're really trying to incorporate a lot of ideas from a winter-city strategies point of view.

Meaning what?
Meaning that there's color to the buildings, there's winter activity in them and involved with them. As an example, on The Meadows Community Recreation Centre and Edmonton Library (page 118) we did an outdoor skating area that leaves the building. You can change into your skates and skate outside, and there's a cauldron out there so people can warm up. It's on the south side of the building, so it's warm, it's inviting, and we've also put the chiller coils underneath the slab, so the ice stays very good. The Zamboni goes from the indoor rink to the outdoor rink.

Are there certain things — colors, materials — that you consider must-haves in modern architecture?
The number-one thing, seriously, is who you hire. If you don't hire the best designer for your project, you won't get there. If it was just about the use of materials, bad designers can use glass, too, but it's a good designer who can actually take that material and make it sing.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "What makes Canadian architecture so cool?"


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