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In the eye of the beholder

When people talk about art galleries, they discuss what's in them and not the buildings themselves. But that all changes when the architecture is exceptional, new or just plain different.

When people talk about art galleries, they discuss what's in them and not the buildings themselves. But that all changes when the architecture is exceptional, new or just plain different.

Critics have been popping up on every corner of Sir Winston Churchill Square in downtown Edmonton for the last few years for a very obvious reason. The old concrete Brutalist bunker that was the former Edmonton Art Gallery (EAG) disappeared a few years ago and Los Angeles-based architect Randall Stout began to build the new structure for the now-named Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA).

If you haven't seen it yet, the corner of 99 Street and 102 Avenue is now occupied by something that is both brand new and decidedly different. The consensus on how exceptional it is, however, has not yet been reached. For some it has all the elements of outstanding style with a unique and eye-catching design, easily making its mark among the square's other features such as the pyramids of City Hall and the grand dame of the Winspear Centre. For others, it has all the elements of some notable works from Stout's former employer, the famed Canadian architect Frank Gehry: the somewhat Deconstructivist framework with simultaneous rigidity and fluidity, the inorganic and organic fused together, all housed in a shiny metal exterior. Compare images of the new AGA with Gehry's design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and you'll soon see where the critics get most of their fodder.

St. Albert's visual arts co-ordinator Heidi Alther admitted the similarity but downplayed the negative significance. The former director of Profiles Gallery (who also once worked in programming at the EAG) explained, "It does reference [the Guggenheim] for sure. I think any major public art or architectural installation will always attract additional economic development and tourism, and also other cultural institutions and facilities. It just seems to be what happens in municipalities around the world; once they start creating significant cultural structures, it becomes the beginning of a cultural community, or in Edmonton's case, the enhancement of a cultural community. That has been well-documented all over the world."

Potters' guild member Alice Switzer concurs. She distinctly remembers visiting Bilbao with her artist husband, Phil, and believes the new AGA will have much the same impact.

"I do like the style. It's wonderful. People flock from all over Europe to see it. It may seem a little trendy but after I went to Bilbao I understand it a little more, what the idea was. The idea has spread across the world."

Whatever your viewpoint may be, it certainly makes an impression. Up until now, the public has only been able to stare at the outside and speculate about the inside. With its grand opening tomorrow, the world can now see what everyone has been talking about.

The Northern Lights on a tin box

There are many different versions of how members of the public are referring to the structure itself, some more flattering than others. Stout's intent was to take specific details of the Alberta experience and create something that fit his architectural style but describing it is tricky. The main inspiration might not even be immediately apparent until someone mentions what everybody at the gallery calls it.

'The Borealis' refers to the undulating ribbons that decorate the three-storey external structure but also carry throughout the inside, creating a sense of easy transition and welcome that is meant to be one of the key psychological features of the new AGA. You are meant to be drawn into it through your eyes and your mind. The old building had a small entranceway but this one is about as wide open as possible on every level below or above ground, especially since the main doors face the street corner. It draws focus from around the plaza just as if it was the feature wall in the living room of the city. Once inside the main lobby it appears like a wide-open column much taller than it actually is. It has more than curves though. There's a virtual dance of geometry between the shapes and the materials. Some of the windows have the rhomboid shape that reminds people of City Hall right across the street.

A large part of its major impression comes from its composition. Comprised of patina'd zinc, high performance glazing and stainless steel, it's not just the new kid on the block: it's the shiniest one too. While the sun isn't as prominent now as it should be in the summer months, there's a concern the combination of light, heat and metal might cause problems. After Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in Los Angeles in 2003, the matte finished stainless steel caused 60 C hot spots on surrounding sidewalks and streets. Because the materials in the new AGA are different and Edmonton is on a different latitude than L.A., this isn't expected to be a problem.

Depending on the weather and the amount of cloud cover, the available sunlight will reflect off the surface of the cladding in a way that is supposed to change like a great mood ring. Inspired by environmental details, the now 7,800-sq.-m. (84,000-sq.-ft.) building also has green written all over it, even going so far as to reuse the majority of the materials from the previous structure.

Inside the inside

Any gallery is only as good as its exhibit space. Here's where it gets tricky though: those six exhibit spaces (totalling almost 2,800 sq. m. or 30,000 sq. ft. across three floors) remain as yet entirely unseen. With all the reassurances that it will be top notch, all of the doors remain securely locked to press and public. Prior to the launch, no reporters were allowed to even sneak a peek, let alone photographers going in to snap a pic.

Certainly there's no place to critique the artwork of Degas or Goya here, but there's no opportunity to discuss the most important parts of the gallery. We can talk about the hip and upscale resto-bar called ZI?C (pronounced 'zinc') or the cool meeting space on one of the upper levels but those are really secondary features. The most fundamental area of examination must then still be left up to the public to decide, starting tomorrow.

Catherine Crowston, the gallery's deputy director and chief curator, likes keeping these secrets for now, especially since she is content to talk about everything else that is going on.

"There's been a lot of activity," she admitted, talking about major incidentals like the rebranding effort, putting together a new website, adapting the programming and, of course, planning for the opening festivities. "It's kind of busy. Part of what we're doing is building a new building but just as important as the architecture and the kind of facility that we have is that there has been a whole rethinking of programming and relationships with the public and education … it's a complete rebranding and rethinking of the institution."

Outside the outside

The overall viewpoint among some of the key figures in St. Albert's arts community is that it doesn't matter what the building looks like or whether or not anybody agrees or disagrees with the blueprints. What matters to them is simply that it is there and is sparking the discussion about art in general.

"I think it's fantastic and stunning. It's going to become iconic for the city of Edmonton," Alther gushed, calling it a kind of touchstone. "Personally I find it very moving that the community came together and created such a challenging, functional, beautiful piece of architecture."

Art Gallery of Alberta

Grand Opening Sunday
Open only for ticket holders
2 Sir Winston Churchill Square, Edmonton

Six separate opening exhibits featuring Edgar Dégas, Francisco Goya, Yousuf Karsh, Edward Burtynsky, and Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, plus an interactive exhibit called 'Play on Architecture.'
Opening events and festivities include Refinery, the late night art party, on Sat., Feb. 6 at 8 p.m.
Call 780-422-6223 or visit for more information.

Scott Hayes

About the Author: Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns, and profiles on people.
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