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St. Albert Place turns 25

As stages go, St. Albert Place is the largest this city has ever known. Home to government, history, the arts, culture and learning, the building is a monument to what's possible when a community comes together.

As stages go, St. Albert Place is the largest this city has ever known. Home to government, history, the arts, culture and learning, the building is a monument to what's possible when a community comes together.

Twenty-five years ago this week some 7,000 St. Albertans came together to marvel at architect Douglas Cardinal's groundbreaking organic design overlooking the Sturgeon River.

"They wanted to have a statement, an architectural statement," recalls Cardinal from his Ottawa offices.

The Alberta-born architect of Métis descent returns to St. Albert on Thursday to mark the silver anniversary of the building that helped create a foundation for his career.

St. Albert Place has its own legacy in this city, but that's not something for which Cardinal takes credit.

"The excitement of putting these buildings together and making them happen is a reward in itself because then you truly know you're alive and truly living," he says. "You're pushing yourself to the limit and everybody around you."

Murky beginnings

St. Albert Place today is an iconic source of civic pride in the heart of the city, but that wasn't always the case. From the earliest conception the building was sullied with tags like "white elephant" and "Taj Mahal" due to the $19.5-million cost.

"It was a contentious issue," concedes Rod Throndson, a former city alderman and chair of the civic/cultural centre building committee.

The genesis of St. Albert Place began a decade before its official opening on June 2, 1984. The original plan called for a multi-purpose recreation and cultural centre, an idea residents rejected in a 1976 plebiscite.

The next two years saw the plan reinvented into five separate buildings: city hall, a library, theatre, arts and crafts studios and museum. That eventually evolved into one building city leaders dubbed a "people place."

Given the hefty cost (which will only be paid off this year), city council decided to put the project to plebiscite in the 1980 municipal election. The city sent out an information guide explaining what homeowners would get for the $90 annual sum it cost taxpayers for construction and operating costs.

"We went out and sold it," explains Throndson, whose committee of users proved instrumental in getting the public on board and raising $300,000 for construction. "They were out selling it even more than council was."

The vote couldn't have been closer, with the 'yes' side leading the way by 318 votes. Voter turnout was just 30 per cent.

Delivering a dream

Getting the public to buy in was hard enough, but it paled in comparison to delivering such a multifaceted building on a tight budget. Throndson remembers Cardinal's designs weren't the cheapest, but the committee fell in love with his work.

Sorting through each user group's needs and desires was another hefty task. "It would have been 10 times the size it is now if everybody had their way," laughs Throndson.

Cardinal himself felt the squeeze of budgetary restraints, which limited his use of finishing materials and mechanical systems. But more importantly, the budget did not limit his vision, which built on the natural landscape.

"An organic building satisfying the needs of the people inside the building, but having the building flow along the river and address the river in a flowing motion is what more or less inspired the design," he says.

From the very start Cardinal knew innovation would be a necessity to meet budget. To accomplish the task he turned to unproven software developed specifically for Cardinal.

"Nobody had worked with computers before. We were the first totally computerized [firm] anywhere in North America," he says.

The computer was a then-speedy 512-kilobyte Hewlett-Packard that cost $250,000, while the hard disc was a massive 120 megabytes. Both were the size of major appliances and required air conditioning.

"Yeah it was a risk, but life is risky business," Cardinal laughs.

The risk paid off and then some. The award winning architect credits his work on St. Albert Place and the technology used for securing the design contract that would cement his fame — the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que.

"[St. Albert Place] was very important in providing a base for me to work nationally and internationally," says Cardinal, an Order of Canada recipient in 1990.

What lies beneath

St. Albert Place required as much engineering prowess as it did architectural creativity, thanks to an underground river.

"Peat moss and loon manure," describes Throndson of the silty soil conditions.

Former city engineer Don Corrigan, the project manager, said engineers drove almost 600 steel piles — 16 kilometres long if stretched end to end — into the soil at depths up to 30 metres.

This "pin cushion" foundation provided the base for a reinforced concrete raft that housed the building and its one million-plus bricks.

"By far at that time it was the biggest project," said Corrigan, who'd also worked on Fountain Park Recreation Centre, Akinsdale/Kinex Arenas and fire station No. 2.

It would take approximately 200 workers two years to complete St. Albert Place. The grand opening was a three-day community celebration highlighted by choirs, Arden performances, a street dance and massive fireworks display.

Corrigan says it was a welcome change of scenery when administration moved from its cramped 1,115-sq.-metre town hall and into St. Albert Place.

"It was certainly different going from just square boxes to curvilinear glass … we had windows overlooking the river and lots of natural light," said Corrigan.

"It was definitely designed to be a people place and when you got into the building you definitely felt that because you could see what was going on."

"We were really pleased with the results," adds Throndson." I'm still pleased today — I go down there and marvel at the thing. It's a focal point for the community."

Since opening day St. Albert Place has been the stage for innumerable community moments, including visits from royalty and a prime minister. The library and arts studios have sparked the imagination of children and adults, the Musée Heritage Museum has enshrined the city's history, while the Arden keeps the masses entertained.

One of the groups touched by the building's legacy is the St. Albert Children's Theatre. The group started with 36 children in 1981 and soon flourished on stage at the Arden Theatre.

"I used to do plays that had three casts. Not one, but three," recalls founding artistic director Maralyn Ryan. "I had one play I had 92 kids in."

While the children were well trained before the Arden, the theatre helped raise the group's profile. Ryan, who still bristles at labels like Taj Mahal, is grateful city leaders pushed ahead with the project.

"Everybody at the city had the courage and the foresight and the vision to say, the community deserves this. It has been a model for so many communities in this country.

"It's got a great history."