ART TALK: RANDALL STOUT
Wednesday, September 13 at 7 p.m.
Its been almost 10 years since the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao and like a pebble cast into the pond of contemporary architecture, that building triggered a ripple that has lasted for years and reached across continents and oceans.
The ripples have grown to what some might consider a veritable tidal wave of architectural events since, leaving in its wake numerous new art galleries and museums world-wide that have come to be known for their signature buildings, buildings that have stirred economic and cultural growth in the cities in which they are built. It seems those frothy waves are finally lapping the sunny shores of Albertas architecture scene as the Art Gallery of Alberta (formerly the Edmonton Art Gallery) recently announced Randall Stout as the winner of their international design competition. The gallery will undergo a massive $48-million renovation to add 10,000 square feet of exhibition space to the existing building.
In April 2005, Randall Stout Architecture (RSA), a California based firm, was shortlisted in the design competition hosted by the Art Gallery of Alberta in association with the Alberta Association of Architects. Included in the short list were other prominent national and international firms including Zaha Hadid with Kasian Architecture, Arthur Erickson with Nick Milkovich/Dub Architects and Will Alsop (who recently spoke at the Stirring Culture lecture series here in Calgary) with Quadrangle Architects.
Renovations to the Edmonton Art Gallery had been long considered due to ongoing temperature and humidity issues important to the exhibition of delicate works of art, but in May of 2005, it was RSAs presentation at the Royal Architectural Institute of Canadas Festival of Architecture that won the jury over.
Established in 1993, RSA has to its credit the Roanoke Art Museum in West Virginia, the Chattanooga Hunter Museum of American Art and numerous civic, commercial, residential, institutional and recreational projects. At 47, Stout himself spent seven years at Frank O. Gehry & Associates where he was Senior Associate. He also represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1991 and spent part of his early professional career at Skidmore Owings & Merrill. A graduate of the University of Tennessee and Rice University, Stout continues to play a role in architectural education, frequently serving as guest critic, adjunct professor and lecturer at various schools of design. The Art Gallery of Alberta will be Stouts third art institution.
Located in Edmontons downtown arts district, the extant 1968 Brutalist-style concrete building by Don Bittorf will be transformed under Stouts new design. The scheme envisions a building that addresses the needs of both interior and exterior spaces. South and west facades are primarily composed of glass and the transparent effect is brought to the ground level in an attempt to create new public space. This is especially important as the gallery faces Sir Winston Churchill Square, a popular venue for city events. A twisted metal element weaves its way through the glass volume and transforms itself from wall to roof to entry canopy. According to the architect, the design was inspired by the aurora borealis and Inuit stone sculptures. In an age when environmentally conscientious design is becoming the standard, the building also boasts innovative sustainable design strategies that will save four million pounds in carbon dioxide emissions each year.
Stouts contribution to Albertas architectural landscape raises several interesting questions in todays local design arena.
Firstly, while architectural competitions for public buildings are the norm in Europe and abroad, the competition process for major public buildings is a relatively new one to Alberta. The process should seek to push the envelope in architecture while presenting an opportunity for young, up-and-coming firms to gain experience in design practice. That is, the process has the potential to provide a level playing field for entrants to compete against firms of all sizes and experience in order to encourage design excellence and broaden the scope of architectural solutions.
One strategy for maintaining such a democratic process, at least in an Ideas Competition, is for entrants to remain anonymous throughout the competition so that what is being judged are design ideas and not the name of the designer. While Edmonton was not an Ideas Competition, and there are many types of architectural competitions with varying rules, their differences do tend to raise the question of which competition type might better serve not only the local community but also the culture of architecture as a whole.
Also, a new concern to Alberta is the increasingly popular "iconic building," a term that serves as the title for leading architectural critic Charles Jencks recent book. Nailing down a definition of what an iconic building actually is has proven difficult and remains up for debate. However, signature buildings are becoming increasingly common on a global scale and they are beginning to define the personalities of the cities in which they are built. Buildings such as Norman Fosters Swiss Re Headquarters (perhaps better known as the "gherkin") in London and Gehrys Guggenheim Bilbao are shimmering examples that Jencks points out. The highly anticipated addition of the EnCana building to Calgarys downtown has received similar criticism. But, these and other like buildings raise several questions: what do such buildings represent culturally? Are they symbols of our beliefs? Do they represent globalized capitalism and our collective desire for celebrity? Is this the future of architecture and has the architect become fashion designer? And, more importantly, how do such buildings serve the public?