Most of North American urbanity is thought of as new. This is particularly true of northern and western Canada. The studio looks to understand the mythologies that this misconception has been built upon, so that it can lead to alternate proposals about how we build and for whom.
Northern cities both in Scandinavia and Canada have seen their populations grow along with a need for more sustainable and affordable building practices and lower operating costs, due to extreme climate. Alberta is particularly challenged by its dependence on a wildly cyclical extraction economy, threatened by both The Climate Crisis and by the increasing production cost of its primary product, oil and gas. These challenges present us with a case study that has lessons for architecture and its relationship to the forces of development.
Since the 1880’s, the province of Alberta has experienced a series of booms and busts set up by its economic dependence first on the fur trade, then on agriculture and, since the 1950’s, on extracting petroleum-based resources. This cycle started with the development of the traditional oil and gas industry in Northern Alberta in 1948. Since the 1980’s the oil and gas industry has made Alberta a desirable place to move to, given its status as having one of the highest average incomes for families in Canada. That said, with the wild gyrations in the resource economy over the last decades and increasing consciousness of changing global attitudes towards oil and gas brought on by climate change, some of Alberta’s leaders are looking to reorient the province’s economy towards a more sustainable future, inclusive of Indigenous communities and in support of continued growth and prosperity.
The studio project will focus on Alberta’s capital, Edmonton. Located in the northern part of the Province, Edmonton is one of two principal metropolitan areas, along with Calgary in the south. These competing cities are often compared to Houston vs Dallas; While Calgary is more populous and the business center of the province, Edmonton is distinct in being the Northernmost city of any size in North America, as well as its low cost of living and high paying public sector and blue-collar jobs. This is due in part to Edmonton being the provincial capital and center of government, home to the province’s premier research university and its proximity to the Oil Sands. In recent years, Edmonton has produced a growing technology sector, primarily focused on Artificial Intelligence, gaming, agri-food, and the development of hydrogen.
Edmonton’s northern isolation and its ability to supply workforce housing with minimal government subsidy sets up a laboratory for solving emerging societal challenges. There is an opportunity to explore new models of development in the Anthropocene era; where sustainability, resiliency and cultural acknowledgment can bring together design and finance. The studio will collaborate with Canada’s Urban Institute (https://canurb.org). Access to market studies, surveys and other information for the development sites of Maclab Development is being provided by Marc de la Bruyere.
Exploring new strategies for building a realizable and sustainable future can be uniquely explored in the context of an economy where affordability is not primarily subsidized by the public. Therefore, the opportunity to evolve what can and should be subsidized when changes are asked of the public, through new development; might allow opportunities to address the gaps in social equity, environmental impacts, and cultural opportunity. These possibilities will be explored through architectural exploration that takes into consideration the role of design when harnessing public programs and market forces.
The Studio’s travel itinerary will focus on Canadian experiments in social housing and place by comparing the architecture of workforce housing and their communities in both Edmonton and Toronto. Students will have director interactions with leading experts in civic life, business, and architecture* in both cities through tours and talks.
In Alberta, the studio will have the unique opportunity to experience two environs that shape development—the layers of suburban development around a river valley core and mountain destinations that drive tourism. Both places have a development typology that is changing through waxing and waning pressures on material sourcing, environmental conservation, and a changing political awareness of First Nations’ land rights.
Understanding a housing market that currently receives little or no subsidy will allow us to explore new opportunities for integrating affordability with other goals and drivers. The studio goal is to explore what will enable the development of buildings and social infrastructure that supports generational change and overcoming the environmental and social costs of continuing the status quo.
The studio looks to understand the following questions:
- How can architecture be part of the solution to sustainable northern development?
- What is the pattern of shared spaces and places, is there a distinct approach topublic space to accommodate broader cultural needs and influences?
- What is the role of preservation, adaptive reuse, local material resourcing and labor whenlooking at long- and short-term pressures on costs?
- How can northern design projects become models for resiliency and equitable urbanism?
The semester includes shared research initiatives, moving in scale from understanding the history of populations in Alberta and the environments they occupied to today’s regional trends and markets. Each student will take on an understanding of current standards in building and urban design by the adaptation and redesign of a Maclab related site. This work will allow each student to create a position on what advancement might mean and resolve in the final architectural design a site and program brief that supports an architecture evolving the “Gateway” development condition that exists between the center and its suburbs. An architectural design case that supports the project’s financial viability, environmental sustainability, affordability, climate and social resilience, community well-being and innovation needed to guide a renewable future for Northern Cities.
This Studio is divided into three main parts. Students are encouraged to work in pairs throughout the semester. There will be three parts of the project which will be explored through a critical approach to representation and narration through video format that supports traditional architectural production. Video representation will incorporate drawing, physical and digital modeling, archival and new photography, and real person interviews and videography to develop into narratives through the term.
- Design Research/Trip
- Architectural Adaptation/Value Case
- Renewable Models
Part 1 will focus on research and class lectures focusing on current knowledge around the economic and social drivers in northern cities/societies, and the role of architects and culture in development. Design Research will share and encompass both case studies and historical research. A design exercise will allow students to have a perspective on a typical large scale housing development where a large-scale site will be divided up and adapted to allow a design investigation of the current types and forms of rental housing in Edmonton. Students will be expected to do their research and set up topics of interest supported by the design investigations into the trip weeks.
Part 2 will focus on reimagining the kinds of development possible with new standards for sustainability and social impact. Coming back from the trip students will ideate and reevaluate their initial design studies and will follow up research interests. The focus for the midterm project will be to complete an adaptation of the “Gateway site” and present and role for architecture in dealing with emergent urban and environmental issues facing Edmonton as a northern city. This will set up the necessary setting of goals and principals to select and size a final site and program focus that reflects the value case for each student’s work that will frame the final project.
Part 3 will focus on reflecting the potential of architecture and using some tools of development (site acquisition and financing potential) to renegotiate the tradeoffs between environmental opportunity and cost of change. By reimagining the kinds of development and evolving through design research and iteration new relationships through program, space, and adjacency. These parameters will be supported by material investigations challenging current expectations for residential living amidst the pressure to live more sustainability and for architecture to create the setting for positive social impacts. The goal will be to design models that have increased potential to address the scale of change through a more renewable approach.