Will the art world trust the AGA?

A complex, controversial design in a harsh climate may make some exhibitors nervous

Photograph by John Ulan

The cultural building boom of the oughts has been tied off in Edmonton with a ribbon of stainless steel. The new Art Gallery of Alberta was controversial from the moment of the 2005 design competition, which saw Frank Gehry acolyte Randall Stout outflank much bigger names (Zaha Hadid, Will Alsop, Arthur Erickson) by presenting his deconstructivist design in person and making sure to incorporate some contrived local symbolism. The curved steel strip that circulates through the glass envelope of the new building is supposed to echo the decidedly un-mirrorlike North Saskatchewan River that winds through the city, but its official name is the “Borealis.”

It is surely inauspicious for a structure to start life as a mixed metaphor, but Stout does seem to have studied the city sincerely. He noticed that, as an American Institute of Architects bulletin put it, Edmonton consists of “a hyper-rational grid system” with a belt of water and wilderness undulating through it. Cynics may think his steel-and-glass simulacrum over-literal, but they cannot challenge its technical brilliance.

Indeed, brilliance was needed. The project’s structural specialists, DeSimone Consulting Engineers of San Francisco, noticed immediately that—as they explained in the June 2009 issue of Modern Steel magazine—having “multiple locations where the curving Borealis elements penetrated the building envelope of the atrium” was a big problem in a cold-weather city. DeSimone and local partners were forced to invent and test an all-new type of load-transfer element containing some material that would hold up under large compressive loads without conducting heat as efficiently as metal. The mechanical engineers among you may have already guessed the humble, almost homespun secret: they used oak.

As if building an eccentric Gehry-esque fantasia in a brutal climate didn’t create enough challenges of this sort, there was also Edmonton’s remoteness to reckon with. The widely dispersed group of engineering firms working on the AGA had high hopes for ­co-operating by means of a cutting-edge ­3-D “building information model,” or BIM, residing on a central computer server. But real-time collaboration between Edmonton and California proved impossible at today’s Internet speeds, and the mechanical complexity of the “borealis” overwhelmed the BIM’s capabilities, forcing everybody to engage in “convoluted” and “inefficient” switching between computer applications. The builders ended up having to work from an old-fashioned scale model, and the cost of construction, initially estimated at under $30 million, checked in at $88 million.

It’s a disconcerting reminder that the original Edmonton Art Gallery, whose Brutalist hulk is still squatting there behind the new glass atrium and the metal borealis, was a faddish dud in its time. Museums and exhibitors in control of heat- and moisture-sensitive artifacts avoided the EAG for four decades until the concrete facing literally began to crumble. Board members and boosters of the AGA, which was renamed hastily when the Alberta government kicked in $15 million, are boasting that all this will change now.

Yet high-profile exhibits assembled to inaugurate the new building, while strong in artistic merit, consist of items in minimal danger from a dodgy building envelope: Dégas bronzes and pastels, photographic prints from Karsh and Burtynsky, Goya’s print suites Los Caprichos and Disasters of War. Challenged on this point in an Edmonton Journal online chat, AGA executive director Gilles Hebert argued that “the Goya works come from the National Gallery of Canada, an institution that maintains the highest international museological standards.” This is like being asked if Eddie Zosky was a great ballplayer and answering that, well, he did play for the ’92 Blue Jays, who won the World Series. The Goyas are core items of the Western tradition, but they’re also readily insurable printed works that exist in dozens of extant copies. (Your correspondent once handled a set of the Caprichos in an art history class; the professor had carried them to the classroom on foot, in the dead of an Edmonton winter, in a grocery bag.)

The AGA thus has yet to prove that it really has the trust of the museum world, and if it has anything up its sleeve for after the inaugural show’s end on May 30, it hasn’t said so. Its website has links to “Current” and “Past” exhibitions. No word yet on “Future”.