RAM parts

I hope no one will be offended if I take a moment to publicize the design submissions for the new home of the Royal Alberta Museum. Maclean’s is aware that the R-word is irksome to many Canadians; in the contemporary parlance of sexual abuse treatment, it can be a “trigger” for unwelcome memories of colonial worthlessness. But we are stuck with the accepted name of the RAM, so I must trust in the reader’s courage and forgiveness.

The architecture buff will quickly perceive that the province asked four builder-led teams to submit designs for museums and instead ended up, unaccountably, with what look like leftover plans for office buildings. One supposes it is still impossible for a museum façade to declare its purpose in the aggressive classicist manner of the Field Museum in Chicago. But was it too much to ask for the building to be visible at all? Ellis-Don has hidden its imaginary structure behind sheets of mesh and inexplicable metal forests that can provide neither shade nor shelter.

Graham-Jardeg, by contrast, got Richard Meier to design something that looks like a giant industrial refrigerator. Ledcor basically wrote “MUSEUM” on the side of a pile of boxes; somehow, looking at the actual building, one almost feels there has been a mistake, and that the words should read “UNCHALLENGING COMMUNITY COLLEGE”. PCL’s different arrangement of boxes plays up the rooftop garden element while somehow remaining both sinister and cockeyed as imagined from street level. The teeth, certainly, do not help. Public buildings are always an expression of power, but the postmodern suspicion of right angles often introduces a slight element of dementia that makes one crave a soothing dose of Euclid.

It is hard to find anything to love in these drawings, and the locals aren’t having much luck. But maybe violence and political uncertainty have driven Edmontonians to unfounded premature despair, and other Canadians—Canadians with tourist dollars who might one day patronize this museum—will react more warmly. At least we are unlikely to end up in the predicament Calgary faces with its Glenbow Museum—a marvelous institution in its own right, but one torn between heritage and contemporary-art mandates while it struggles for oxygen in an unfriendly concrete caisson.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.