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Design, disruption, and a healthy dose of competition

By: Kalen Anderson and Jason Syvixay

From a few minutes to a few hours, hundreds of thousands of tweets disrupted our world’s digital landscape seemingly overnight — as the Notre Dame Cathedral was set ablaze.  Its spire, nearly 150-years-old, was destroyed.  As the fire quickly spread, so did our stories of personal connection to this gothic structure.  In real time, through various social media platforms, people started to reflect on and share their memories of this institution through photographs and words.


As the fiery passion of Paris, France manifested into a literal fire, the world began to face a sobering reality — a loss of the world’s most beautiful architectural monuments.

7,000 kilometres away, Edmonton’s Strathcona Hotel suffered a similar fate earlier this month, when it too caught fire.  Sparks from an electric grinder ignited insulation.  As the city’s firefighters arrived at the scene to battle the blaze, hundreds of people rallied around this historic building, sharing their disbelief.  Online posts of the burning building went viral.  Media crews covered the story throughout the week.  Edmontonians shared their hopes for the building’s restoration.  Aged 130 years, which is older than the province itself, the Strathcona Hotel is one of Alberta’s last wood-framed hotels from the 19th century. 

Fortunately, both buildings were built in an era where materials were meant to last.  As damaged sections are reimagined and rebuilt, both buildings’ histories will live to see another day.

While dissimilar in scale and location, the public response to the damages at the Notre Dame Cathedral and Strathcona Hotel illuminate an important insight — that architecture plays a critical role, not only in the design of our urban fabric, but in the coalescence and reflection of our history, culture, religion, ideology, and tradition.  How our values are translated into what we see today in our daily lives is part of the delight (and often, complication) of design and city building. 

As Canadian cities grow, change and re-build themselves over time, perennial questions about how to design for density and diversity bloom across the urban and political landscapes.  In an ongoing effort to build better places for more people, communities big and small are grappling with similar issues when it comes to redeveloping and retrofitting our existing neighbourhoods, corridors and centres.  This is particularly challenging when it comes to the transformation of older suburban areas which are often beset by the false choice of either accepting ultra large development schemes that threaten to dwarf the existing built environment or outright refusal to accept any new development proposals that are even slightly out-of-step with what’s already there.  A healthy conversation about ‘missing middle’ housing is sweeping the nation, but the real question to grapple with is how to move from words to action? How should we design in the face of near constant disruption?

In Edmonton, significant population growth has outpaced most of the country over the past decade.  This phenomenon has acted as the catalyst for the conversation around the need for residential infill and to efficiently and sustainably make use of existing infrastructure. Mature neighbourhoods have been positively impacted through redevelopment, introducing more housing choice for residents at all income levels and stages of life. Despite positive changes made, the conversation around what constitutes good design for infill remains.  What defines “character”?  How can designs be “contextually appropriate”?


One of 25 Infill Design Competition submissions: “Spectrum” by RedBrick Group of Companies and SPECTACLE

Edmonton is taking these questions seriously and is having some fun with new ideas by hosting a nationally significant Missing Middle Infill Design Competition.  To bring an ambitious infill strategy to life, this is Edmonton’s second infill design competition in less than five years.  But there’s an important twist this time that ups the ante and has proven to engage the imaginations of architects, developers and builders from across the nation.  This time, Edmonton is putting its money where its mouth is and, instead of just generating cool ideas, the purpose this time is to actively partner and to get something innovative built.

Endorsed by The Alberta Association of Architects and adjudicated by a national jury, the 2019 competition drew proposals from teams of architects and builders/developers from across Canada and abroad.  Their task: design a ‘missing middle’ housing development on five City-owned parcels of land at the northeast corner of 112 Avenue and 106 Street in the Spruce Avenue neighbourhood.  Their prize: national publicity, the opportunity to purchase this prime site and build their winning design, City-led assistance throughout the rezoning and development permit application stages, and waived rezoning fees.


Over two extensive days of conversation, deliberation, and debate, five architects, architectural critics, and planners select the 1st, 2nd, 3rd place winners. Photo credit: Dave Sutherland

The finished development will be used to help inspire what’s possible for ‘missing middle’ housing in other parts of the city, helping to realize the “Partner to Pilot Innovative Housing” action in Edmonton’s Infill Roadmap 2018.  To foster creative thinking and reveal new possibilities, design competitions for architecture big and small is a great way to make change happen.

As Edmonton’s ongoing commitment to infill demonstrates, there has been a lot of progress, not only in our built environment and in the cultivation of great spaces, but also in the spirit of residents, politicians, business owners and public institutions coming together to foster a sense of community and work towards realizing game-changing visions for city regeneration.

 Learn more about the Missing Middle Infill Design Competition, how it drew entries from teams of architects and builders/developers from Canada and abroad, and vote in the People’s Choice Award. This competition connects directly to the hopes and aspirations of communities for better design in their backyard and bring to life the new City Plan’s strategic focus on creating a “re-buildable city” as Edmonton moves to a city of 1 million people and plans to double its population to 2 million.

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