Saturday, September 19, 2009


this afternoon i spent an hour and a half with 799 other people at the winspear centre listening to randall stout describe the philosophy, technology, materials, intention and process behind the new AGA.

architects, it turns out, are pretty knowledgeable. where did stout start his talk? with freud. freud! (the affective vs the symbolic.) then he showed us pictures of the tobacco sheds he played in as a kid in tennessee: drying racks like monkey bars and light streaming through the ventilation gaps. you understood immediately how he grew up wanting to bend light through buildings and turn space into place.

the big ribbon on the AGA is called the borealis, but it also translates the river. stout talked movingly about the north saskatchewan, the way we protect the river's wildness from the urban grid with a band of green. he showed us aerial pictures that prove it, and he referenced american rivers, cemented in by the army corps of engineers, or commercially developed, or plain dried up. (he's from los angeles.) he said he went for a walk this morning down by the river, and then he described the feeling i've had a million times when you came up the 100th street stairs: a sense of surprise and loss and anticipation that lasts the 100 metres while you leave behind the river and enter the urban core.

stout walked us through the design process, showing paper models ("we're about the biggest consumers of scotch tape in southern california") being translated to computer models ("no," said mo, "you can't have one," referring to the wand that that reads along x, y and z axes to translate three dimensions to two) being realized in the kansas factory ("yeah," in his tennessee twang, "they're pretty big") and finally shipped to edmonton. he paid homage to the steelworkers who worked through the cold winter to assemble the borealis, and he was kind enough not to mention the snowfall was actually in april. he showed us artists' conceptions of the gallery in summer and winter, during the day (the zinc exterior goes from orangey-green to gray-blue as the sun moves from east to west) and during the night (when its brilliance will be irresistible). he mentioned the key-controlled service elevators for catering. he showed us the slatted fir ceilings and the fir veneer walls. he promised that the building would surprise us in the snow.

we fell in love with randall stout, all of us, because of the way he loves his building ("mine for four more months," he said, "and then it's yours") and the way he let us love our city. nobody used the term "world-class." nobody compared us to new york. nobody mentioned potholes. stout talked easily about churchill square, chancery hall, the winspear and the LRT, deftly omitting the library and subtly complimenting gene dub's work. he didn't ever mistake calgary for edmonton. he talked about this one place, this single downtown corner and what you could do by reflecting the sky and quoting the river and making a wall of glass. and in the human figurines that populated the artist's model -- the tiny people walking by, going in, coming out, loitering in churchill square, wearing jason wu, air kissing, doing lunch, speaking french, parkouring, meandering, trysting -- we saw ourselves.

one last thing: half of the folks at this talk were under 30.

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