Never built: New exhibit explores Edmonton's unrealized architecture

The glass pyramids of the Muttart Conservatory. The swooping metal of the downtown art gallery. The imposing gothic dome of the legislature.

These are the iconic architectural landmarks Edmonton is known for, but what about the buildings that were envisioned for the capital city skyline but died on the drafting table? 

Unrealized, a new exhibit by Media, Architecture, and Design Edmonton (MADE), has put these defeated designs on display.  

The architectural efforts run the gamut from impressive to absurd, said Max Amerongen, a board member with MADE. 

The designs included in the exhibit span more than a century of city planning. There was a plan for a downtown arena complete with football field and hidden hockey rink, a freeway traversing the river valley and a glass-walled restaurant on the old Walterdale Bridge.

"Some of them are really cool and some of them could have been really, really bad," Amerongen said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"All cities have a similar situation. Lots of projects don't end up going ahead but we seem to have more projects, and more interesting projects, than other cities I've seen." 

It's really interesting to see what the boom-and-bust economy does to the urban form.  - Max Amerogen

Among the most notable projects Edmonton could have had is the Centennial Pylon. The 100-metre tower was included in the original designs for the old Royal Alberta Museum.

The tower, intended to celebrate Canada's 1967 centennial, would have included a rotating restaurant and observation deck overlooking the river valley, Amerongen said. 

But nearby homeowners weren't feeling so celebratory and, when the tower was scrapped, the designs came to fruition in a different form, as the Calgary Tower. 

"This is one we heard rumours about for a while. People were saying, 'Did you know that the Calgary Tower was supposed to be in Edmonton?'

Wallis Snowdon/CBC

"Glenora residents were disturbed by the project and its potential traffic impact ... In a really '60s way, it would have been this really, really cool structure." 

'This spectacular building that never happened' 

Amerongen's personal favourite is a design by famous Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal for an Indigenous arts centre on stilts.

"It was this really cool five-lobed elevated building up on pillars," he said.  

"I think anyone who looks at this project could say that this would have been one of the most beautiful buildings on our skyline.

"It's this spectacular building that never happened." 

Even the best designs can die on the drafting table due to "government waffling," public backlash, or lack of money, Amerongen said. 

In Edmonton, big design proposals have been won or last at the whim of Alberta's oil-driven economy. 

"It's really interesting to see what the boom-and-bust economy does to the urban form and what having a single resource roller coaster does to the projects that get proposed," Amerongen said. 

"When that economic trend changes direction, a lot of those projects just lose funding and quietly disappear." 

Unrealized runs until Oct. 25 on the second floor of Edmonton City Centre west. It is open during mall hours, except for on Sundays.

Wallis Snowdon/CBC