The Massey-Harris Building
Article by Shafraaz Kaba

he Modern Movement in Edmonton began to take shape in earnest after World War Two. The discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947 fuelled an incredible building boom and the era of wealth and sanguinity led to unprecedented building development that created Edmonton’s finest buildings. New technologies, the use of quality materials and construction, as well as a desire to innovate made Edmonton an important leader of modern architecture in Canada. In the exhibition Capital Modern: Edmonton Architecture and Urban Design 1940 – 1969 1, drawings and photographs of modern buildings along with furniture, art, and artefacts of the period capture the exuberance of the time.

Architects in the western world were interested in the Bauhaus idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or architecture as a “total work of art”. It was the experimentation and adoption of innovative ideas that drove the new forms of modern buildings. By examining several buildings from the exhibition, we can begin to see how the use of architectural detail and materials helped to shape buildings of Edmonton’s most prolific and significant decades.

The Massey-Harris Building
Flat roofs, continuous strip windows, the rejection of
ornament and the expression of structure are hallmarks
of modern design. The Massey-Harris Building was one
of the earliest examples of modern building in
Edmonton. Designed by Edmonton architects Blakey
and Blakey and built in 1947, the Massey-Harris Building
is significant for its direct reference to the seminal 1929
Villa Savoye designed by Le Corbusier outside Paris.
Using the language of the International Style of
architecture, the Massey-Harris Building combines an
overall asymmetrical composition with a podium-oncolumns
design. Blakey brought a refined sense of detail
to the structure: continuous ground floor glazing and
long, framed horizontal windows stretching along the
second storey make use of a building structure separated
from the exterior walls. The podium-on-columns
composition, popular at the time, allowed a completely
open ground floor for the display of equipment and
vehicles, while office space was located above the main
floor showroom. Clad in red brick with Tyndall Stone
trims, a surface-mounted flagpole at the west end
completed the asymmetrical composition. Blakey used
the basic techniques and elements of modernism to
create an architecture that would have impressed the
founders of the International Style. Although currently
used as an automobile dealership in the warehouse
district of Edmonton, the building retains its key formal
elements despite the addition of unflattering canvas
entrance canopies.

The Paramount Theatre
With Italian travertine and marble columns, and large
flat surfaces of Tyndall Stone, the Paramount Theatre
was at the time a tour de force of modern design.
Stanley and Stanley Architects used detail and material
to express modern ideas. Opened in 1952, the Paramount
Theatre is still a sophisticated period example whose
subtle details require closer examination to be fully
appreciated. A ladder to change the marquee signage
was delicately inserted as part of the design. The ladder
rolls out on steel channels from the façade to allow easy
access to the marquee. The front entry is angled and
recessed in order to funnel movie-goers into the lobby.
Even the mechanical intake and exhaust grilles were
carefully integrated into the façade to read as a linear
element extending along the exterior wall almost to the
roof. The roof itself juts out slightly over the front façade
creating a distinct horizontal line to the top of the
building, while the asymmetrical composition of the
façade incorporates a vertical signboard, an angled
canopy and bold wall surfaces to make an artful
statement on Jasper Avenue. The Paramount Theatre has
aged gracefully because of the fine materials used in the
initial building. It does not scream out for attention in
garish colours and oversized forms as do some recently
built theatres in Edmonton. Rumour has it that the
Paramount Building will be demolished to make way for
an unremarkable forty storey office tower. The
developer has expressed little interest in retaining even
the façade of the Theatre, and sees more potential in
starting over unencumbered by the past.

The AGT Building
The Alberta Government Telephones or AGT Building
(now the Legislature Annex), was probably Edmonton’s
most innovative and daring building of the 1950s.
Designed by H.W.R. MacMillan of Rule Wynn and Rule,
the AGT Building was a bold statement within a stone’s
throw of the Provincial Legislature. It was built using
concrete poured into wood forms, rather than a
structural steel frame, possibly because of chronic
postwar steel shortages. This building was the first in
Alberta to use poured concrete pilings rather than
structural steel. The AGT Building was also the first
“curtain wall” building in Edmonton, so called because
of the exterior steel and glass cladding which was
attached to the structural frame like a “curtain”. This
structurally independent exterior wall used green Aklo
glass, set between plate glass windows. The AGT
building has had its critics since its inception. Then
Edmonton Mayor Roper referred to it as an “eyesore”
and an “architectural monstrosity”; many people were
nostalgic for the neoclassical and revivalist architecture
typified by the old Courthouse, downtown Public
Library and Post Office. Unadorned modern style was
something very new to Edmonton’s burgeoning city
centre. The pure Early Modern look of the AGT Building
is typified by the use of square tower composition,
horizontal emphasis in the expression of the floor levels,
the use of coloured spandrel glass and integral screens
for sun control. The windows did not open on the AGT
Building because of the use of a central air control and
air-conditioning system, yet another step forward in
modern building and construction. The Provincial
Government of Alberta has expressed a strong desire to
demolish the AGT Building and redevelop the grounds
of the Legislature. Only the Conservative government’s
lack of priority for this site in its capital spending has
saved it from destruction.

A Lament for the Modern
Edmonton is once again in the midst of an oil-and-gas
inspired building boom. Unfortunately, the ideals of
modernism and the desire to build with imagination,
quality materials and attention to detail have been
subverted by a rush to profits and returns on
investment. Trevor Boddy had warned his readers in
Modern Architecture in Alberta of the dangers of neglecting
our modern built heritage, even though as an
architectural style it was barely a generation old in 1987.
“Seldom has a city so wantonly sold off its architectural
heritage to the highest bidder as Edmonton did and
continues to do,” says Boddy, “Alberta now faces a serious
problem with respect to the preservation of its Modern
architectural resources…We must shake the idea that
history, as represented by the shells of buildings, ends in
Alberta about 1925.2”

The recent demolition of the Central Pentecostal
Tabernacle (a design by Peter Hemingway & John
Laubenthal) fulfills Boddy’s prophecy written twenty
years ago. It is unclear whether a serious effort to find a
use for this obsolete building has been undertaken. It is
apparent in this case that the City of Edmonton had no
political or administrative will to save an important
example of architectural value. More recently,
architecture critic Christopher Hume wrote in the
Toronto Star about his experience in Toronto on March
6, 2005, “Before a building has a chance to grow old, we
tear it down to make way for something else that will
also be destroyed before its time….once a building hits,
say, 75 or 80 years old, it becomes venerable and is
deemed untouchable protected by vigilant
preservationists. But between its 40th and 70th year, it is
at its most vulnerable.”

Part of the reason that modern buildings are difficult
to retain is that they were not perfect. Many modern
buildings have often become leaky, drafty and cold. The
thin roof lines preferred by architects led to lack of
sufficient insulation. Exposed structural slabs and
columns created thermal bridges, causing great
consumption of energy in the heating of buildings. With
the desire to innovate with new methods and materials,
many technologies were not proven and failed. If old
buildings do not perform to the standards demanded by
their present occupants, they risk being lost. The
Edmonton Art Gallery is a prime example of this. A
building that cannot regulate temperature and humidity
to museum standards cannot survive as a gallery. It is
currently being demolished to make way for a new
gallery designed by Randall Stout.

Legal liability for design failure is contributing to the
conservative nature of current building projects. Few
architects will risk professional liability on unproven
technologies on buildings today, particularly given
Edmonton’s winter climate. Vancouver’s “Leaky Condo”
crisis has instilled the fear of armies of lawyers in
architects. Public institutions have now developed better
standards and design
guidelines for
architects to follow
so that poorly
performing buildings
are avoided, but they
often come at the
cost of prosaic design.

Is there room for
experimentation? Can
there be design excellence without risk and imagination?
Modern design can still provide inspiration and
direction for contemporary architecture. Climate and
region-specific architecture is emerging through
buildings more tailored to their environment, while the
Modern ideals of universality and affordability are still
worth striving for. Without a perspective on the past,
particularly with respect to our Modern architectural
legacy, it is difficult to imagine an improved future. By
protecting our architectural heritage, by examining its
merits and failures, we enhance our prospects for better
architecture today.

Shafraaz Kaba is a partner at Manasc Isaac Architects, a
firm focused on sustainable building. He is also a contributing
editor to Avenue Magazine and a design columnist for the
Edmonton Journal.

Image: The Massey-Harris Building,
designed by Blakey and Blakey, 1947.
Photograph: Provincial Archives of Alberta, WS.121/2