David Staples: Designs must work for people first, says architect of Royal Alberta Museum, Walterdale Bridge

This is architect Donna Clare’s moment. She has led major building projects for two decades now, but her biggest project, the new Royal Alberta Museum, will open this year, while another one big one, the Walterdale Bridge, is at last complete.

It’s not yet known how the new museum will be received, and a few of Clare’s past projects, such as the 2006 Hall “D” addition to the Shaw Conference Centre, have had mixed reviews, but the bridge is a smash hit. It’s winning praise from both the public and from architects, partly for its spacious multi-use path, but also for its structural elegance.

“I love the way you feel when you drive into it, that sense of arrival and of opening up into the city,” Clare says of the bridge. “I love the lightness of it … I enjoy the continuous arch, which I had to fight for.”

Some on the design team wanted to have the bridge’s arch built in a series of joined, flat segments, but Clare’s desire for a continuous form won out. “I love that beautiful simple line that carries your eye from bank to bank.”

Vehicles cross the new Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton, as seen from the south side of the North Saskatchewan River on Wednesday, March 21, 2018.

Clare’s architecture isn’t defined by a signature visual style, but by her method. She digs deep with clients to ascertain their needs, then designs a building to fit.

She succeeds by constantly learning, a pursuit that was central to her childhood in the small northwest Alberta town of Grimshaw. Both her parents — her father a skilled mechanic and manager for Alberta Transportation, her mother a seamstress and a mother of seven — were devoted to education. On holidays, the family was forever visiting museums and historic sites. All seven children went on to some form of post-secondary education.

How did Clare fit into her small-town high school?

“A girl from northern Alberta that loves school? I didn’t. I was always the odd one. I was constantly told that, ‘Girls don’t do this. Girls don’t do math. Girls don’t do science.’”

Counteracting that was her mom: “She said I could do anything I wanted to do.”

After high school, Clare earned a degree in biochemistry, then a research job at the University of Alberta. She quickly came to see research science was too theoretical for her taste, so she spent a year backpacking around Europe. Her life was changed by the old European cities, their streets alive with pedestrians and public squares.

She remembers one day in Bruges, Belgium, spent watching the main public square and how it was used from dawn to dusk: “In the morning, it was workers commuting and grabbing their espressos and going to work. By day, it was a market and full of stalls. By evening, families would come and play soccer against the church wall and use the doors as the goal posts … When I came back to Edmonton, I thought, ‘Oh, we can do better than this. And maybe I can make a difference.’”

Making buildings that work for people

Clare enrolled in the University of Toronto architecture program, where she started to develop her own approach. She was pulled to making buildings that first and foremost work for people.

By way of a metaphor, she describes something she recently heard at a lecture on architecture, that it is like a pencil or pen. “It’s a writing instrument, so you expect your pen to write. Architecture is like that. It has to work. It has to support the functionality that is going on behind those walls … The next thing is beauty and elegance and delight. It’s the difference between the Bic pen and the Montblanc. They both write, but it’s the experience of writing, it’s the quality of the instrument, It’s the joy of picking it up with your hand; and architecture is like that, too, for me.”

She’s frustrated that the current conversation around architecture focuses only on how a building looks. “It’s like the Hollywood fashion statement comes to our urban environment. It’s about the superficiality of it, as opposed to what is its true meaning, what is its contribution.”

Clare has designed schools, private homes, bridges, research institutions, religious institutions, libraries, banks, parks, airports and museums. With each project, she dives into the lives of her clients.

“I get to be this bit of a voyeur into people’s lives. I get to go and learn what you do and what makes your world tick, and then try to create a building. It’s not that I don’t bring personal opinion to it and judgment, but it’s a journey that we go on together.”

dstaples@postmedia.com

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