The wide open spaces with golden yellow canola dotting the prairies, logging camps and oil rigs, the road to Edmonton is flat terrain- a stark contrast to the majestic Rockies that we have driven through in the past few days… Edmonton, Alberta’s self effacing capital in Western Canada, is a kind of urban oasis in the wilderness…
This building of the government is all about people: the well manicured lawns, gardens and 57 acre of parkland are filled with picnickers, children in wading pools and sparkling fountains. It’s a sun-dappled and safe place for the local denizens. I am at the Wedge, the Legislature building of Edmonton. This domed sandstone building was built on the original site of the Hudson Company’s Fort Edmonton where natives traded pelts of mink, fox and otter for European goods like metal utensils and gunpowder. This building was made with wood from Belize, marble from Quebec and Italy and granite from British Columbia!
In the middle of prairie land, Edmonton promotes itself as the Festival city of Canada and has nearly thirty festivals including the Fringe Theatre festival, the Children’s Festival and the Folk Music Festival. It is a city known for its music, dance and the visual arts. It’s come a long way from the days when it was known as a ‘boom town’ for several economic waves-the fur trade, the Klondike Gold Rush near Dawson and the Black Gold or oil boom. Today it’s a city with a huge youth population thanks to the presence of the University of Alberta. Edmonton has been named by Trip advisor as being in the Top 10 family friendly destinations in Canada.
Architecturally this city is bold and young…The Citadel theatre is a snazzy glass building with a leafy tropical atrium. There is the Winston Churchill Square, a lively and vibrant urban plaza with the new eight storey City hall. This is a long narrow structure incorporating elements from the old city hall. There is a glass pyramid top, a 23 bell carillon which plays 99 melodies and a modernistic fountain where children splash and play enjoying the beginning of the summer. Funky boys play basket ball, a young man skate boards with evangelical devotion and people grab bites from food vendors.
Close by is a stunner of a building. Metal and glass gleaming in the sunshine in twirls and whirls, like the whimsy of an alien had a hand in its creation. It’s the Art Gallery of Alberta which has been renovated at a whopping $88 million. Its design was the result of an international competition. It has over 6000 works of photographs, sculptures and paintings. They say that building represents the cycles of nature and life. The structure is made of swooping stainless steel, zinc and glass ribboning like the Saskatchewan River that zigzags across the city. Like an ancient cathedral it is full of natural light mirroring the Aurora Borealis which is sighted sometimes in the winter months. A concrete staircase winds itself around glass. Soft wood accents, modernistic red furniture, the building is dramatic. We see an Andy Warhol exhibition at the Museum. The famous post-modernistic artist who was inspired by consumer culture and mass production was an inspiration for many pop-artists after him. We see the iconic Campbell soup cans that he painted as well the eye-catching celebrity head-shots especially of Jackie Kennedy. On the top floor is a room filled with helium and air filled balloons like metallic pillows floating around which you can punch around for a relaxing time. This was made by Andy with the collaboration of an engineer and they say that when he hosted a party these pillows used to be left floating around!
Taking a break from modern architecture we walk past the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, a limestone building with copper roofs, built by the Pacific railway. Called Mac by the locals, it looks like a French chateau, and is the haunt of celebrities and the favoured place for weddings! The river Saskatchewan cuts across the city, which is one of the greenest urban spaces, with more than seventy miles of walking paths, cycles and recreational trails. This is the place to get out and stretch your legs! Edmonton is also one of the most bike friendly cities of North America. For golf addicts, the Edmonton area is home to more than 70 golf courses! If you want a taste of wild life head towards the Elk Island National Park, one hour from the city where herds of elk, bison and moose graze and you can hike, cycle or kayak.
What one does not expect this city to have is the largest mall in North America, and an audacious one which has not less than seven mentions in the Guinness Book of Records! The West Edmonton Mall or the West Ed as the locals refer to it has an indoor amusement park with a triple loop rollercoaster, a water park and a life sized replica of Christopher Columbus’s ship Santa Maria! It has one of the largest car parks in the world which can accommodate 20,000 vehicles and an ice skating rink where we see young Edmontonians show off their skills: they flip, leap, spin and fall to music. I sip on a Tim Horton’s coffee and enjoy the impromptu show. Retail therapy, foodie delights, even a glow-in-the-dark golf course, this is a mall with a difference. Edmonton may not be on top of Canada itineraries but it’s certainly been worth a closer look.
Published in The Hindu Metro Plus, 2011