Design Details: Reminders of Alberta embedded in the Royal Alberta Museum

Design Details: Reminders of Alberta embedded in the Royal Alberta Museum

The newly opened Royal Alberta Museum displays, conserves and researches the stories of Alberta’s human and natural history. These stories go beyond the displays, collections and laboratories. The building itself has the human and natural history of Alberta embedded into the design.

Placement in the Province

First of all, this building wouldn’t make sense on any other site. The human history of Alberta’s capital city is brought to life through the placement of the building and its major components. The site is where two of the province’s main survey grids meet—the British true north/south/east/west and the French seigneurial system that extends from river-facing lots. The main galleries are aligned to the French grid (aligned towards the nearby North Saskatchewan River), and the feature gallery aligns with the British grid (true north-south). Weaving through the building, curvilinear walls and circular shaped rooms represent rivers winding through the province—expressing Alberta’s natural history.

The building also brings to life two historic Edmonton streets that were lost over time to downtown development. Two courtyards, one on the west side and one on the south side, are the exact alignments of the streets that used to make up a finer grid in the city’s core. Isabella Courtyard to the west revived 104 Avenue, and Fraser Courtyard on the south side is the cafe patio and the exact alignment of 98 Street.

Alberta Plantings

Speaking of courtyards, the plantings on the museum grounds were carefully chosen for their ties to Alberta. In the Isabella courtyard, the plantings represent Alberta’s north and Rocky Mountains with Lodgepole Pine and Black Spruce. Aspen trees are planted throughout the Fraser Courtyard, forming a high canopy to accommodate cafe seating underneath. Day Lilies are planted below the Aspen trees—a breed developed by researchers in Alberta before rising to popularity around North America.

Tahedl Mosaics

Where the museum now stands where a former Canada Post main branch once sat. The exterior of that previous building featured nine mosaic murals by Ernestine Tahedl, commissioned by the federal government in 1966. These remarkable mosaics were carefully deconstructed and catalogued in 2012 to be incorporated into the new museum. They were restored, reframed, and reinstalled within inches of their original location, and incorporated into the design as a delightful feature along the pedestrian promenade and a screen for the cafe patio.

Ernestine Tahedl (right) stands by one of the mosaics she created in the 1960s after it is unveiled in its new home.

Alberta’s Natural Reflections

The province’s ever-changing weather and distinct seasons influence its culture and landscape. Being a home of Alberta’s stories, references to the province’s natural features appear throughout the building. An image of a prairie lightning storm is abstracted and laser cut into metal panels that wrap around the curving surfaces of The Roundhouse behind the admissions desk.

Alberta’s lakes, rivers and cities are depicted in the perforated metal panels that line the feature gallery. The effect is subtle, waiting to be discovered when visitors notice the distinct western border line of the province on the panel’s edge.

A Tree Fort for Children

Being inside the Children’s Gallery evokes the feeling of being within a tree fort in Alberta’s lush Boreal Forest. The column grid around the exterior walls becomes the trunks of the trees. The canopy of Aspen leaves is abstracted and laser cut into metal panels wrapping the outer surface and casting dappled light into the space. At night, backlighting transforms the gallery into an impressive glowing object, drawing people in.

Sculptural Ascent

The natural history gallery is located on the second level, and providing a memorable journey up to the gallery is an important aspect of the design. A sculptural stair evoking water-carved canyons through the Rocky Mountains draws the eye upward and invites the visitor to ascend toward the stories of Alberta’s natural history. On Family Day in February, visitors put our structural engineering to the test—the staircase was crowded with visitors queuing to see the natural history gallery!

See these design details and more in person at the Royal Alberta Museum.

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