Past shaping the future

The coulees offered extraordinary opportunities: dramatic heights and depths unusual in the Prairies, and the possibility of outlook, proximity to the river and a microclimate milder than the windswept flatlands.

Standing there on the far edge of the coulee I saw etched against the sky the light tracery of an old iron railway bridge, 300 feet in the air, spanning a mile across the river.

I came to the conclusion that though any building upon the exposed flatland should be interred in earth berms so that they would become part of the land, the academic building could span the coulees and, like the old bridge in its rigid flatness, reveal the rich contours of even the most level prairie.

It seemed to me that the top storey of the university should lie below the tableland in an uncompromising straight line spanning the haunches of
the prairie.
Dr. Arthur Erickson (LLD '81)

The Architecture of Arthur Erickson
With text by the architect

When renowned Canadian architect, the late Dr. Arthur Erickson (LLD '81), first came to Lethbridge to design University Hall and formulate the University's Development Plan, he was in awe of the coulee landscape, inspired by the High Level Bridge and concluded the University should be part of the land.

"Architecture, as I see it, is the art of composing spaces in response to existing environmental and urbanistic conditions to answer a client's needs," Erickson once said. "In this way the building becomes the resolution between its inner being and the outer conditions imposed upon it. It is never solitary but is part of its setting and thus must blend in a timeless way with its surroundings, yet show its own fresh presence."

Sod turning
The construction of University Hall began with a simple sod turning ceremony.

The vision as outlined in the 1969 Erickson-Massey Development Plan saw academic space integrated with residences "so that learning becomes part of living." The 1969 planning objectives also included attractive pedestrian walkways that linked to green spaces; closely knit, clear organization of campus buildings that took advantage of unique views of the river valley; and building sites chosen to ensure reverence, preservation and protection of the coulee landscape.

Construction of the original University Hall was a monumental task.

Over the years, the University campus has expanded and evolved with recommendations initially set out in the Campus Development Plan Review (1993), the Master Plan Report (2000) and the Core Campus Expansion Plan (2001) – the latter of which is the springboard for the new University Campus Master Plan (UCMP), which was ratified by the University of Lethbridge Board of Governors in December 2012.

Spencer Court, architect and associate director of Campus Planning and Architecture at the U of L, has been leading the current UCMP renewal. He says the new plan takes previous planning history into consideration and maintains key planning initiatives while advancing the University's current strategic goals.

"Key elements from past plans have been retained, but the earliest plan had the most fundamentally correct principles or truths that continue to provide value and timeless importance today," he says.

Those principles of strengthening the existing site and building features, creating a compact campus, integrating campus with nature, and using an appropriate brand of architecture to produce a unique campus identity and experience are instilled in the 2012 plan.

Prepared in a collaborative effort with the University by Moriyama & Teshima Architects and Planners, Gibbs Gage Architects and Educational Consulting Services, the UCMP sets out a series of recommendations aimed at guiding larger-scale planning decisions for the main campus of the University over the next 25 years.

According to the UCMP, these guidelines "accentuate the existing campus design – organizing systems to allow the unique beauty, original order, coherence and distinctive setting of the campus to re-emerge." The UCMP suggests "a highly interconnected system of buildings and pedestrian networks to create an intimate and harmonized learning environment, integrating both academic and residential programs."

U Hall
University Hall as we see it today, nestled in the coulees and taking advantage of the natural landscape.

What makes the UCMP unique is the way it frames and defines the academic core with a celebrated gateway accessing the heart of campus, while promoting pedestrian-friendliness and retaining the physical geography that informs future buildings and outdoor spaces.

"Campuses are like people in that they mature and become complete over time," says Court. "As key participants at a critical point in the development of our campus, we are privileged to produce a planning vision at a time when many are likely to witness the campus evolve into a more complete place."

The UCMP points to three key directives that align with the University's 2009-2013 Strategic Plan and 2011-2015 Capital Plan. The first is to physically support the University's mandate to be a comprehensive and academic research institution and to provide opportunities for a community of learners – students, faculty, researchers and staff – to interact in purposeful spaces. Second is to reinforce the quality of built and natural environments at the University with an emphasis on improving campus life and the everyday student experience. Third, the plan will provide guidance in planning and management of assets while being stewards of the land.

These directives will aid in creating the physical "Destination U" that is currently being defined at the University of Lethbridge. U of L President Dr. Mike Mahon agrees.

He says this UCMP is vital for establishing this legacy.

"As individuals who have various roles on campus, we are at one point in time, but universities live for a long, long time. It's critical that we look to the future from a planning perspective, and plan for years ahead that we can't even imagine. It is vitally important that our buildings and grounds deliver on the notion of the Destination University," says Mahon. "The U of L is very fortunate to have had the kind of vision that Erickson had around building into the coulees and really connecting the University with the topography and with nature."

The UCMP aims to create a unique identity to differentiate the U of L from other universities and to offer a distinctive and memorable experience for its students. To do that, the plan outlines specific design work including a refocused ceremonial entrance along Aperture Drive, and framing a new "Coulee Quadrangle" north of the University Library, bordered by University Hall and future buildings to form a campus heart. The UCMP also establishes a network of interconnected buildings that engage the coulees using a unique brand of landform architecture that fully integrates with the landscape. In addition, the construction of the "Prairie Quadrangle" adjacent to Markin Hall will serve to improve connectivity from the academic core to Exploration Place.

Campus plan
The updated Campus Master Plan will further the vision first established in 1969.

One of the biggest values of the new UCMP is creating a compact campus that fosters a better sense of community. Although the UCMP organizes the physical campus, it is the arrangement of those spaces and places that not only leads to a sense of community but also supports academic programming and student life.

Establishing Aperture Drive as the ceremonial entrance to the U of L is just the beginning. The gateway will be framed with a building element linking the Library to the Students' Union Building, as well as a signature building travelling southward that responds to the coulee setting and the Oldman River vista. This building will act as a bridge directly linking the residence precinct to the rest of campus.

Retaining the land in its natural state is also part of the UCMP proposal, and so, the natural coulee space south of the library will be left in its pristine state to preserve the natural view. It's the shared experience of the beautiful scenery of the unique prairie and coulee landscape that brings the University community together and that's an important consistency of the UCMP, says Court.

"We are located in a world-class, unique setting that our forebears committed to being, literally, in this place. That is the driving force in how we go forward," he says. "It is the threshold experience between plateau and river valley we want to be, and since we are here, we should capitalize on that because in the physical sense it's one of our most significant differentiators."

While the prairie land surrounding the University is vast, a key UCMP goal is to create a campus with synergy, ease of access and more importantly, logical pedestrian circulation.

"There's a point where everyone who arrives here by transit, bicycle or automobile becomes a pedestrian, and in the master plan the campus nucleus is predominantly pedestrian-based," says Court. "The master plan has tried to focus on creating a compact, pedestrian-oriented, connected campus that responds to external factors such as weather or the opportunity for memorable views and seriously considers how people move through it."

The University Campus Master Plan is just that – a plan. At this point, campus planners have not initiated detailed design studies, but most of the features will likely be developed over time. The recommendations in the UCMP, however, are critical for the University to reach its strategic goals, says Chris Eagan, director of Facilities.

"The UCMP follows the institution's strategic planning. It allows the creation of a common vision of what space, building and landscape places look like to fulfill our strategic goals," he says. "The UCMP is a broad vision that will be accomplished incrementally through individual capital projects. These projects have urgent and important needs that must be subservient to the institutional requirements outlined in the master plan. It will give the structure and guidance of university planners to all those who design and implement the plan for years to come."

After the UCMP is formally ratified in December 2012, a public open house celebrating the new plan and its document release will be held early in the new year.

According to Court, the new UCMP offers many advantages as the University looks to the future.

"Overall, it's addressing original concepts that the institution has already put substantial resources and value into," he says. "Those early ideas are treasured fidelities – concepts we shouldn't turn our backs on. If we've learned anything, we've learned that they are important and they still apply going forward."


For more information on the UCMP, please visit:

This story first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of SAM. For a look at the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.