Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium

Coronation Park, Edmonton, Alberta Canada

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Edmonton opened Canada’s first planetarium in 1960, named after Queen Elizabeth ll, the site of which was dedicated by her in 1959 during an official visit to Canada. The Planetarium is located, appropriately, in Coronation Park, which recognizes the Queen’s earlier coronation in 1953. The building is remarkably quirky and unique in history of modern architecture in Canada. It served its original purpose of providing entertaining and educational astronomical and night sky presentations for 24 years, when it was replaced with a larger nearby planetarium in 1984. Now the original 1960 QEll Planetarium is being conserved and restored, and will open in 2020 in order to again introduce a young audience to the wonders of space.

The design of the building was prepared by the office of the City Architect, Robert Falconer Duke. Denis Mulvaney was the in-house architectural designer. It is a unique and early example of the Modern Expressionist Style in Canada1. This style rejects the rigidity of the International Style with the use of dramatically idiosyncratic shapes, rooted in the European Expressionist movement of the early 20th C.  The Planetarium exhibits common Modern Style elements that express lightness, including extensive use of glass in aluminum curtain wall, framing of the exterior building elements, sophisticated structural expression and the sense that the building is ‘floating’. To many, the building has the appearance of a ‘spacecraft’ hovering off the ground.

Preserving a Remarkable Building

For a public building to be inhabitable in the 21st C, it must become universally accessible. The City will use about 1/3 of the main floor for new barrier-free and non-gender specific washrooms, to be used by the patrons of the building and by users of the nearby sports playing fields. It has therefore been necessary to install an access ramp, which is located at the rear of the building adjacent to the new public washroom facilities. The main facade facing into Coronation Park will be preserved in its original configuration.

The Planetarium Comes Back to Life

I have been working as a team member on this project for a number of years and it is not surprising that many Edmontonians who grew up in the 60s and 70s have confided that this little building meant so much to them growing up. I think this is a factor of its provocative, optimistic design as well as the appeal of the entertaining programming that Ian McLennan introduced while he was the Director. Appreciative memory is a common reaction to historic places. This is important in a time that seems somewhat chaotic and changing. It should not be seen as a reversion to or a preference for nostalgia. The project could not sustain itself on nostalgia. This project is a brilliant confluence of fortuitous opportunity to meet a current, municipally-supported need and provision for 21st C early childhood education and experience, while reusing a significantly historic building as it was originally intended.

This building has defied the odds that have meant the destruction of so many modern buildings. The common excuse is that they serve no new purpose and that rehabilitation and restoration would be too expensive. 1960 was a period that was as deeply immersed in dark cold war politics as much as it was an optimistic time with a bright outlook for the future. The reinstated QEll Planetarium will now continue to serve more generations of young Canadians as they develop an appreciation for 21st C science and astronomy. This is a modern-era building that remains relevant. It has proven to be sufficiently robust to indefinitely continue its role as nourishment for the imaginations of our children.

  1. Modern Expressionistic Style in Canada as described in “A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles” by Maitland, Hucker and Ricketts

Heritage Consultant: David Murray
Prime Consultant: ATB Architecture now known as Stantec Architecture