The Curse of Minimalism

Does anyone other than architects and interior designers really like minimalist design?  Yes, minimalism looks great when you are flipping through a magazine, but it doesn’t really invite the eye or the feet to explore looking for details and decorative elements.  The goal of minimalism is to use the fewest number of elements to get the maximum visual effect.  In Calgary, we have a Minimalist District – 48 blocks of mostly minimalist office buildings from 9th to 3rd Avenue and Centre Street to 8th Street. Minimalist buildings mean minimalist street life.

It wasn’t always like this.  Look at any early 20th century picture of downtown’s 8th and 7th Avenue and you will see what I mean. The streets are full of people, horses, wagons and cars. Signage is plastered everywhere. It is a total “gong show.”  When it comes to urban living and urban spaces I think the really interesting places are blessed with the clutter of people, signs, banners, buses, cars and bikes. They are not places where we segregate pedestrians, transit and cars to different streets.  It is not where bike paths skirt the outside of the city centre.

I was reminded of this recently when I visited Trepanier Baer Gallery to see the Fred Herzog’s images of downtown Vancouver in the ‘50s and ‘60s. (You can see Herzog’s “Street Photography” exhibition until April 28th at the Glenbow Museum). These photos are visually stunning and intriguing with their cacophony of colour from the multitude of signs to the people that inhabit the street.  It made me think “Where have all the blade signs gone?” Blade signs are the ones the stick out over the sidewalk so you can look ahead and easily see what stores lay ahead. Blade signs work well both for pedestrians, cyclist and cars.  They work much better than signs flat to the building’s façade which you can’t see until you are at the store and/or building.  It is not the cars that are enemy to street vitality; in fact they are an integral part of it.  We need less segregation and more integration.

Sidewalk Ballet

 Jane Jacobs called it the “sidewalk ballet” - people moving around each other, jumping out of the way of a sandwich board or twisting to miss the lamppost that suddenly appeared out of nowhere.  It is not only the pedestrians, but also the bikes, cars, taxis and buses.  Others have talked about  the importance of  “messing  urbanism”  i.e. good urban places are not the result of master plans, but happen over time and are a hoge- poge of activities and design elements.  It is organic, not pragmatic.

The enemy is “minimalism.” It is minimalist design that results in buildings which are visually lacking anything over a minute.  It is the “signage Nazis” who doesn’t want signage to be too visible, to attract too much attention away from the building’s design.  Signage should “stand out” not “fit in.” Minimalist design means minimal street life.

Similarly we have internalized all of the street shops and placed them on the second floor out of sight of the street. This creates a nice clean look at street level; we don’t want any of the clutter of doors, shop signage and windows and people walking in and out at street level.  It is minimalism that favours the one entrance to an austere lobby with nothing in it.   Imagine what the streets and avenues of downtown would be like if some of the food courts vendors were move to the street.  Even when the shops are on street level, like Bow Valley Square they are not allowed to interact with the street i.e. the entrances are all internal.  

You look down the streets and avenues of Calgary’s downtown and there is nothing to visually engage the eye or the mind, nothing to capture your imagination, nothing to say “I’d like to walk down that street to see….”  Why, because for the most part it is a wall of homogeneous wall of glass, concrete and granite in various shades of grey, beige and blacks. 

Bring Back The Past

We need to bring back some detailing, textures and design at street level.  The colour that canopies and awnings (Holt Renfew use to change a specific awing for each season) that use to mark the various entrances to the shops along the street.     

Walking down the streets there is none of the texture and details that use to be part of a building’s design.  Don’t believe me.  Check out the wonderful intricate iron canopy over the Burns Building on Macleod Trail at Stephen Avenue; this is urban beauty. Notice the detail of the colonnade of the historic downtown Bay Store vs. any of the office building colonnades of the late 20th century.  Too often the pillars of modern office buildings that populate the sidewalks are simple cylinders with no ornamentation.  No longer does the pedestrian’s eye enjoy the rich decorative details of columns like those that distinguish the grand entrances of the historic Federal Public Building and Bank of Montreal built on Stephen Avenue both completed in 1931.  No longer do the facades have subtle details like the Bank of Nova Scotia’s Art Deco carvings of prairie wild flowers, Mountie and First Nation figures, as well as horses, buffalo, guns and arrows.   Yes these are subtle street design details, but they are part of the urban fabric that made wandering the streets of downtown interesting in the past. There were critical to creating urban beauty, something that has been lost with the “rise of minimalism” in the ‘70s. 

The modern office building is set back from the sidewalk in a manner that is kind of “stand-offish.” They remove themselves from the “street ballet.”  While the Bow offers a wonderful piece of public art, it doesn’t really create any “ballet.” The same for the southwest plaza of Bankers Hall, it is full of public art, but there are never any people there, except the smokers. 

One of the best places for experiencing the “street ballet” I have ever seen is the Kowloon District in Hong Kong.  There is a great mix of street types from Nathan Road a neon main street (think Las Vegas without the huge hotels), Cheung Sha Road and Apliu Street and numerous street markets.   These streets of Kowloon are cluttered. There is no sense of a unifying design. There are no bike lanes, no pedestrian cross walks.  Yes, it is a “free-for-all.” Yes, there is signage of all shapes and sizes.  And yes, the streets area always full of people, cars, bikes, carts and vendors mixing and mingling.  I doubt there is/was a master plan? No architectural guidelines. No minimalism here.

Last Word:

I sometimes think we over plan, over analyze and over design our streets, plazas and buildings to the point where we have designed the life out of them.  This is not just a Calgary problem.  It is the same in Dubai or Toronto.  Perhaps we need less planning not more?

In Short: Fred Herzog

Fred Herzog was born in Stuttgart Germany in 1930 and immigrated to Canada in 1952.  He is best known as a photographer who documented the street life of “working class” people in Vancouver.  He worked primarily with slide film which limited his ability to exhibit and also marginalized him somewhat as an artist in the 50s and 60s when most work in vogue was black and white.  However, his work has been increasingly recognized in recent decades as his work has appeared in numerous books and galleries, including the Vancouver Art Gallery

Fred Herzog photo of Downtown Vancouver sidewalk in 1950s.  The sidewalks were full of people.  Example of sidewalk ballet. 

Fred Herzog Downtown Vancouver at night.  As Petula Clark sang "the lights are much brighter downtown." This is no longer true! 

Example of decoration and ornamentation of early 20th century buildings. 

Another example of attention to detail at street level I early 20th century buildings.

Another example of attention to detail at street level I early 20th century buildings.

Wonderful attention to detail. Even the sidewalk is decorated. Lots of textures and details to attract the eye. 

Minimalist streetscape design of late 20th century.