Olympic Plaza needs mega makeover?

Reader Comments re: Olympic Plaza needs a mega makeover?

BB writes:  "You have touched a soft spot for me with Olympic Plaza.  Although I think Parks has done a stellar job at dressing up what is there (putting lipstick on a pig ? – oops was that my outside voice)  I agree it’s time for a makeover – the Olympics ended 25 years ago and the site needs to be repurposed – I was so excited about the potential for  German Christmas market but sad it did not get legs.  The Olympic Plaza is very much under utilized and filled with potential as a gathering place.  I have and continue to travel extensively and always comment on how every major city I visit the first thing you do is head for the centre city where all the history and action/interest is.  Every day | see and often engage with visitors in our DT who seem to be looking for something.  Mayor Bronconnier started things going by putting police an bylaw into the core to clean it up as well as Parks and Roads resources.  Next we need to make it an exciting place to be especially evenings and weekends."
 

Derek Besant on his  Olympic Plaza SONGLINES project: 

The concept was to design several gestures that would somehow be in proximity to one another around and in visual distance to Olympic Plaza.  Each site required negotiations with the building owners, and requirements to attach mount systems to the exteriors of their faces.  

I titled them: SONGLINES, based upon research into how Indigenous myth and story-telling was preserved, as part of my job in the early to mid 1970's as Exhibition Designer for the (then new) Glenbow Museum construction downtown.

At the time, I was investigating finer optic technology, and the challenge was to create drawn gestures that were NOT interpreted as advertising or logos, but would simply be drawn line forms.  The subjective aspect was that the linear forms would "talk" top one another by shifting colour ranges, as a rhythmic dialogue amongst them.  There are five in operation on various sites:

  • Rocky Mountain Plaza, 
  • Teatro Restaurant, 
  • The Glenbow Museum, 
  • Epcore Centre for Performing Arts, 
  • City Hall

All were installed successfully, and a sixth was planned out for the West corner of the Performing Arts building near street level; but never went ahead.  Each drawing was finally selected from pages and pages fill of gesture drawings as exercises… 

The project came about quickly, and I was approached by a committee from Epcore Centre to come up with a plan for the art installation.  I had only a three weeks to research and prepare the concept and deliver a critical path plan.

Originally, I wanted to do something like I had seen in Shanghai China, with laser light projections atop several buildings into the sky; but with the density surrounding downtown, and all that glass… the reflection factor was too difficult to control, so I went the finer optic route.  

This proved cost effective and climate-controlled, and as long as the various building owners would change the bulbs whenever they burned out, the dialogue between SONGLINES would indeed 'speak' to one another as architectural  articulations of line, motion and gesture.

Derek Besant: More Thoughts On Olympic Plaza and what it could/should be. 

I have thought for a long time that Olympic Plaza needs the connective big bang 'WOW' factor to bring it up to being a focal destination and not the open space between Mall and City Hall.  My SONGLINES was a flicker to try to awaken some response mechanisms between the facades within a limited budget and less time.   It did allow me to dream on what 'could' happen there though, especially after visits on my projects to Shanghai, China.  

I understand our climate gives the space some limits… or are they opportunities?  Hmmm?  

When I am downtown by the Congress Bridge in Austin Texas, or on Trafalgar Square in London, or in the long cool shadows of bank buildings strung along Bay Street in Toronto, or crossing the Alexander III Bridge in Paris, or the central plaza with four museums opposite one another in the Medieval city of Györ, in Hungary beside the Danube; I know where I am, and the perception of place resonates within me and I long for those identifications of what those urban centres hold for me to explore and reveal, or stay hidden beneath them. 

City Hall here is a landmark building.  But what does it talk to out there, really?  Itself… It needs an opposite, a mirror, a debate, a love affair, a shot in the arm, and an arrival into another reality

Blog: Everyday Tourist  

For some reason or reasons Olympic Plaza has never really captured the public’s imagination as an attractive place to meet and hang out like other civic plazas – Portland’s Pioneer Square or Union Square in San Francisco to name just two.  It should be an important tourist attraction for Calgary, a “top of mind” place for Calgarians to proudly show visiting family and friends. 

Quoting Wikipedia, “Today, this (Union Square) one-block plaza and surrounding area is one of the largest collections of department stores, upscale boutiques, gift shops, art galleries and beauty salons in the United States, making Union Square a major tourist destination, a vital, cosmopolitan gathering place in downtown San Francisco, and one of the world's premier shopping districts. Grand hotels and small inns, as well as repertory, off-Broadway and single-act theaters also contribute to the area's dynamic, 24-hour character.” That is what our Olympic Plaza should be. 

Outdoor patio on Union Square in San Francisco is warm and inviting. 

Plaza in Frankfurt's city centre full of people even though there is no programming.  It truly it their "urban living room." 

In contrast, Calgary’s Olympic Plaza is only animated when it is programmed, i.e. International Children’s Festival, summer noon hour concerts, etc. Most times you can shoot the proverbial cannon off and you wouldn’t hit anyone.  Even the outdoor skating rink is used by only a few lonely souls most days in the winter, despite it basking in brilliant sunshine at noon hour mid-winter.

For a public space to feel safe there needs to be lots of people of all ages and backgrounds moving through the space at all times of the day/evening doing a diversity of activities. Olympic Plaza is surrounded by a diversity of building types – a major theatre complex, large museum, convention center, high-end restaurant, City Hall/Municipal building, Central Library, church, apartments and office buildings – which you’d think would make it a busy place even when there is no formal programming.  In theory it should work. In reality it sits empty most the time.  

With the plaza now 25 years old, I understand some elements are at the end of their life span making it timely to look at how a mega makeover could make it Calgary’s urban living room.

It is interesting to note that plazas in many European cities, are often just large, flat, hard surfaces that allow for multiple uses.  They are also surrounded by mixed-use buildings that exit right onto the plaza, not separated by a street. Unfortunately for Olympic Plaza, Teatro really turns it back on the plaza (other than its small summer only patio), there is no interaction with 7th Avenue or Mcleod Trail and EPCOR Performing Arts Centre is dark during the day. Only the Jack Singer Concert Hall has a grand entrance off the plaza. 

The first thing I would do is bring in the heavy equipment!  Flatten the site so people can easily walk diagonally through the plaza - pedestrians love short cuts. Letting them easily walking diagonally from 8th Avenue to 7th Avenue would provide a link from Stephen Avenue Walk to the LRT station and to East Village and vice versa.  Plazas need to link key urban elements that surround it.

The cost to program a flat open space without a wading pool or skating rink would be less and allow for easier use as you wouldn’t have to drain the water or cover up the ice. It would be a wonderful space for a summer farmers’ market (think Portland), or a weekend flea/artisan market (think Frankfurt) or a Christmas market (think Frankfurt again). 

Strasborg town square is a wide open flat hard surfaced space that can be used for a variety of activities.  This is an early morning photo, later in the day it is busy with people cutting through or on market day it is full of vendors. 

Frankfurt's Saturday flea market happens year round on a long linear plaza along the river.  It attracts thousands of people downtown. 

At the same time I would I cut down all of the trees along 7th Avenue (I know this sounds harsh but I will explain soon) and create a long narrow space where food trucks could park to create a “pod” like they do in Portland - an outdoor food court of sorts.  Ideally, different trucks would cycle through the plaza each week to keep it fresh and spontaneous. This could also be a stage area for concerts that could then play to the entire width of the plaza. 

The large dense trees are a safety hazard.  CPTED 101  (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, a multi-disciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior through the landscape design) states that public spaces should be “see through” i.e. people walking by should be able to see through to the other side of the space. No places for people to hide or sleep; no dark spaces. I will probably be “hung” for saying this, but if you look at the great urban plazas, they have very little vegetation. Their “life” comes from the people.

The biggest challenge is how to animate the space daytime and evening year round without a huge programming budget.  We could convert the space into the Olympic Plaza Art Park with numerous sculptures - some permanent and some temporary.  The first one is already there – the popular “Famous Five” sculpture.  Image if “The Root of All Evil” currently hidden away in Ramsay was in the middle of Olympic Plaza.  Or what about moving the Family of Man to Olympic Plaza?  The plaza is already home to the “Famous Five” sculpture.  

Root of all Evil sculpture is temporary located in Ramsay at Ramsay Exchange.  Imagine how much more powerful the statement would be if it was in Olympic Plaza right across from the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer.   This should be a major tourist attraction.  We need to create more urban synergies. 

The Family of Man sculpture will have to be moved as the old Board of Education block gets redeveloped.  It would make a great addition to Olympic Plaza as a gateway at the northwest corner. 

I’d love to see some pieces with special LED lighting to make the space more attractive in the winter.  A companion piece to Julian Opie’s “Promenade” in East Village would be a perfect piece for one of the corners of the plaza.  The “Crown Fountain” piece that Jaume Plensa did for Chicago’s Millennium Park would be perfect for Olympic Plaza, as would Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate.”  We shouldn’t copy Chicago, but we need to find public art that is interactive and engages the public like they do. 

There was an attempt awhile back to add whimsical lighting elements attached to the sides of the buildings around Olympic Plaza.  I believe there were light sculptures on the side of the Glenbow, Municipal Building and Rocky Mountain Plaza. The project was dropped; I’m not sure why. Imagine if there were light sculptures on all of the 20 different buildings that you can see from Olympic Plaza and they turned off and on at different times, dancing in the winter sky - the urban equivalent of the “northern lights.” 

Perhaps too there could be a laser show every night in the winter with Olympic Plaza being the focal point.  Maybe we could use modern technology to project highlights of the 1988 Olympics onto the buildings in the winter night as a way to celebrate our history and that we are a winter city.  It would also be a way to celebrate that Calgary has a wonderful public art collection, unfortunately it is too scattered and hidden to achieve the urban synergies need to make it a tourist attraction. 

Now is not too soon to plan for Olympic Plaza’s 30th anniversary in 2018. 

Plensa's Crown Fountain sculpture even at dusk attracts hundreds of people to interact with it. 

Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" aka The Bean also attracts thousands of people to come downtown every day and is a major tourist attraction. 

Opie's "Promenade" seems to be out of place sitting on a berm above the street and invisible from the new River Walk promenade.  It should be where the pedestrians can stand beside it,  interact with it and be easily photographed. 

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Calgary's Olympic Plaza in the summer showing wading pool, Olympic medal stage area with Municipal building (large blue building) and old City Hall (red clock tower) in the background.  Look idyllic a nice oasis in the middle of the city, which is how public spaces were designed in the 70s and 80s.  Unfortunately they have not aged well and they don't function as well as they could for a diversity of activities. 

Songlines was a pilot project by the Olympic Plaza Cultural District and the Downtown Association to create a visual identity for blocks around the plaza as Calgary's cultural / arts district.  This image is from Calgary artist Derek Besant's website showing his piece on the side of the Teatro restaurant and you can also see another piece on the side of the Glenbow museum on the left side.  

This is Red Square in Moscow which is just a large flat open space with buildings not roads on the edges.  It has good pedestrian traffic even when there is no programming.  There are no trees, no decorative design elements, just space.  

This is the plaza outside of Centre Pompidou in Paris. Again just a flat open space.There are some trees on the edge but they are deciduous which allow people to see into and out of the plaza.  One the best plaza activities is people watching - people attract people.