Is Calgary's downtown too dense? with comments

I recently wrote an article for Condo Living magazine (see below) about the proposed 58-floor TELUS Sky building in the middle of downtown Calgary.  As I wrote the column, after studying the 3-D computer renderings, I began to wonder just how much of the building would people really get to see.  The rendering views make it look spectacular, but nobody really gets to see the building from the aerial perspective that is used i.e. above all the neighboring buildings yet close enough to see some details.  This is something many developers and architects do to get above beyond the clutter of the other buildings and in the process, create unrealistic expectations that simply can’t be realized.

The pedestrian perspective of the buildings in downtown Calgary is often compromised because other buildings “get in the way.”  For example, The Bow’s perspective, though great today from the southwest, will change dramatically (and not for the better) when the York Hotel site is developed.  Bankers Hall and Eighth Avenue Place are much better viewed from their south sides because of the lack of buildings due to the railway tracks and 10th Avenue being mostly empty parking lots so there are not buildings to block view angles which means you can see the buildings almost from top to bottom.  Although the Bow is currently our tallest building, you can barely see it from the west side.

Modern skyscrapers need space to breathe. They look best when viewed from afar or at least with some separation from each other allowing pedestrians to view them in their entirety from base to rooftop. And, the announcement of Brookfield Place (which will be the tallest building when it is completed) just a block away will restrict the view of TELUS Sky Suncor Center and the Bow from the southwest. 

TELUS Sky aerial rendering showing the wider office element at the bottom and the narrower condos at the top. with Suncor Centre behind and Bow on the right.  

It is hard to tell at this time if the clustering of the Bow, Brookfield Place, Suncor Centre and TELUS Sky will be synergistic or antagonistic.  At best, you will see the top 20 floors of TELUS Sky as it pokes its head out from the plethora of 30 and 40-floor buildings.  Only the Suncor Centre has anything bordering on a decorative rooftop i.e. the others are flat-topped with very little visual interest.  One of the best characteristics of the early skyscrapers was their ornate rooftops which makes them so alluring even 100 years later. 

Brookfield Place will be the tallest building in downtown when completed. It will continue the city's flat topped boxy office architectural style that is often criticized. 

Suncor Centre from Olympic Plaza. This view will be partly lost with the addition of TELUS Sky, just like the Bow cancelled out the view of Suncor Centre as you enter the downtown from the east.  

It is hard to tell at this time if the clustering of the Bow, Brookfield Place, Suncor Centre and TELUS Sky will be synergistic or antagonistic.  At best, you will see the top 20 floors of TELUS Sky as it pokes its head out from the plethora of 30 and 40-floor buildings.  Only the Suncor Centre has anything bordering on a decorative rooftop i.e. the others are flat-topped with very little visual interest.  One of the best characteristics of the early skyscrapers was their ornate rooftops which makes them so alluring even 100 years later. 

New Manulife building looks like a giant glass vessel. Note that all of the buildings around it are just simple boxes to accentuate the look of the proposed tower.  This building could be a great addition to downtown's urban landscape but we won't know until it is built and we can see it in context with other buildings.  Urban architecture does not exist in isolation, it has to be synergistic with what surrounds it.  

In Calgary, some of the more interesting architectural buildings are the mid-rise office buildings, like Centrum Place, Jamieson Place and Palliser South.  And, if you are looking for interesting decorative rooftops, new condos like Alura, Arriva, Five West, Montana, Nuera, Sasso and Vetro are leading the way.  The condos also benefit from the fact they are on the edge of the city center and therefore surrounded with low-rise buildings so you can see them in their entirety, something impossible to do in our downtown core.

Unfortunately, in downtown Calgary you can’t see the architecture for the buildings! 

Reader Comments:

JT writes: Good job.  The challenges run deep- office tenants can pay more than other users in our core, and the land use policies are structured to allow mega-buildings.  Office workers are high income earners (typically) and choose more home than less.  The select these homes distant from their place of work because that is where they can be constructed. 

We are victims of our own success.  Giant offices clustered together create a wickedly vibrant downtown from 6:30 to 6.  That same vibrancy is transferred to roads and busses and trains at the shoulder times and further dispersed outwards after 6:30 pm.

That is the Calgary pattern which only gets more entrenched with the continued popularity and economic viability of office space downtown.

HH writes: Love it!   But the next question is, what is their combined impact on the city? How do they visually combine to make a statement about the city? We have lots of impressive buildings but the sight lines for the general public are not good.  I agree we have great pieces of design but are they having the impact on the visitor or even for local residents that they should? Placement is everything!

 JR writes: I think you are heading down what i consider a discredited idea about the sculptured tower. The bottom 4 or 5 stories are where you make a city, the pedestrian and citizens city. The long view of a tower is what ever ego centric drives the owner and consultants derive from, perhaps important and if very lucky iconic. I suggest another read of Jane Jacobs, and another tour of old Paris - the Eiffel Tower is a defining landmark quite aside from the city. The city is a pedestrian delight. 

AS blogged: True, but there is a benefit to having large office towers in close proximity in CBD for business purposes.  

RT blogged: Don't really agree with the point, but do like the photos in this blog post. 

CO blogged: No. I'd rather have the view problems you are pointing out versus no growth in our core. 

GM blogged: I think the shorter structures surrounding the peaks are far more interesting and human friendly.   2nd blog: I'd rather have the problem with obstructed views than a doughnut city. 

KJ blogged: Skyline important, but I care a lot more about how the buildings integrate with the street. 

TL blogged: Understand your point, but no, Calgary's core is not dense enough to support great public spaces & institutions.  

JW blogged: Large office buildings close to downtown LRT is critical to generating more transit use which is more pedestrian friendly. 

This is the street view rendering provided by TELUS and BIG architecture.  Everything about it is artificial, there is no attempt to make it reflect the existing urban design of 7th Avenue - the LRT station, train are all wrong.    

Early 20th century skyscraper were very decorative at street level and also the upper floors.  The design drew the eye to the sky to see the "crown" of the building.  This was lost in the minimalism of the late 20th century office towers.  It is only recently that it has returned with projects like Eight Avenue Place and Jamieson Place which have more interesting roof top designs. 

Condo Living Magazine: TELUS Sky

“Create a lady to stand among the cowboys.” That was the challenge TELUS President and CEO, Darren Entwistle gave Danish “young gun” architect, Bjarke Ingels.  This directive was aimed at addressing one of the biggest criticisms of Calgary’s office buildings i.e. they are too boxy with their squat rectangular massing and flat roofs. For the most part Calgary’s office building designs are safe and straight-laced, very corporate and conservative - some would say masculine, maybe even cowboyish.  To be fair, recent additions The Bow and Eight Avenue Place (EAP) have ventured away from the box and in many ways EAP has many of the feminine qualities that Ingels has incorporated into TELUS Sky.

While TELUS is a large, established corporation, its logo (green and purple) and branding (those cute animal commercials) reflects a more pretty, playful and cutesy image than your typical large corporation. Some might even say more feminine.  It is therefore not surprising Entwistle’s vision was to create a feminine (lady) tower that would stand amongst the masculine cowboy towers, especially the downtown’s two other 50+ floor towers, The Bow and Suncor Energy Centre, which are its immediate neighbours.  It will be an interesting threesome!

TELUS Sky is also unique in that it will be both an office and residential tower.  While it won’t be taller than The Bow, it will be a more slender, elegant shape because the floor plate for a typical residential building is half that of a typical office building. TELUS Sky building will taper after the 26th office floor into a slender residential tower to the 58th floor.  The building’s façade will also evolve from the smooth surface of the office portion to an articulated, textured surface for the residential part as a result of its jutting balconies.

The net result is a wine bottle (or elongated grain elevator) shape.  To use the lady analogy, the transition area from the wide office to the slender torso would be her hips.  TELUS Sky is one robust lady who will certainly hold her own with the surrounding cowboys.  

Habitat "67 in Montreal 

At street level, Ingels’ design has a glass canopy, or what he calls a “skirt.”  It twists at the separate office and residential entrances to create a “billowing skirt” effect.  The analogy with the iconic urban photo of Marilyn Munro is obvious.

The design of TELUS Sky reminds me of Moshe Safdie’s experimental housing project, Habitat 67, created for Expo 67, which was one of Canada’s most recognized and creative new urbanist buildings.  The thesis behind Habitat 67 was to integrate the benefits of suburban homes, namely gardens, fresh air and privacy, with the benefits of urbanism i.e. density, economy of scale and walkability.  TELUS Sky will have both a vertical and rooftop garden, and the positioning of the balconies and residential units will maximize the indoor and outdoor spaces for all residents.  In many ways the goal, is to create a new 21st century design that shatters the idea that urban high-density living is cold, impersonal and ugly.

Ingels is all about symbiosis (a biological term that refers to two dissimilar organisms living together often for mutual benefit), which in this case refers to the office workers and the residents. The building will be animated by day with the workers and by night with the residents. It adds a whole new dimension to the “live, work, play” equation as you could live work and play in the same building.  The “play” element is further enriched by the public gallery that will be created as part of the enhanced public realm at street and +15 levels.  I can see a sequel to the film “Way Downtown” where the bet is who can last the longest without leaving the building

TELUS Sky is scheduled to open in 2017, fifty years after Habitat 67. A lot has changed in the past 50 years with respect to urban placemaking. And in many ways, Calgary is at the forefront.   Especially over the past 10 years, Calgary has become a very interesting design city - a place that welcomes and fosters innovative new urban design. TELUS Sky will further solidify that reputation. 

Link to Condoliving Magazine Calgary

Rendering of TELUS Sky looking up from the sidewalk. If this an accurate rendering it will be a very sensual uplifting visual experience. Love the way it interacts with the blue sky and clouds. From this perspective it lives up to its Sky name.