Iconic Canadian art hidden in YYC office lobby!

By Richard White, December 28, 2013

It always amazes me what you can find in downtown Calgary if you just explore a little bit - get off the beaten path.  A few weeks back I shared with you some artworks that I found in the lobby and hallways at Bow Valley College.  The place is a friggn public art gallery with art everywhere. Learn more at: Flaneuring Bow Valley College 

Another day I was flaneuring the east end of Stephen Avenue and while not off the beaten path there was the one of downtown's more successful public artworks - the larger than live famous five ladies.  Learn more at Famous 5 at Olympic Plaza

Today I had an appointment at Eight Avenue Place (EAP) and discovered paintings by Jack, Jack, Ray, Jean, Jean-Paul and Marcelle - all members of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.  It is not everyday you find in an office lobby with museum quality artworks. 

But then downtown Calgary is not your average downtown, with over 40 million square feet of office space, it is one of the top 10 downtowns for corporate headquarters in North America.  Every new office building has wonderful art in the lobby and on the plaza making the downtown a 40-block contemporary art gallery.  Learn More: "Downtown Calgary giant outdoor art gallery"

Someday someone is going to create an app that will be a self guided tour of YYC's Downtown Art gallery. 

Iconic Canadian Artists

In the meantime, EAP has created a brochure for six masterpiece contemporary artworks by iconic Canadian artists:

  • Jack Shadbolt
  • Ray Mead
  • Jean-Paul Riopelle
  • Jack Bush
  • Jean McEwen
  • Marcelle Ferron

While I have been critical of Calgary's downtown in the past for being too corporate, too conservative and too minimal in its urban design, EAP and others have certainly contributed to making our downtown more visually interesting with literally hundreds of artworks.  

EAP's Lobby Art & Design....

As you enter from Stephen Avenue you are immediately welcomed by Jack Shadbolt's, "Wild Grass Suite - Quintet" (1979).  I love the fact that you can grab a coffee next door and sit and enjoy the art.  

In this close-up of one of the panels you can see that the image looks as if was inspired by the Alberta prairie grasslands where they meet the foothills.  The piece has a wonderful sense of playfulness and certainly adds lots of warmth and colour to an other wise stark lobby.

The next piece you encounter is Ray Mead's "Totem" (1986) which hangs above the concierge desk. Again it adds lots of colour and have an aboriginal quality to them in the simple mark-making and flattened stylized images.  The title also suggest an affinity with First Nations sense of place. 

Tucked away in one of the three elevator lobbies is this unusual Jack Bush painting "New York 55" (1955).  Unusual in that most of us associate Bush with bright primary colours, yet this piece is mostly blacks, browns and pinks. The piece definitely conveys New York's sense of place as the world's leading skyscraper city with its collage of vertical blocks, interspersed with smaller marks for windows and swirls for window reflections. This is probably the most literal Bush piece I have ever seen and certainly is museum quality. 

Definitely a good choice for EAP as it is one of Canada's best skyscrapers.  Did you know that Downtown Calgary is built at the same density as Manhattan or Chicago? 

Any public art gallery in Canada would love to have this piece titled "Oliviers" by Jean-Paul Riopelle in their collection.  I wonder if the EAP tenants who pass by it everyday even realize that they get to enjoy a painting by one of Canada's iconic artists everyday.  While other office buildings in North America have modern art in their lobby; there are very few that have iconic works of art. 

Jean McEwan's "Le Climat Rouge" (1957) invites contemplation, I want to grab the bench that is underneath the painting and move it to the middle of the elevator lobby and just sit and study it.  

It is obvious that the six artworks have been carefully selected to complement each other with a focus on use of colour, brush and mark-making and abstracting from nature. 

Marcelle Ferron's "Chile" (1973) combines elements of Shadbolt, Mead, Riopelle, Bush and McEwan in her work.  

Signature Furniture 

EAP lobby also includes modern office furniture by Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen and Florence Knoll.  The huge south facing two story atrium or winter garden would make a wonderful sculpture garden. While there are plans for a major piece of public art, it is most likely to go outside on 9th Avenue.  

Currently the lobby features numerous "ice bursts" suspended from the ceiling that add an element of surprise and elegance to the minimalism of the lobby design. 

The lobby offers dramatic views of Calgary southern sky.  

The lobby has several inviting areas to sit and linger each authentic modern furniture.  And yes over the holidays they had the TVs turned to the Shaw's burning fireplace. 

EAP's has one of the most dramatic office lobbies in Canada, perhaps North America.  

These "ice bursts" were created by Stephen Stefanou of Venue Arts.  Each point of the bursts is individually created by slowly pushing a metal rod through the heated plastic-like material, so each is unique. There are several "bursts" hanging from the ceiling  in the central lobby as well as the lobbies of the two towers. Flood lights are used to slowly change the colour of the bursts adding yet another element of surprise. 

While under construction EAP had over 20 reproductions of artworks by senior Calgary artists covering the construction hoarding along the side of the road.  It was literally a who's who of Calgary art. I have never seen this done before. 

On the second floor (+15 level) SQCommons has been operating a "pop-up" contemporary gallery both in the public areas and in a 6,000+ square foot future retail space.  The space has also been used for several special events including Burst Calgary. 

The unique design for Eight Avenue Place was inspired by the Canadian Rockies with their jagged, angular, shard-like peaks. The building's facade reflects Calgary's abundant sunshine at several different angles during the day and seasons creating an ever-changing facade. 

Last Word

Eight Avenue Place was designed by Pickard Chilton an international architectural firm based in New Haven, Connecticut and Gibbs Gage Architects from Calgary.  It was the first pre-certified LEED Platinum high-rise building in North Americia.  The first tower is 49 floors and the second tower which will be completed and occupied in 2014 is 40floors.  Combined they provide 1,800,000 square feet of office space on 89 floors. 

Kudos to AIMCo, SITQ and Matco the co-owners of EAP for their innovative use of art (both locally and nationally) to differentiate themselves from other major office complexes.  I can't wait to see the outdoor sculpture piece they will commission.

If you like this blog, you might like:

FFQing in Downtown's Udderly Art Pasture

Flaneuring Bow Valley College

The Famous Five at Olympic Plaza 

Readers' comments:

RW writes: Great article. Most of us, myself included might notice these things but do not tie it all together because we are on a mission aka meeting/lunch/deadline.  The thought of having art all around us sure gives another dimension to our corporate downtown. Keep up the increased pace of writing...I find your “investigative” sleuthing makes me re-think and re-examine my urban environment.  I sometimes find myself in a situation re-examining a streetscape or a public space and wonder how Richard might interpret the situation as compared to how I am seeing it. A recent example occurred when I was describing Stampede Trail  and the activities/signage and buzz we hope to create with a new entertainment district and thought back to your signage article and how you might view our approach (I think you will get excited).

GB writes: When I was a young man, I worked for Manulife and we operated Calgary House at 550-6th Avenue. The lobby has a full wall bronze of "Pan and the Three Graces". In 1972 I had a plaque put up describing the piece, but I think it is gone now. The amount of great public art in Calgary is amazing, but much of it is seldome seen or identified. Good for you for bringing some of it to our attention.

JB writes:Thank you! Viewing this blog this morning brought a burst of warmth into my office! All that lovely color! This definitely warrants a trip downtown.

Calgarians embrace winter.

By Richard White, December 26, 2013

I eagerly looked forward to reading Jeremy Klaszus’ Urban Compass column on what we could learn from Edmonton regarding embracing winter (Calgary’s Metro newspaper on December 23, 2013). However, I was disappointed that while the column talked about Edmonton’s policies and strategies for embracing winter, there was no real evidence they were actually doing so. 

I was expecting to hear about thousands of people skating on quaint neighbourhood ponds evenings and weekends. Maybe about hundreds of people enjoying community toboggan hills with pop-up food trucks, or new ideas for designing playgrounds for year-round use.  Rather I read about a vision of a vibrant winter city that is yet to be realized. 

Read Klaszus' Urban Compass column "Let's do what Edmonton does."

Since Klaszus' column there have been numerous articles in the media about Calgary's winter activities including Annalise Klingbeil's "Backyard rinks make comeback in Calgary" which addresses the many backyard rinks in Calgary inlcuding Snider's curling rink and Rosemont Ice Guys. Read more.

 

 

Calgary's Bowness Lagoon is one of the world's best outdoor skating rinks.  Unfortunately it is closed this winter due to the flood. 

Winter Event Experiments

Calgary has experimented with numerous major winter events over the past 30+ years.  After the 1988 Winter Olympics, annual attempts were made to have a winter carnival in the middle of February.  Several locations were tried – Canada Olympic Park, Olympic Plaza, Prince’s Island and Calgary Zoo - but eventually organizers had to accept there was no support for it. 

This was very disappointing as Quebec City (one of our sister cities) has probably the best winter festival in the world.   You’d think we could learn from them how to plan a major winter festival.

In the past, Calgary has also experimented with a First Night Festival (New Years Eve), which many cities established late in the 20th Century, but again the support for such a winter celebration died a slow death.  

Stephen Avenue with its wonderful winter lights and +15 connections to hotels and office buildings is an indoor outdoor adaptation to winter in Calgary where the temperature can be -30 one day and +10 the next. 

Winnipeg does it best?

Recently, while doing some research on Winnipeg, I discovered they might in fact be the leader in Canada for urban winter activities.  Did you know Winnipeg has the world’s longest skating rink? Yes, longer than Ottawa’s Rideau Canal! 

The Forks, Winnipeg’s equivalent of Granville Island or Calgary’s Stampede Park has numerous outdoor winter activity areas including an Olympic-size skating rink, 1.2 km of skating trails, a snowboard fun park, a toboggan run and warming huts designed by the likes of world renowned architect Frank Gehry.  

They even have Raw: Almond the world’s first pop-up restaurant on a frozen river.  See more winter programming ideas from Winnipeg at the end of the blog.

Thousands of people enjoy the world's longest skating rink in Winnipeg.  Perhaps Calgary could convert some if its pathway system into a skating trail.  (photo courtesy of Tourism Winnipeg) 

Can’t compete with mountains?

I can’t help but wonder if the reason Calgarians don’t embrace winter in large number in our urban parks and public spaces is because we have such a wonderful winter wonderland outside the city.  On any given winter weekend, tens of thousands of Calgarians are in Canmore, Banff, Fernie and Invermere, as well as places in between, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and cross country skiing.

While these outdoor winter activities are available in Edmonton, Quebec City and Winnipeg they are not as prevalent, accessible or grand as Calgary’s. 

Camore Nordic Centre is just one of hundreds of places in the Rockies that thousands of Calgarians, Albertans and tourist flock to in winter to embrace winter. 

Livable Winter Cities Movement

In fact, Calgary was one of the early members of the international winter cities movement in the early ‘80s.  I remember chatting with Calgary planner Harold Hanen (I believe he was one of the founding members) about how we could encourage Calgarians to embrace winter.  Yes Hanen, was the same guy who championed Calgary’s +15 walkway system, which was an adaptation to winter, as was Devonian Gardens.  

At that time urban thinkers were focus on how to mitigate winter by allowing for summer activities indoors.  Our regional recreation centres are part of that thinking with their indoor wave pools, gyms, skating rinks and climbing walls.  

In various chats, with Hanen and other planners, as well as 10 years of trying to develop outdoor winter programming on Stephen Avenue, Olympic Plaza and Prince’s Island I came to the conclusion Calgary probably has as much winter outdoor urban vitality as we are going to get.

Winter Patios?

Klasuzus’ article talks about crating a year-round patio culture, which is a great idea in theory, but downtown Calgary with its concentration of office towers doesn’t allow for any sun on sidewalks.  Winnipeg, Edmonton and places like Copenhagen (thought to be the mecca of winter cities by most planners) have few tall buildings so maybe they will be more successful with winter patios.   

Did you know that all downtown office buildings have conducted shadow and wind studies for many years?  While there are some things you can do to mitigate the sun and wind tunnels created by tall buildings there is only so much you can do? 

It is unfortunate The Bow Tower’s southwest facing plaza doesn’t have patio or even some benches would be a welcome addition to those who want to sit and enjoy the sculpture “Wonderland.”

That being said there are some good winter patios in Calgary.  The Ship & Anchor’s south facing patio on 17th Ave is a very popular winter hangout when the sun is shinning and Chinooks blow in.   Similarly on 10th Street in Kensington, the Roasterie’s west facing pocket plaza is a popular place for SAIT and ACAD students to hang out on a sunny winter afternoon.   

In West Hillhurst, Dairy Lane's east facing patio is very popular and is used almost year-round with the help of blankets and heaters.

Olympic Plaza also gets good sun in the winter for skating and would be a great spot for a winter patio; however, it has never attracted large numbers of skaters.

 

The Ship & Anchor patio and 17th avenue are full of people in March 2013.  

Do Calgarians embrace winter more than we think?

Recently I have chatted with a number of people about winter activities in the city and found out there is more happening than I thought. 

A father of three and ringette coach informed me in Cranston they have an outdoor community rink (with an ice plant to allow for longer use), that is so heavily used they could easily use a second one.  He says it is the same for all of the southeast communities.  He was hoping to find some outdoor ice time for ringette practices at one of the local outdoor rinks, but no luck.

Did you know there are over 100 outdoor rinks in Calgary?

The city of Calgary has five major rinks in Marlborough Park, Carburn Park, Olympic Plaza, Prince’s Island and Prairie Winds (Bowness Park rink is closed this year), as well as 34 “adopt-a-rink” in smaller community parks.  Note: Carburn Park has been expanded with larger ice rink and fire pits due to closure of  Bowness Park. 

All of Calgary’s lake communities have outdoor rinks, as do many of Calgary’s over 200 Community Associations.  One hundred rinks at 100 people per day on weekends would be 10,000 people embracing winter – the number could easily be 20,000 on some days! 

In chatting with other friends they informed me Confederation Park has groomed cross- country ski trails.  A quick check of the City’s website and you find out Shaganappi Point, Confederation and Maple Ridge Golf Courses all have groomed trails.  Ungroomed trails can be found in Weaselhead, Edworthy, Fish Creek and North and South Glemore Parks.  There could easily be a couple of a couple of thousand people embracing winter on these trails on weekends and unless you were there you wouldn't know.  I expect snowshoeing also happens in these and other parks.

Tobboggans / Dogs

The City of Calgary website lists 18 toboggan hills in the city, with the St. Andrew’s Heights hill often cited as the best. I expect there are at least 20 unofficial toboggan hills in the city.   If 100 people used say 25 toboggan hills on a Saturday or Sunday that would be 2,500 Calgarians embracing winter.

Calgary’s dog parks are also busy in the winter with literally thousands of people walking their dog morning, noon and night regardless of the weather.  Did you know Calgary has 150 off-leash areas across the city?  If 100 people on average used each dog park per day that would be 15,000 people embracing winter daily.

Then of course there is Canada Olympic Park with it multi-use winter sports activities, which attracts thousands of Calgarians especially in the evenings and weekends. 

A local rink is used by thousands each winter to learn to skate and play hockey. Often they are next to summer playgrounds turning the space into year-round park.  

Last word

Klaszus ends his column with “If you can’t beat winter, join it.”  I am guess there are over 50,000 people embracing winter on any give Saturday or Sunday. I am thinking that many Calgarians indeed do embrace winter, each in our own way.  Calgary is a city of recreation, we like to get out and do things rather than sit on patios and philosophize. 

While some Calgarians complain about the winter roads and sidewalks, most of us are indeed out enjoying winter activities.  The media sometimes gives a distorted view of Calgary by catering to the complainers! 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Does Calgary have an inferiority complex?

Calgary City of Parks & Pathways 

Calgary Dog Park Capital of North America?

This blog also inspired another blog about "winter" by The23rdStory that looks at both Edmonton and Calgary from a more personal perspective.  Great read...Winter

Readers' Comments:

CW writes from Edmonton:  On a plus 2 Celsius Christmas night we walked the seven blocks of Edmonton's Candy Cane Lane up and down. Lots of people out. This year we were surprised that at least 80 percent of the talk on our walk was not English - most commonly Russian/east European, followed by Chinese, and Indian/south Asian. China and India are our biggest sources of immigration, after the Philippines (and they were there too, I think, but not talking as audibly).

To build our winter culture in Alberta, we should look at inviting those of other cultures that have longer traditions of living socially outdoors, and, as you propose, use technology to support the participants. Of course, through Aboriginals, Alberta has the greatest tradition of outdoor living, but I didn't see them out that night.

A parade of dog walker in January, in River Park, in Altadore is a common sight.   

More lessons from Winnipeg

Perhaps there are some more lessons to be learned from Winnipeg.  Brenda reminded me that a few years back they had a friendly community snowman making competition. Everyone was invited to make a snowman on their front lawn and they wander around looking at each others creation.  I thought it was a great idea at the time and still do.

I couldn't find anything on line to see if it is still happening. Too bad, as it is a simple and inexpensive way to get everyone out embracing winter and meeting their neighbours.  

I have certainly noticed more snowman in Calgary this year with our record December snowfall. I am thinking a Snowman Weekend festival would be easy to organize. Could be an impromptu festival that happens when we have snow and weather permitting.  

This could be the tallest snowman I have ever seen over 15 feet.  Somebody in Calgary was embracing winter. The park across the street from our house now has 3 snowman. 

I found this old relic of a toboggan slide in a playground area with an outdoor rink and summer playing fields in Winnipeg this past November.  I have never seen these anywhere else but Winnipeg. What a great idea to make playgrounds year-round attractions for families. 

Winter photography great fun....mountain or city! This image is from Grassi Lake trail...Canmore AB!

Las Vegas: Neon Boneyard

By Richard White, 

I often wonder when developers and urban planners will wake up and see the light (pun intended), recognizing the importance of “lighting” in creating urban vitality - and I am not just talking about street lights.

When will they realize the bleakness of today’s city centers and urban streets is due in part to the absence of the colour, charm, playfulness and character that neon lights provided (day and night) to downtown hotels, restaurants, pubs, clubs, theatres, cinemas and retailers.

Show me a street full of neon and I will show you a street full of life.  Human beings are attracted to neon like moths to a light bulb.  

Downtown Decline

The heyday for most of North American cities’ downtown was in the early to mid 20th century.  It was a time when downtown streets were full of bright, flashing neon lights. 

Perhaps the best articulation of the importance of neon light to creating great street life was in the 1964 hit song “Downtown” in which Petula Clark belted, “Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose? The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles; forget all your cares.” 

 In retrospect, the mid ‘60s was also the beginning of the rise of minimalism urban design that shunned “ornamentation and decoration,” including neon signage.

Neon signs are works of art and function much like public art in creating a more visually engaging public realm that invites people to stop, look around and linger.  Cities around the world spending millions of dollars on public art each year that rarely captures the public’s imagination and is soon forgotten or ignored in the new minimalistic urban landscape.

Perhaps we should be encouraging developers to create signature neon signage that are “works of art” while at the same time help brand the building and add to are part of an engaging downtown wayfinding system.        

 

In my mind, the Boneyard Park is a must see Las Vegas attraction, way more interesting than The Strip.  It is much more authentic and offers an up close and personal look at one of the iconic artifacts of urban design - the neon sign. 

The link between folk art and neon art becomes more obvious the more you explore the Boneyard Park.

I am not sure which came first Disneyland or Vegas but there is a strong link between the two i.e. the sense of play, fun and fantasy. 

A perfect example of how neon signage was critical to the branding of hotels in Vegas. The sign immediately said "Fun" even without the lights on. 

Another example of branding and signage.  Love that the signage is large and easy to read. Too many downtown and suburban buildings today have small signage that is hidden away making it very difficult to find them.

The Boneyard is like a grave yard or junk yard; this just adds to the fun of exploring.  The juxtaposition of the different signs is wonderful. You also get the sense of how sculptural the signage is.  These truly are works of art. 

The Boneyard entrance is a wonderful mid-century modern building that is very inviting and memorable.

Freemont street recalls the main streets of many cities from the mid 20th century when the streets were indeed brighter and more fun visually than they are today.  

The Silver Slipper is fun day and night, male or female, young or old.  

Love the link between cartoons and neon characters.  

A good example of how neon signage can be used to add fun and colour to an otherwise ordinary streetscape. 

Lighting can also used to create a fun facade in the evening, which is even more important in winter cities like Calgary. 

Las Vegas’ Boneyard Park

Being in the Neon Boneyard Park (a two-acre oasis with over 150 historic neon signs) is like being in a museum’s storage room, with the “museum” being outdoors in the middle of the city. See artifacts in their raw state, not polished, lit up or presented in isolation on a pedestal. Here you see them randomly mixed together in junk-yard like fashion, yet they are still  wonderful works of art.

Las Vegas Signs Project has been restoring signs from the Boneyard Park and installing them along Las Vegas Boulevard in downtown Vegas since 1996. Several restored neon signs including the Horse and Rider from the Hacienda Hotel and the Silver Slipper can be enjoyed day and night by both pedestrians and those in vehicles. 

Access to the Boneyard is by guided tour only.  Our tour guide was very informed and informal, providing lots of information but allowing lots of freedom to explore on our own, take pictures and ask lots of questions. 

Guided tours are 7 days a week and reservations are recommended.  (Note: As tours can be cancelled due to inclement weather - especially wind storms - don’t wait until the last day of your Vegas vacation to visit).

The Neon Museum’s Visitor Center is the lobby of the old La Concha Motel Lobby designed by acclaimed architect Paul Revere Williams. It is like something right out of the Jetsons.  Built in 1961, it is an excellent example of the mid-century modern Atomic and Space Age design with its curvilinear arches.

See Appendix for history of neon.

The crowd gathers waiting for the Freemont Experience to begin.  

Age of LED

Today the most popular form of decorative lighting is LED light.  There are several reasons for this. While the initial price is almost the same as neon, once you have a neon sign there is no changing it, whereas LED lights can be updated as often as you like. 

Secondly and the biggest advantage of LED displays is that they use 5 to 10 times less power. Thirdly, neon tubes need their gases refilled periodically and the glass can break, while LED is maintenance-free. In addition, LED lights are brighter and can be seen from further away and even in daylight. 

Arguably, the best use of LED lighting is also in Vegas – The Freemont Experience, which began in 1995. Today, a 1,500 foot-long canopy (three football fields) covers Freemont Street in old downtown Vegas. It acts as a movie screen.  The canopy has 12.5 million LED lights, which when combined with 180 strobe lights and 8 robotic mirrors on each block plus a sophisticated computer system, can generate 16.7 million colour combinations. 

Combine this with the 555,000 watt sound system and you get an amazing light and sound show that attracts, on average, 25,000 people per night for the Freemont Experience.

While I realize not every downtown can afford this kind of nightly entertainment, more downtowns should seriously look at how sound and light shows can be part of their quest for 18/7 vitality. 

Another good example of use of LED lighting to enhance downtown vitality is “Crown Fountain” at Chicago’s Millennium Park.  Learn more: Putting the public in public art.

 

The Freemont Street canopy is washed with colour as thousands of people mill about waiting for the show to begin.  

Let the show begin...the canopy becomes a huge video screen for spectacular light and sound show.

Even at night the Crown Fountain attracts hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds to play and interact with the LED faces and the wading pool. 

Take away idea

Downtowns need to focus more, or as much on becoming entertainment districts as business districts.

They need to become a place where people, “Linger on the sidewalk. Where the neon signs and LED lights are pretty. The lights must be much brighter there, so you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”   

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtowns need to be fun

Putting the public back into public art

Cruising in Chicago

The curse of minimalism

 

 

 

 

 

Neon History (excerpts from www.neonlab.com)

Over the last 150 years, the luminous tube industry has evolved from the simple laboratory experiments in the second half of the 19th century to an industry of world-wide proportions.

In the late 1800s, scientists developed reliable and somewhat safe high voltage supplies and began running high voltages through many things to observe what would happen. Often, they tested to see how wide of an air gap the spark could jump. It was discovered the spark gap was inversely proportional to the pressure of the air and that an evacuated glass tube was the ideal method for viewing light from gas discharges.

After British researcher William Ramsey discovered the five rare gases between 1894-1898 (receiving the Nobel Prize in 1904), it then became possible for French scientist, Georges Claude, to figure out that these gases could be made to produce light discharges when electrical discharges were passed through them. Finally, the long desired method that scientists had been looking for - a form of practical lighting by glowworm or phosphorescent light which emitted “light without heat.”

By World War l, Claude had acquired many patents, but he had more on his mind than strictly scientific knowledge. He envisioned a lucrative market for his tubes in lighting and signage. Because neon gas produced the brightest light, it was used almost exclusively and soon the generic “Neon Sign” was born. By 1924, “Claude Neon” franchises appeared in 14 major cities across the United States. And by 1927, 611 out of a total of 750 neon signs in New York City had been made by Claude Neon Lights, Inc.

A great period of creativity for neon took place in the years that followed, a period when many design and animation techniques were developed. Unfortunately, the economic conditions caused by the Depression slowed neon’s growth. However, one place neon continued to work its magic during this period was on the exteriors of movie palaces, providing a colorfully glowing invitation to the fantasy world within.

Then following World War ll and the advent of plastics, manufacturers began promoting Plexiglas shadow boxes with fluorescent lighting, neon’s cousin, behind lettering and graphics. Neon, by then considered old fashioned, was relegated to use as a hidden light source. Still today, 75% of neon is used in this way.

During the last decade, neon has seen a rebirth, as artists, architects and interior designers have begun to rediscover its exciting possibilities. Neon tube construction hasn’t changed much since the days of Claude Neon. It’s still a handcrafted medium where a glassbender heats and forms each letter, one bend at a time. However, state-of-the art components and much-improved equipment make the neon tube of today superior to its predecessor.

 

Calgary's Rail Trail Stroll

By Richard White, December 3, 2013

Do you consider yourself to be a bit of an “urban explorer?”  Its literal meaning is “the exploring of off-limit urban places, often associated with abandoned sites and buildings or underground water and sewer systems.” 

Other terms for these activities are “urban spelunking,” “urban caving” and “building hacking.” While I and urbanists have often used the term, I don't think we have used it correctly.   

I think the term “urban pioneers” would be more appropriate…especially in Calgary given our long history of pioneering!  To me, urban pioneers are people who are willing to live, work or play in gritty urban places, fix them up and transform them into funky, friendly neighbourhoods that eventually get discovered by the masses.

Where would an urban pioneer hang out in Calgary?

Some place with urban grit and Calgary chic. Would it be East Village, Inglewood, Bridgeland, Bowness, Forest Lawn or perhaps Manchester?  My vote goes to 10th Avenue SW or what I like to call the “Rail Trail.”   

This is a Christmas window along 10th Avenue from a few years back.  There are lots of hidden gems along the rail trail if you keep your eyes open. 

Wrong side of the tracks?

For the past 100 years, 10th Ave has been the wrong side of the tracks. For many Calgarians, the area conjures up a picture of ugly parkades and empty gravel parking lots.  It is definitely not pedestrian friendly - no designer sidewalks or street furniture and no colourful banners or hanging baskets. 

Having recently become a big fan of Mikey’s Juke Joint (the new King Eddy) at 18th Street and 10th Avenue SW., I have slowly discovered the quirky charm of the area on the south side of the CPR rail tracks.

Mikey’s is tucked onto a corner in the underbelly of the Bow Trail/Crowchild Trail spaghetti over/under passes as well as the West LRT sky train.  The locale is the epitome of the urban landscape – freight trains go by regularly and lots of warehouses, empty lots and chain-link fences. This is where John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac or J.D Salinger would hang out if they were alive and living in Calgary today. 

If you are thinking you’d like to try some urban strolling in Cowtown, here is my suggested tour of the 10th Avenue Rail Trail.  You could do it in an hour or you could take a half day, have lunch, a drink or take in a blues jam session. 

One of the many ugly surface parking lots on the north side of 10th Avenue facing the CPR tracks. The Centennial Parkade is the building on the other side of the two fences and the tracks. 

Prairie Oysters & Beer

I’d suggest starting your stroll at 2nd Street SW with an early lunch or a beer at Bottlescrew Bill’s Pub.  They offer a unique Calgary experience - “Around the world in 80 beers!” While most pubs come and go, Bottlescrew Bill’s and the sister restaurant Buzzards have been around since 1980.

In June 2011, the Globe and Mail writer Robin Estrock listed “devour prairie oysters” at Buzzards Restaurant as #5 of “The 15 things to see and do in Canada before you die!”

Heading west, the next block has a north/south dichotomy with the north side being one of the many nasty surface parking lots and the backside of the Royal Canadian Pacific Railway shed. You would never know this is home to one of the best collections of heritage railway cars in the world. 

On the south-side is a collection of historic brick warehouse buildings that originally served the CPR freight trains and today house some noteworthy retailers (e.g. Roche Bobois one of the world’s most exclusive international contemporary furniture stores).  I wonder if 100 years ago they ever thought these buildings would one day be used to sell $15,000 sofas?

The next block offers up the same dichotomy with brick warehouses on one side and the City Center Parkade (CCCP - adding one more C would be fitting as this structure looks like a concrete bunker from Russia) on the other.  Did I say there are no hanging baskets on 10th Avenue?  I take that back as there are baskets at this parkade. 

This block also has the flagship CRAFT brew pub, with 100 beers on tap -  it has become an instant hot spot for the young and restless after work crowd.  The National is another larger playground for Calgary's GABEsters, with it Bourbon room and 8-lane 10-pin bowling alley. Who says Calgarians don’t stay downtown after work?

At the southwest corner of 4th Street is the shinny new Centre10 office tower that has risen out of the ashes of two failed condo developments on the site. A sister office complex is planned for the north side of 10th Avenue.

The alley between 10th and 11th Avenues is home the entrance to Metro Vino one of Calgary's oldest wine stores.  

Loft Living

At 5th Street, you’ll encounter the historic red brick Hudson Lofts; this was the first of the early ‘90s loft conversions in Calgary and the beginning of the renaissance in downtown living.  There are plans for more condos, hotel and another office building in this area over the next few years - the surface parking lots are quickly disappearing.

The next stop is the Uptown Bottle Depot, a “must do” stop for every urban explorer/pioneer.  If you want a truly unique Calgary experience, return your empties here; urban grit at its grittiness.

However, just across the street is the old Alberta Boot block, plans were recently announced for a new 360 Residence Inn by Marriott.  Lamb Development Corp. plans to build a 30 story, 230 unit condo building to the west of the Depot. 

Another just block west is the Commonwealth Bar & Stage, Montauk Sofa and Speed Theory (bike shop).  You are now on the edge of the Design District. 

Hudson Loft is one of many brick warehouse buildings along 10th Avenue a few of which have become loft condos.  

Centre Ice

Centre ice for the “Rail Trail” is 10th and 8th Street. It’s home to several retailers and restaurants including Mountain Equipment Co-op, Trepanier Baer Gallery, The Social Page, Bonterra Trattoria (best patio in the city), Bumpy’s Café, Café Mauro, Edo Sushi, Holly Grill, Decadent Desserts and The Ferocious Grape. 

The old West Canadian Graphics (WCG) building on the southwest corner will soon be the funky Mark on 10th condo by Qualex-Landmark.   Next to this site is the carcass of the Astoria condo (remember the plans for the $10,000,000 penthouse condo). This fenced off abandoned construction site would be a great place for true “urban explorers.”  

The eventual development of the WCG and Astoria sites will result in over 500 people living near centre ice.

Strolling further west, you pass by Vistek Camera store and quickly arrive at the Midtown Co-op grocery store block.  For those interested in what it might be like to live in the Rail Trail area, stop in at the Qualex Landmark condo sales centre on the northside of the Co-op block and find out about their latest project. Next door is Interior Living furniture store to help you furnish your new condo and Tri-Yoga a popular spot for young, hip and flexible.

The Mountain Equipment cooperative store (MEC) is the anchor retailer on 10th Avenue and was the catalyst for making 10th and 8th Centre ice. 

Street Ballet

Crossing 11th Street you will pass by some “no-name” office buildings and industrial buildings before you arrive at Community Natural Foods at 12th Street.  This has to be one of the liveliest places in the entire Centre City.

Not being part of Calgary’s granola gang, I am always surprised at the animation - an urban ballet of pedestrians, bikes and cars trying to get in and out of the too small parking lot.  The Korean Village restaurant in the strip mall next door is a hidden gem, I am told by a colleague who once lived Korea (could be a place to stop for lunch).

Those with a good imagination can envision how the next block would have changed if the proposed Lausanne and Montreau (two 50 storeys high-rises) condos had been built across from the Lighting Centre.  

This is a close up of the murals of LP records on the back side of Heritage Music store (museum) that can be seen from 10th Avenue. 

Rolling Stones meets Big Bang Theory

Some recent road changes mean you no longer have to go to 11th Ave to cross 14th street - pedestrians, bikes and cars. However, I’d suggest you do go to 11th to checkout Heritage Music - it’s the wooden shack with the Rolling Stones’ Tongue record mural on the backside.  Inside is a mind-boggling collection of vintage vinyl, Hollywood memorabilia, as well as CDs – well worth exploring.

At the northwest corner of 10th Ave and 14th St is All Season Rental Adventures.  Who knew that you can rent ATVs, snowmobiles, motorcycles, scooters and even toboggans in Downtown Calgary?

Keep wandering past the Sunalta Community Association Building all the way to 18th Street and check out Sentry Box, Calgary’s premier fantasy, science fiction and military literature and gaming superstore (13,000 square feet).  It’s home to Calgary’s Dungeon and Dragon crowd and is where the Big Bang Theory boys would hang out if the TV show was based in Calgary. Along the way you will find a huge Western Veterinary Centre, one of the largest in Canada, as well as two surprising religion centres. 

Across the street is Mikey’s Juke Joint.  If you are strolling on a Saturday, try to arrive  about 3ish so you can experience the Saturday afternoon blues jam hosted by saxophonist and owner Mike Clark. 

Sleeping on the Rail Trail

The Calgary Mattress  Makers  at 19th St. is more of an old world arts and craft studio than a factory. Owner Dean Halstead encouraging people to walk-in and chat with him about your sleep needs.  He and his team then create a hand-tied, chemical free mattress custom made just for you and your partner with each side custom made to meet your individual needs.  After a day on the Rail Trail you may want to lie down for bit. 

Call me crazy - but in a few years, the “10th Ave Rail Trail” could well become Calgary’s hippest, coolest, hottest, funniest, liveliest neighbourhood!

 

The Sentry Box is a hangout for hipsters, GABEsters and families.  

Camera Buffs

The Rail Trail offers some unique views of some of Calgary’s modern glitzy architecture – Bankers’ Hall, 8th Avenue Place, Husky Oil Tower and Nexen Tower. It also offers some gritty views of urban industrial, warehouse and transportation design.

 Bring your camera!

This is an image of the Calgary Tower that I happened upon when flaneuring 10th Avenue several years ago. 

Found these beauties on the side of the Gulf Canada Square Parkade. 

Found these eyes staring at me as I headed into Mikey's just a few days ago.

The futuristic Sunalta station is a camera buff's paradise. You could spend an entire day they taking photos of the architecture inside and out as the light changes during the day.

The Rail Trail is full of surprises like this Kingdom Hall for Jehovah's Witness and not too far away is a Buddhist Centre.  

Postcards from cSPACE

By Richard White, December 5, 2013

Soon the majestic one hundred year old sandstone King Edward School, butchered by two ugly square box additions in Calgary’s gentrifying South Calgary community (rather an ironic name given it isn’t anywhere near the southern edge of South Calgary anymore, but rather is an inner city community) will become a bustling arts centre. At least that is the vision and cSPACE is the name!

Last weekend, I checked the space out when I went to Market Collective’s “Christmas Market” show and sale there.  The place was a hopping with Calgary hipsters (or GABEsters as I like to call them – Geologists, Accountants, Bankers, Brokers and Engineers) enjoying the music of a DJ, coffee from Café Rosso and browsing the pop-up artisan vendors in the second-floor classrooms. 

It gave me a chance to flaneur the school and take some photos. Wouldn't you know it I got asked three times, “you must have gone to school here?” I smiled and said, “No, I just like to explore interesting places and take pictures of fun, funky and quirky things.” 

It was definitely a fun space to explore. I even found there is supposedly a ghost named Eddy on the fourth floor. I wonder what he thinks of the new tenants and new vision.

I loved the way the space was already being used by the artists in various ways.  Not only was there the “Christmas market” happening, but the 3rd floor classrooms were being used by various groups including one as drawing studio with live models. The old school’s hallway was filled with nude drawings, from floor to ceiling and some on the floor.  I wonder what the teachers and principal back in 1914 would have thought of that!   

This is the entrance to the school which once was a grand entrance, today it has been hidden by a large box addition. I hope the grand entrance will be reclaimed as part of the renovations. 

Found this interesting "still life" composition of two chairs and sign intriguing. Love the retro red, yellow and blue palette. 

Background on cSPACE

After failed attempts by the private sector to purchase the school and its surrounding land for a condo development, the Calgary Foundation and Calgary Arts Development Authority’s cSPACE group bought the land and then raised the funds to convert it into a creative hub. 

What is a creative hub you ask? It is a mixed-use art space including a performance theatre, rehearsal space and studios for visual artists and writers.  A planned hangout for artists of all ages and genres, in theory it should be a catalyst for creativity.  A lot of research has gone into assessing the needs of Calgary’s arts community to continue to evolve and cSPACE is designed to provide some of them.

cSPACE Projects is a wholly owned subsidiary of Calgary Arts Development Authority and the Calgary Foundation and is a social enterprise model that will develop spaces for the arts across the city.  King Edward School is the first of what will hopefully be many projects in the future for cSPACE. 

For more info on the King Edward School Incubator project check out the cSPACE website. 

African mask? Monkey mask? Found several of these along a piece of wood that use to have coat hangers on it. 

I thought this window with just one clear pane created an interesting juxtaposition of light and space.

Just one of the many drawings on the third floor that gave the space a salon feel. 

A larger drawing on the main floor is an interesting dream-like collage of images of future uses.

Deja Vu

It is interesting that something similar was tried in the late ‘70s. At that time, the Memorial Park Library was converted into an arts centre with the Muttart Art Gallery (now the Art Gallery of Calgary) on the second floor, while the lower floor became the home of the Calgary Public Library’s collection of arts-oriented books.  

The vision was to create a place that would be home for artists and art patrons and be a catalyst for creativity.  Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t work. The locals wanted a greater selection of books and the arts community never really adopted the place as theirs. The art gallery lasted for over two decades, but the space never really worked as an art gallery it as too small, inadequate elevator and storage space, on the wrong side of the tracks and too far away from other galleries art spaces to attract a large number of visitors. Location. Location. Location. 

Today, the Memorial Park is again a regular branch library and the second floor houses the Calgary Library Foundation.  

Reader VR writes: "I still mourn the demise of The Allied Arts Centre of the 1960's and 1970's with its great little theatre on 9th Avenue. There I took wonderful classes with Joyce Doolittle and Grant Reddick. Good old Rod Sykes, the then mayor, withdrew city funding and shut it down. I guess it is torn down by now.  (Sigh) So this development shows there is hope. Now if we could just get a proper Civic Art Gallery." 

I had forgotten about the Allied Arts Centre which also was a mixed-use arts facility in Calgary that lasted for a few decades but then died.

 

Found this image of the Allied Arts Centre when it was in the Coste House.  Calgary has an interesting history of arts development. This is before the 9th Avenue location with is now a bar I believe. Credit: Glenbow Archives 

There were several folk art benches in the school but this one next to a vintage water fountain caught my eye.

I loved the colour, form and composition of these exposed pipes.  

Doors to ? 

One of the artisans was selling these fun architectural frames.  I thought it was ironic that one was a blackboard in a classroom.

This was just too fun not to include as a postcard.

Found this deconstructivist thermostat that looks a lot like a piece of art we just bought in Bosie Idaho that was was constructed out of recycled parts from cameras and other objects. I would have like to of taken this home. 

Community Impact

The cSPACE block (it takes an entire city block) is located just a “hop, skip and a jump” from the nearby community centre block with its playing fields, outdoor hockey rink and Alexander Calhoun Library. Also the west side of 14th Street SW from 26 to 29th Avenuesis quietly evolving into a local retail district with neighbourhood pub, salons, clothing stores and a soon-to-arrive Starbucks. cSPAC is Not far away is bell’s café bookstore, an established artists’ hangout.

Flaneuring around “South Calgary” you quickly realize that this, like all Calgary inner city communities is under siege with construction with infill projects being built on almost every block.  While many are single family, monster homes, there are also lots of townhouses and small condo complexes.  

They don’t come cheap, so they are no places where young artists could afford to live, but they are definitely places where art patrons would live.  Hopefully there are also plans to also create affordable housing for artists in the community as vibrant communities need people of all ages and backgrounds to call them home.

cSPACE could easily be the catalyst needed to make South Calgary Calgary’s newest urban village.  

GABEsters shopping and selling to each other.

An example of one of the pop-up artisan displays.

Mural next to the large box addition at the school entrance.  Love how the artist has used the Danger sign to mask the face. Is this a Danger Mask? 

The entrance to the school as it exists today with the jail in front and the box addition on the side. Not particularly inviting.

The history of the school.

 

The future of the school? An artist's rendering of the streetscape to be created with the school hidden in the background.  I hope that the old and the new can be integrated in a synergistic fashion that will capture the public's imagination. 

Last Word

I hope cSPACE works.  The existing old school space is exactly what artists need to create – space that isn't too fancy or too expensive.  Currently, it reminded me of how local artists had converted the Billingsgate Fish Market in East Village into studios, performance and exhibition space a few years back. 

It also had some of the ambience of Art Central.  Both were old buildings with lots of little spaces that could be rented cheaply.

My worry is that the multi-million dollar renovation will sanitize the space. Creativity is messy and spontaneous, not planned and formal.  Too often new art spaces actually inhibit creativity by being too big, too clean, too safe, too expensive and too bureaucratic.

I hope I am worrying for nothing.

Reader TT points out that Toronto has completed a very similar initiative has been completed on Queen Street West.  Shaw Street School has been transformed into a 75,000 square foot arts centre for $17 million compared to cSPACE's King Edward School which will be 45,000 square feet and $30 million including land costs. Read more: Shaw Street School

 

If you like this blog you might like: 

http://everydaytourist.ca/blog/2013/5/7/poppy-plaza

http://everydaytourist.ca/blog/2013/5/8/the-rise-of-public-art-the-decline-of-public-galleries

http://everydaytourist.ca/blog/2013/10/28/public-art-love-it-or-hate-it

http://everydaytourist.ca/blog/2013/11/15/yyc-dare-to-be-different

Calgary's Million Dollar Communities

By Richard White, December 2, 2013

Forget the million dollar luxury homes, or the million dollar streets; Calgary now has million dollar communities.  Yes there are 14 communities (based on the MLS sales July to September 2013) in the city where the average selling price is over one million dollars.)  In fact, five communities have an average selling price of over two million dollars. 

Who are they? Belaire is #1 with an average selling price of $2.5 million, followed by Britannia at $2.2 million.  Mount Royal, Elbow Park/Glencoe are tied for third and fourth spots at $2.1 million and Eagle Ridge is #5 at just over $2 million. 

Most of the million dollar communities are clustered in the area  north of Glenmore Trail, south of 17th Avenue, west of Elbow Drive and east of Crowchild Trail i.e. the “Oil Patch Executive District (OPED).”  There are only three million dollar communities north of the Bow River – St. Andrew’s Heights, Varsity Estates and Rosedale and they are all just barely over the one million mark. 

This is one of several new homes being build in St. Andrew's Height along the edge of the Bow River's northern bluff. These home offer sweeping views of the city, river valley and mountains. 

Another example of a St. Andrew's Height mansion. 

Britannia: Model Community Development 

One of my favourite million dollar communities in Calgary is Britannia. For 10 years when I lived in Kelvin Grove and worked at the Muttart Art Gallery in the historic Memorial Park Library building I use to drive by this community everyday.  I think what attracted me most was the quaint Britannia Plaza with its angled parking and local shops that looks like an early 20th century prairie Main Street.  What community wouldn’t lust to have its own Main Street with grocery store, bistro, café, bookstore, wine merchant and hardware store?   Funny this is what we are struggling to create in our new communities and yet it was already created in over 50 years ago.   It is even surrounded by small three floor condos and apartments to add some density without creating monster high-rises.  In an ironic twist, the lowest price condo sale in the city from July to September was in Britannia at $125,000.

I am surprise that this model of community development with a single block of retail easily accessibility to Elbow Drive wasn’t duplicated as the city expanded southward.  For that matter it could have also worked along 10th, 14th and 19th Street NW, as well as Centre and 4th St NE. 

An example of one of Britannia's original homes, which would have been quite luxurious in their time, now they are modest. Note the one car garage, there were few two car families in the '60s. 

An example of the large multi-level homes that are currently being built.  Could these become modest homes in 50 years? 

Plaza / High Street 

Mike Keho at Fairfield Commercial informed me that in 1953, the Britannia Plaza was the first purpose-built shopping centre in Calgary and became a template for other small scale suburban retail strip malls at the entrance to other communities like Fairview, Cambrian and Mailand Heights and even the Stadium shopping centre.”   

The creation of outdoor strip malls in the ‘50s and ‘60s was an experiment that worked for 25 or 30 years before falling to mega indoor shopping centers and today’s big box power centers with their huge grocery stores and hardware stores with acres of parking.  Britannia Plaza demonstrates that local small retailers can survive, with good vehicle, pedestrian and cycling access, some density nearby and without a sea of surface parking.   

Britannia Plaza is not what we would call a plaza today but what they call in England a "high street" or "shopping street."  It has the feel of a small prairie town main street with its angle parking.  It is a lovely street with lots of small shops and a Sunterra local grocery store. This is what every community needs or maybe ever second one along the major road like Elbow Drive. 

Britannia Plaza/Street from the west side i.e. the community side. 

Smaller than you think

I was surprise to find out how small Britannia is with only 746 people living in the community - it must be one of the city’s smallest communities population wise.  It is also small geographically with its borders being Elbow Drive on the east and Elbow River on the west, 50th Ave on the south and Britannia Drive on the north.

It is also interesting that Britannia Plaza thrives without any high density housing in the area.  A quick check of the City of Calgary’s community profile shows that Britannia is 71% single-family housing and 29% apartments, which is significantly higher than the than city-wide figure of 58% for single-family, but surprisingly also slightly above the city average for apartments which is 27%.  What is missing in the housing stock is town and row housing. When it comes to home ownership and rentals Britannia mirrors the city average of 73% homeowners and 27% renters. 

I expect what makes Britannia so attractive is the abundance of large single- mid-century homes and large lots with great accessibility to Calgary’s many urban playgrounds - Downtown, Mission, 17th Avenue and Chinook Mall.  Easy access to Calgary Golf and Country Club, Riverdale Park and the Elbow River doesn’t hurt.

Britannia is very attractive to Calgary’s young “executive class” and their families as evidenced by the fact 21.3% of the population is between the ages of 5 and 19, significantly higher than the city-wide 17.7% for the same bracket.  It is not surprising that a whooping 49% of adults living in Britannia have a BA or higher level of education, compared to a citywide figure of 25%. Yes it does pay to get a higher education! 

Britannia has numerous small apartment blocks surrounding the plaza to add some density close to the stores and transit. In the '60s this is where seniors would retire to.

British Theme

Britannia was annexed into the city in 1910, but no significant development took place until the 1950s - the bungalow era for North America housing.  If you wander the community you can still see many of the mid-century bungalows, however, they are quickly becoming extinct as the young “executive class” are buying them up and adding a second floor as children today must have their own bedroom and in many cases their own bathroom too.  The mid-century ranch house has evolved into a mini boutique hotel or inn, complete with master retreat, media room and private wine cellar. 

One of the other fun things you notice when wandering Britannia is that all the street names have a distinctly British theme – Coronation Drive, Edinburgh Boulevard and Elizabeth Road.  In fact, “Britannia” is an old Latin name for Great Britain and in the Roman period Britannia was the name of a goddess depicted as a beautiful young woman, wearing a helmet of a centurion with her right breast exposed.

Another example of condos in Britannia that create a more urban sense of place as you get closer to the plaza and Elbow Drive. 

Last Word 

Creating and sustaining estate communities in Calgary to attract and retain the “executive class” is essential to creating a complete city. Just as important as creating “urban villages” to attract the “creative class.” Great cities are attractive to people of all ages and backgrounds.  

A version of this blog was written for Calgary's Domus Magazine, winter 2014 edition.

If you like this blog you might like: 

Country Estate Living 

Be a tourist in your own neighbourhood

Estate Communities vs Urban Villages

Urban Cottages

Reader comments:

GB writes:  I was just a young boy when Britannia was developed but I remember very well my Mom and Dad driving us around the old traffic circle and up Elbow Drive into what would become Britannia.  In about 1955, there was a house built on the East side of Elbow Drive at about Imperial Way or 49th Avenue.  It was known as the Trend House or The Trend Home and I think it was one of a series of houses that were built across Canada to demonstrate new building materials.  All that I can remember from walking through it with my folks was that it had an electric can opener and I think it had a dishwasher which was unheard of at that point.  The house is still there.  Anyway, a story on the Trend Home would be very interesting if you wanted to follow it up.

 

FUN ideas for Downtown Calgary!

By Richard White, November 24, 2013 

I recently shared some of the fun things to see and do in downtown Spokane, Wash. — and spoke of how, if Calgary wants to have an attractive, vibrant downtown, it is vital to create entertaining and even purely whimsical things for people to enjoy.

In this blog, I want to open up the discussion as to how we might add more fun to Calgary’s rather staid, office-centric core, where sober practicality can too often be an excuse for lack of imagination and engagement.

Arguably, the most fun spot in our downtown is the Colourful Cows for Calgary exhibition, hidden away on the second floor of the Centennial Parkade. Where, and what, you say?

That’s where a dozen or so of the Udderly Art cow sculptures were put out to pasture, so to speak, at a city parkade on Fifth Street near Eighth Avenue around the corner from the Globe Theatre.

Udderly Art was a charity event that took place in the summer of 2000. Using the same fibreglass cow as a template, artists were sponsored by companies to come up with everything from a Mae West-inspired entry named Moo West to a Holy Cow that was perforated with holes. The history of one of Canada’s most successful public art projects is there for everyone to enjoy. Thirteen years later, perhaps it is time for another fun summer public art program. 

Just one of the dozen of so cows that are grazing on the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade.  

Everybody loves a train

Is it just me, or is there something fun about a train?

Did you know that at noon every day, the steam whistle on the Canadian Pacific Railway No. 29 steam locomotive goes off in front of the Gulf Canada Square building on 9th Avenue? Too bad this couldn’t happen more often; it would be great if anyone could come up to the train anytime pull a lever and the whistle would sound. 

I hope downtown doesn’t lose the engine when the railway company moves its headquarters out of downtown. If it is moved, perhaps it could be replaced by a monster oil sands truck. Last time I talked about Spokane’s popular Big Wagon slide. How about we get a decommissioned truck and turn it into a slide? Maybe with a little imagination, it could also become a climbing apparatus for kids. What kid (even dads) wouldn’t want into climb the big truck?

We need some visual reminders downtown that we are one of the world’s leading oil and gas centres. 

The historic Engine #29 sits on Gulf Canada office building which is the head office of the historic Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. Unfortunately they are moving out of the downtown.   

Climbing walls?

Speaking of climbing, if we want to add some fun to our downtown and give a nod to the Rocky Mountains and our passion for recreation, we need a mega downtown climbing wall. Perhaps we could start by turning the Calgary Tower into a huge climbing wall. Wouldn’t it be fun to watch people climb the outside of the tower? The colourful hand and foot holds, with their funky shapes and patterns would make the tower look like a totem sculpture.

If the Calgary Tower doesn’t work, perhaps an existing or new office developer could create a climbing wall on the outside of their building or in the lobby. Canmore has a climbing wall in their new recreation centre in a space that looks remarkably just like an office lobby — wouldn’t that animate a sterile office building. I could see the space being used by all kinds of people for different events.

For anyone who argues the liability lawyers would have a field day with this idea, I recently toured the University of Idaho’s climbing wall facility, which has one of the highest walls in the world. It turns out injuries are minimal and they have had no liability issues.

The climbing wall located on the main floor of the new Canmore, Alberta recreation centre bears a striking resemblance to an office lobby with its two floor open ceiling. Sure beats a sterile office lobby for animation. 

The University of Idaho in Moscow has once of the tallest climbing walls in the world.  Wouldn't this be a nice addition to downtown Calgary. 

Family days

In the early ’90s, the Calgary Downtown Association organized a Kids’ Days event.

But rather than the usual face-painting and art-making activities, how about an annual or monthly downtown scavenger hunt that encourages families to explore, learn and have fun downtown.

Perhaps it could even be self-guided, encouraging families to find interesting things, such as a bush plane hanging from a ceiling … or a buffalo skeleton … or the Cowabunga skateboarding cow from Udderly Art.

Might we convince Calgary Transit to offer free rides on the LRT to downtown on the first weekend of the month? Kids love to ride the train and come down to the “tall city” (as my nephew used to refer to Calgary’s downtown when he was three years old). 

This is an actual plane hanging from the ceiling of the Suncor Centre.  

Christmas

Calgary used to have a downtown Santa Claus Parade, creating an annual fun event for families to do in the core. I think some of us still have childhood memories of going downtown to see the animated Christmas windows at The Bay and Eaton’s.

Flagship retailers in New York, Chicago and Paris pride themselves on their magical Christmas windows, attracting tens of thousands of people to their downtowns at Christmas time.

Perhaps we could convince businesses along Stephen Avenue, aka Calgary’s main street, to create amazing Christmas window displays each year that would add some fun and excitement to the street for everyone. While some of the current windows are nice, none have the magic of past Christmases. We need to kick it up a notch, perhaps through a contest with proceeds going to charity

Why wait for Christmas...fun, funky, quirky downtown windows should be part of the unique downtown experience all year. 

Kids banners

We could also have an annual fun banner program downtown.  Instead of the text-oriented designs used for most of the current banners, children’s workshops could be organized throughout the city to generate art depicting what they like about Calgary.

Judges could choose which ones get made into banners, while others could be displayed as part of exhibitions at City Hall and the Devonian Gardens.

Everybody loves children’s art as it is always colourful and fun. Imagine if every lamp post downtown had a kid’s banner on it? Imagine how the Seventh Avenue Transit corridor could be transformed into a children’s art gallery — now that would change downtown’s sense of place

Imagine if these LRT station banners used children's art to create a more unique sense of place and play.

FUN Architecture 

The proposed new downtown library is an opportunity waiting for some fun urban design. We should let kids in on designing the library; they did a great job on the Alberta Children’s Hospital. At minimum, they should be part of the creation of the library’s children’s area. 

The proposed Telus Sky building also has an element of fun in its design, which I think (and hope) could probably be played up even more as the design evolves. Maybe one of these two projects could incorporate the climbing wall?

It is not coincidence that the Alberta Children's Hospital looks like it was constructed with lego.  A youth advisory group provide the design team with ideas about what the hospital should look like - big windows and bright colours were two of the suggestions.  The building is both fun and welcoming, something every building should be. 

Some of Calgary's most colourful and fun architecture is hidden from view, like this office building at Canada Olympic Park.  Imagine if this building was along the 7th Avenue Transit corridor or along 9th Avenue as a gateway into downtown.  This makes a fun statement. 

Alley Art Gallery

While recently strolling through downtown Boise, Idaho, my wife and I recently came upon an alley full of young girls and their moms. We wondered what was happening.

It turns out it was a dance company that was using their “Freak Alley” paintings as a backdrop for a photo session. Even a place in a state known for its potato production is willing to fly its freak flag — how fun is that?

 The walls of the buildings facing the alley and an adjacent surface parking lot are full from the ground to the rooftops of street art by numerous artists, whose styles range from graffiti to realism. It is a wonderful outdoor gallery and a nice urban surprise.

If only we use a little imagination and co-operation, Calgary’s downtown has plenty of alleys that could become outdoor art galleries.

 Downtown is already mega urban art park that contains more than 100 public sculptures, not to mention a few murals. Perhaps the city’s bonus density program — a municipal policy that allows developers to build more floors in return for creating public amenities like indoor gardens, plazas, public art and Plus-15 bridges — could include creating an alley art gallery. 

It would be fun to have an alley art walk that people could experience anytime they are downtown. 

Fun art from Boise's Freak Alley.

 Calgary does have some fun art like these two sculptures at Bow Valley Square. They always make me smile.

Calgary does have some fun art like these two sculptures at Bow Valley Square. They always make me smile.

Zip Line

Freemont Street in Las Vegas is very much like Stephen Avenue — both are pedestrian malls. One of Freemont’s big attractions is a zip line down the middle of the street.

I am not sure this would work on Stephen Ave, but perhaps it would somewhere else downtown; maybe in Shaw Millennium Park, or in Prince’s Island. How about across the Bow River (a reader once suggested this to me) going both ways.

It could add a whole new dimension for those walking to work and would be a fun activity for Calgarians and visitors.

Freemont Street in old downtown Vegas has a zip line under the white canopy that covers the street for several blocks.  The canopy is used in the evening for a spectacular light show that is set to music.  Now that FUN!

Bring back the neon

In the heyday of downtowns in the mid-20th century, the streets were “brighter,” as ’60s singer Petula Clark once noted in her song, Downtown. But that is not true today. Most of the streets in downtown Calgary are dark, with little or no light on the sidewalks. Any signs you come across are very subtle and corporate.

We need to bring back the flashing blade signs of the neon era that shout out that something fun is happening inside. A great place to start would be to animate the EPCOR Centre and the Glenbow with some great neon signs.

Downtowns across North America use to fun places with lots of colour and street animation animation provided by the flashing bright neon lights. Today there are few of the big, bold beautiful neon signs left.  

Last Word

These are just a few of my wacky FUN ideas I am sure there are more and better one’s out there. Email me your thoughts on how to make our downtown or city centre a more FUN place for everyone and I will tweet and blog them out. 

If you like this blog you might like: 

Freakn Fun in Freak Alley: Boise

FFQing in Tri-cities

Downtown Spokane Fun

An edited version of this blog was first published in the Calgary Herald's Condo section on Saturday, November 23, 2013 with different photographs. 

Eau Claire Market Mega-Makeover Revisited

By Richard White, November 20, 2013

Eau Claire Market is quickly becoming the new East Village i.e. there seems to be a new redevelopment plan announced every 5 years, but nothing happens.  I am hopeful that Calgary’s economy will stay strong for the next five to ten years so the latest plan can come to fruition.

When Eau Claire Market was opened in the early ‘90s it was one of the first “entertainment retail” centers  (ERCs) in North America.  ERCs with their multi-screen cinema complexes, IMAX theatres, themed restaurants, pubs, bars and boutiques became all the rage across North America.  

Eau Claire Market was popular at first (the lust of the new), but it quickly began to struggle.  I have been told that a destination retail center needs a minimum of 500,000 square feet and Eau Claire has only about 200,000.  There were also issues of the lease with the city and restrictions on types on tenants mix - mandating tenant mix almost never works. 

It didn’t help that Chinook Centre also underwent a mega makeover and became one of the premier ERCs in North America.  In the early ‘90s, when Eau Claire Market opened Chinook Centre was an old tired mall.

Similarly, Stephen Avenue Walk experienced a transformation in the late ‘90s into an upscale restaurant row.  Over the same period, cinema complexes became bigger with 20+ theatres opening in Chinook and in the suburbs.  Eau Claire’s cinemas quickly became dated. 

These computer generated images illustrate the gem-like or crystal-like shapes of the proposed new Eau Claire Market towers.  It will be interesting to see if these shapes can be built in a cost effective manner.  Note the balconies carved out in the sloped roof-top.