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. 

Freakn Fun in Freak Alley: Boise

By Richard White, November 19, 2013

Recently I have been a bit obsessed with the idea of how to add more fun into the “everyday” urban experience.  One of the most unexpected and fun experiences we’ve had recently was the discovery of “Freak Alley” in downtown Boise, Idaho.   As a former artist who initiated the “Street Art for Gleichen” project in the early ‘80 and later as public gallery curator, art critic and reviewer, Boise’s outdoor art gallery was very intriguing to me.  Freak Alley is accessed from Bannock Street and runs between 8th and 9th Streets.

There was some serendipity involved as we arrived around the same time as a dance company of young teens and preteens who were using the space for a photo shoot.   Good urban spaces are incubators for surprises!

While almost every city (large and small) now has a “First Thursday or First Friday” art program and lots have historic mural programs, Boise’s “Freak Alley” is more unique and makes a contemporary statement about Boise’s emergence as an urban playground.

While at first glance most would see the space as “graffiti gone wild,” once you take some time to look and ponder the art you realize it is a contemporary exhibition with strong political and personal artistic statements. 

Freak Alley wall facing the parking lot. The exhibition has the feeling of a salon show with artworks hung side-by-side. 

This was my favourite, I liked the hybridization of cartoon and surrealism.

The alley was full of animation with all of these dancers and their parents prancing about.  The costume designs seemed to fit right in with the artwork.  

This drawing-like painting was also a favourite of mine.  

History

As I understand it, Freak Alley began in 2002 when local artist Colby Akers painted a doorway in the alley. It was well received so he asked other building owners if they would allow artists to paint their doors and wall and when they agreed he asked other artists join in the fun!

Today, Akers still manages Freak Alley reviewing proposals from both local and out-of-town artists to have their artwork exhibited for one year. Perhaps it is the temporary nature of the artwork that allows it to be seedy and edgy, as opposed to the refined work seen in public galleries and juried public artworks.  There was definitely more excitement at “Freak Alley” then when we checked-out BAM aka Boise Art Museum. 

"River Sculpture" by Alison Sky is a 50-foot high relief made of granite, fused glass, neon, painted aluminum and fog misters on the corner of a building which offers great sight lines.  It is a celebration of water and light. 

Found this little guy playing with a piece of public art depicting children playing marbles.  Urban playgrounds should appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds. It isn't just about the restaurants, shops, festivals, museums, attractions and performing arts.  

Sanitized Street Art

Downtown Boise is also home to several more traditional street art/murals.  The one we enjoyed the most was “Penny Post Cards” by Mark Baltes, which is a collage of images from actual penny postcards from the late 19th Century.  These postcards depicted the beautiful buildings and streets of downtown Boise. It is interesting to see how the downtown's sense of place has evolved over the past 100 years ago.  The mural is a dual-faced artwork that changes as you walk around it evolving from abstraction to realism depending on your perspective.  The artwork is prominently located on the north wall of Boise’s City Hall on Idaho Street, between Capitol Blvd and 6th Street.

You can find more information about Boise’s extensive collection of public art, as well as its architecture and history at Boise Art and History  - everything from Egyptian Revival architecture to pagoda turrets. 

 

 

Mark Baltes mural "Penny Post Card" captures the history of downtown Boise with a bit of contemporary interpretation with its collage of images from old postcards. 

From a the side the image is of an actual post card in its entirety.  

Traffic Box & Transit Shelter Art

Many cities have decorated their ugly grey utility boxes with local artwork or images of the city’s history.  But the art on Boise’s boxes is not just for beautification purposes, while some look a little amateurish and are not much more than decoration, many had a punch and an edge you don’t often find with this kind of street art.

I was personally impressed with a “pop art” piece I found in the Linen District depicting a bear, an elephant, a young girl and a weight lifter.  It has an interesting ambiguity that I found puzzling and intriguing at the same time. I like art that makes me think - work for an understanding. Click here to learn more.  

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Last Word

For a city of 212,000 people (600,000 metro), Boise has an impressive downtown that is quickly evolving into a fun urban playground with a strong culinary and café culture, as well as interesting art scene.  If you are in the area it is definitely worth exploring.   

This mural Les Bois, 1992 was created by Bruce Poe and Dennis Proksa.  It consists of 24 white steel plates with a random pattern of cut leaf images against a black wall in a parking lot at street level. As you walk past the leaves evolve from whole to fragmented.