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.

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.


Beltline: North America's best hipster/gabester community?

By Richard White / October 31, 2013 

This blog is from my White House column in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours section. It was published on October 31, 203.

 Upon returning from a recent trip to Chicago and Portland, where I explored several urban villages including Wicker Park and Bucktown (Chicago) and Pearl District (Portland), considered two of the best hipster communities in the USA (Forbes, September 2012), I couldn’t help but reflect upon Calgary’s Beltline community. Shouldn’t it be on the list of best hipster communities in North America? I might even venture to say it may be THE best!

If you don't believe me, perhaps you will believe Josh Noel travel writer for Chicago Tribune who recently wrote: "Calgary pedal to the metal."

Beltline hipsters (GABEsters) hanging out on 17th Ave in March. 

New condos Portland's Pearl District are very similar to what you see in Calgary in massing and design.

Eight High Streets

For one thing, the Beltline has not just one, but eight pedestrian streets. First, Fourth, Eighth, Eleventh and Fourteenth Streets all have funky local shops, cafes, pubs, galleries and restaurants as do 11th 12th and 17th Avenues. 

And numerous ones are signature spots - O’Connors (First Street), Rose and Crown, REDS, Boxwood and Sony Store (4th Street), Bonterra, Trepanier Baer Gallery, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Modern Jelly Donut and Kawa Café (8th Street), Gallaxy Diner, Good Earth Café and Katmandu Grocery (11th Avenue) and Heritage Posters and Music and Boyd’s Lobster Shop (14th Street). 

Each of these streets has a very Jane Jacobs (1960s champion of urban street life) feel - lots of little shops, owned and operated by locals.

In addition, the Design district along 10th and 11th Avenues with Bo Concepts, Heavens Fitness, Herringer Kiss, Paul Kuhn and New Zones galleries, Metro Vino and Cookbook Company as its anchors.  

The district also is home to three grocery stores – Calgary Co-op, Safeway and Community Natural Foods (a magnet for hipsters). Lastly, Calgary’s premier urban street, 17th Avenue the Beltline’s southern boundary, is home to Calgary icons like Ship & Anchor pub, Brava Bistro, Café Beano, Rubaiyat and Reids Stationers. 

The Beltline includes five districts - Warehouse district, Victoria Park, Design District,  Gear District anchored by Mountain Equipment Co-op and 17th Ave. 

Calgary's 17th Avenue's "GABEster" corner is a popular place for Calgary's "young & restless" to hang out.  It is full of bistros, cafes, boutiques and new condos.  It is sometimes referred to as the RED Mile for the sea of red shirted sports fans that gather here for hockey celebrations.  It currently has be re-branded as RED which stands for Retail Entertainment District.  

Haultain Park in the Beltline is a busy place with a very active playground and sports field.  Old and new condos surround the park. 


Walk 2 Work 

There are very few urban villages in North America where you can walk to 160,000 jobs as easily (10 to 15 minutes) as you can from the Beltline. Separated from Calgary’s dense downtown office core by the Canadian Pacific Railway’s main TransCanada tracks, Beltliners make the grungy trek through the underpasses to and from work.

While plans are in place to beautify the underpasses, part of the charm and history of the Beltline is the urban grit and patina that comes from decades of use.

The 8th Street underpass linking the beltline to the downtown core is a good example of the urban grit that is part of hip urban living. 

New Condos On Every Block

It seems like every block in the Beltline these days have a new condo being built. However, if you walk the streets, you find there is an amazing array of different types of housing – high, mid and low-rise condos, townhouses and single-family homes. 

Every street is a patchwork quilt of old and new, small and large residential structures of different designs and materials, combining to create a rich, residential visual impact. In addition, most of the avenues are lined with mature trees, creating a delightful canopy that is synonymous with quality residential communities in North America.

 One of the benchmarks of a good urban community is diversity of housing which in turn attracts a diversity of people of all ages and backgrounds.

The pool at Hotel Arts is a gathering place for GABEsters in the Beltline.  Does it get any hipper than this? 

The Ship & Anchor is the Beltline's signature hang-out for people of all ages and backgrounds

Density & Diversity 

Today the Beltline is home to 20,000 Calgarians, 40% of whom are between 25 and 34 years of age (more than twice the city average) and 60% have never been married.  Unquestionably, the Beltline is where Calgary’s young hip professions “live, work and play” (36% have a university degree or higher vs. 25% city-wide). 

At the same time, it is also home to two of Calgary’s major social services agencies (Mustard Seed and Alpha House) and a smattering of seniors’ residents. The net result is the Beltline has a wonderful mix of people of all ages and backgrounds who call it home - exactly what an urban village should be!

Just to the north of the Beltline is Calgary's downtown core with over 40 million square feet of office space. It has one of the highest concentrations of corporate headquarters in North America. It is where the GABEsters work. The building in the foreground is the MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) which anhcors the Gear District as there are several sporting goods and bike shops in the area. 


The Beltline is one of Calgary’s newest communities formed in 2003, when the Connaught (west of 4th Street) first established in 1905 merged with the Victoria Park (east of 4th Street) established in 1914. As such, it lays claim to some of Calgary’s best heritage sites - Central Memorial Library, oldest library in Alberta, Haultain School, Calgary’s first school, Memorial Park, one of the oldest urban parks in Canada and Lougheed House one of Calgary’s first mansions. 

The Beltline name comes from the No. 5 trolley which in the first half of the 20th century circled back and forth on the avenues the Beltline and connected it to downtown in belt-line like manner in the first half of the 20th century. For more information on Beltline history go to www.beltline.ca.

New +/- 20 storey condos are popping up on almost every block in the Beltline. 


Calgary’s hipsters are unique as they are more likely to be clean shaven, Armani suit wearing, geologists, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers, than bearded, skinny jeans and plaid shirt artists, writers and musicians. 

But let it be understood they definitely love their Saturday music jams, bowling alley, craft beer drinking, gallery strolls, food trucks and festival fun as with any hipster. Perhaps we need to coin a new term  “GABEsters” (Geologists, Accountants, Bankers/Brokers and Engineers).

Future GABEsters also love playing in the Beltline. Does it get any better than this?  

Not only are there 8 pedestrian streets but there is also alley shopping.   

The Beltline's Design District is a fun place to flaneur on weekends.  

Chicago's Bucktown is much older and as a result has much more urban grit than Calgary's Beltline.

The Beltline's Victoria Park district has a mix of old and new, high-end fashion shops and funky pubs and clubs. There 100+ historical buildings and sites in the Beltline. 

Inn from the Cold is just one of several major social agencies that call the Beltline home.

No hipster village would be complete without at least one thrift store.  The IODE thrift store has been in the Beltline for a long as I can remember 20+ years?

The Beltline's warehouse district is getting a major makeover with old buildings being renovated and expanded and new ones being built.  What hipster wouldn't want to work in the Biscuit Block? 


 HH writes: "I like the way you describe the beltline but here is a question for you- why doesn't this area have the reputation some similar areas have in other cities?  What does it need to have a place identity that attracts visitors?  The Red Mile was developing that kind of identity but then of course they shut it down because it was too uni-dimensional.  What is needed to make it a true gathering place and destination for residents elsewhere in the city or tourists?  I think you uncover very interesting stuff that most Calgarians either take for granted or do not even recognize but the place has no identity that is widely recognized.  We need more people like you to point all this out to us."

JM writes: "Great read! It's got some interesting perspective to it, one that probably eludes lots of folks."

CW writes: "I remember Beltline when I moved to Calgary from Ontario in '81: there was a diner intact from the 40s, but not celebrated as retro, called the Lido, I think; a couple of used record shops; the IODE thrift shop that sold vintage western clothing that I could no longer fit into (if I still had the items); the Muttart Gallery, of course; and a bit later an artists' co-op where they showed godawful art videos, as well as a folly of a record store 100% devoted to jazz. It was all good enough for me to buy a condo alongside the Beltline three years later.

I don't know if you're correct to say that Beltline doesn't have the past of the Chicago district, it would be correct to say that a good part of it has been diminished - the folly part of it. I think your column nails it when it says the it's professional population distinguishes this district. There's no reason that Calgary should be the same as Chicago or Portland, and I am looking forward to seeing the "place identity" (sought by the commentator) that this population produces."

GG writes: "I like the term Gabesters."  

ST writes: "Not sure about Beltline being the hippest in N. America, but it feels good when I read your stuff...and yes, most people do not have a clue what good stuff we have, so keep reminding the public with your good blogs.

Was wandering in the Beltline today and came across this sign which I thought illustrates just how hip the Beltline is.   The neighborhood is full of historic churches which have become community centers for various ethnic and arts groups including Calgary Opera. Jane Jacobs would have loved the Beltline.

During the 1988 Winter Olympics 11th Avenue was branded as "Electric Avenue" for its concentration of bars.  Today it is a mix of bars, shops, restaurants and galleries.   It is a GABEster hang-out!

GABEsters love their bikes even if it means hanging them over the balcony! 

Public Art: Love it or hate it!

By Richard White, October 30, 2013

This blog was written for the Calgary Herald's Insight section and published on Saturday, October 26th with the title: "Public Art best when it spurs debate."  I have added different photos with text to help illustrate the essay. 

When is comes to public art, it seems everyone has a love or hate opinion.  The love/hate debate raised its ugly head recently with the installation of “Travelling Light” aka the “Blue Circle” on the Airport Trail bridge at Deerfoot Trail. This time the debate is not just the usual conservative vs. liberal community dichotomy, but also within the arts community as well with respected artist/curator Jeffrey Spalding and Mayor Nenshi (both arts champions) have publicly stating they don’t like it.

Debate aside, I think most would agree public art enhances the urban environment when done right. However, doing it right is difficult and subjective. Having served on numerous public art juries over the past 30 years, I know how hard juries try to find an artist who can create an artwork that will capitalize on the place where it will be installed, as well as engage the public in a meaningful way.  Unfortunately, juries are not always successful.  No city has found a formula to guarantee every piece of public art will be critically acclaimed by professions and adored by the public.

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor is one of two major public artworks in Chicago's Millennium Park that attracts thousands of visitors everyday.  There are successful because they capture the public's imagination and allow them to interact with them.  They are fun!

I recently began serving on a City of Calgary public art jury and it was the most professional, rigorous and open jury process I have experienced. We were given the applications weeks in advance to independently review, then spent an entire day discussing them as a group before choosing three artists to submit more in-depth, site-specific proposals.  In the new year, the same process will be repeated to choose the artist and artwork.  It should be noted the jury note only has equitable representation from the two communities impacted, the City and art professionals but despite the diverse backgrounds, our three short-listed choices were unanimous. 

I smiled when the debate regressed to “why wasn’t a local artist chosen?” Local artists were invited to submit their portfolio, but were not chosen. That is how the process works, like any RFP (Request For Proposals) process that most Calgarians have experienced at one time or another.  I believe it is important local artists are given a chance to submit, but I don’t think we should limit our public art solely to local artists.  Artists from other cities and countries see our city differently and more objectively adding new dimensions to our understanding of our sense of place. 

Wonderland by famous Spanish artist Jaume Plensa is a wire sculpture of the head of a young girl on the plaza in front of the Bow office tower by renown architect Norman Foster.  This ghost-like representational figure piece has been widely praised by professionals and public.  It is a fun piece to go inside and look at the downtown skyline through the maze of lines created by the skull form.  One local businessman, in his street shoes and clothes decided to climb it, turning it into a playground climbing sculpture for adults. 

Similarly Calgary artists are often creating public art for other cities.  Calgary’s Derek Besant, for example has numerous pieces in New York City, Toronto and Edmonton, as well as Calgary. Calgary artists and the public are served best when we have open competitions for public art.

As a member of Calgary’s arts community in many different capacities, I am well aware of the ongoing debate re: the need, value and role of public art. Historically, public art has been something found mostly in the downtown as part of new public buildings or office buildings. Over the past 30 years, downtown Calgary has become an art park with100+ sculptures, murals and paintings commissioned for plazas, parks, sidewalks, lobbies, LRT stations and +15 walkways.

My favourite public art project was the “Colourful Cows for Calgary” in summer 2000 which saw 100+ cows (painted by professionals and amateurs) temporarily placed throughout the downtown (including one in the lagoon at Prince’s Island).  I believe it was the city’s most successful public art project because it captured the public’s imagination and engaged thousands of people to venture downtown to see and discuss the statements each cow made about Calgary’s sense of place.  Yet there were some who thought it was too populist.  

Utterly Art: Colourful Cows For Calgary took place in the summer of 2000, with 100+ cows being placed in parks, plazas, sidewalks and even in the Prince's Island lagoon.  The project capture the imagination of Calgarians young and old.  It add a lot of fun to the downtown's sense of place that summer.  Several of the cows can be found in the Legacy Pasture on the second floor of the Centennial Parkade on 9th Avenue SW. 

To me, public art must engage the public. It must motivate them to think outside their everyday box and look at the world we share in a different way.  The best public art I have encountered has always been a “pedestrian” experience where people can stop, interact with the art, reflect on it, discuss it with friends and take pictures in close proximity.  One of the reasons most Calgarians love William McElcheran’s two businessmen “Conversation” on Stephen Avenue is that you can walk right up to it, view it at different angles and relate it to the real businessmen walking the street.

On the other hand, “Travelling Light” doesn’t allow you to walk around or through it; it’s a drive by art experience. Yes, there will be a public pathway in the area, but even then you will still only see it from a distance.  This is not a good public art location.

Similarly, I have questioned the location of Julian Opie’s (British) Promenade 2012 next to the Fifth Avenue flyover bridge in East Village. It too is mainly a “drive by” experience.  A great piece, but it would be more engaging if placed on the sidewalk in East Village or along Riverwalk where pedestrians could interact with it.   

In contrast Ron Moppett’s (Calgary) 33 meter long by 4 meter high ceramic mural on the retaining wall for the LRT tracks only a block away from Opie’s piece is far more successful partly because pedestrians are invited to sit and ponder the piece in a comfortable setting.  Good public art has a synergy between the art, its surroundings and the pedestrian.

William McElcheran's bronze sculpture of two business men in conversation is on the sidewalk of downtown's Stephen Avenue Walk, pedestrian mall where it is viewed by thousands of pedestrians every day.  Often people will add scarfs, a cup of coffee or other items to the piece. It is a popular photo op for tourist. 

Julian Opie's video is placed on a plinth next to the 5th Avenue Flyover exit from downtown.  The video is of people of all ages and backgrounds walking quickly around the cube.  It is an attractive piece but would me more effective if place next to the sidewalk so pedestrians could interact with it. 

In 2004, the City of Calgary adopted a “1% for public art for all City capital projects: policy. As a result, public art is now popping up everywhere - from LRT stations to recreation centers and yes, even bridges. Calgarians, more than ever, are experiencing public art as part of their everyday experience so it is not surprising they are also commenting on it.  Debate is healthy and I am glad Calgarians care enough about their city’s evolving sense of place to comment.

The time to judge a work of art is not 10 days, not 10 weeks but 10 years after it is installed (the Eiffel Tower was hated at first).  It will be interesting to see in 2023 what Calgarians think of “Travelling Light” versus say “Wonderland” (the “child’s head” sculpture on the plaza of the Bow office tower) or the Peace Bridge.

I believe the majority of Calgary’s new public art projects have been well received and I don’t believe the selection process is flawed.  Urban design and creating Calgary’s unique sense of place is an ongoing experiment.  We should not be surprised that some of our “experiments” in public art, architecture and public space design fail to please everyone.  However we should learn something from every experiment on how best to link our diverse visions with the reality as we transform space into place.

This is the infamous "Travelling Light" sculpture which is a functioning lamppost on the bridge over the railway tracks next to Deerfoot Trail, Calgary's busiest freeway and at the gateway to the Calgary Airport. (photo: Calgary Herald)

Crown Fountain is Jaume Plensa's signature public artwork in Chicago's Millennium Park.  Even into the evening hundreds of people of all ages are playing in the water and glow of the artwork.  This is public art at its best. 

A few blocks away from Millennium Park are several signature public artworks (Picasso) that sit on plaza's in front of office buildings.  While there were highly popular when installed over 30 years ago, today they are just part of the urban landscape.  Is this the fate of all public art? 

Does Calgary have an "urban inferiority complex?"

By Richard White, September 11, 2013

This blog was originally published in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on September 7, 2013.  There have been a few revisions and the photos and captions are different. 

The recent flurry of announcements of new office buildings for downtown Calgary has me wondering if these are all just more nails in the coffin of our downtown’s urban vitality? The goal for a vibrant, healthy downtown is to have the streets animated with people from early morning to midnight seven days a week i.e. 18/7.  This is very difficult when over 80% of your buildings are offices. 

While the addition of new office buildings is great for the 7 am to 7 pm weekday vitality of the downtown, it does nothing for the evening and weekend animation.  I don’t blame the developers as office buildings generate the most return for shareholders. And kudos to Shaw and Telus who are locating in buildings, which will have both office and condos spaces; this should generate some non-office hour vitality.  Unfortunately our downtown continues to evolve into an “office ghetto” a place where people come to work during the day, but few live or play there in the evening or weekends.

Show me the jelly... 

Our city center is like a jelly donut, with the downtown offices being the “jelly” in the middle. There is also a flurry of condos being constructed around the downtown in Beltline, Bridgeland, East Village, Inglewood and Kensington. Each of these communities have their own “Main Street” with restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs and shops, which means people living there have no need to come downtown to play. What downtown needs is its own live-in population if it is going to become an 18/7 community


Even in Downtown's Eau Claire district the office towers dominate the few condos in the area.  The Eau Claire Market (entertainment retail) has failed to become the hub of  vibrant 18/7 community.  

Unfortunately, the density of downtown office towers is already too unfriendly to pedestrians especially in a winter city.  More and more no sunlight will reach the downtown sidewalks from October to April and this is only going to get worse.  The chilling wind tunnels will also increase with each new building.  And while the new developments will try to be more pedestrian friendly at street level, in reality the main floor will be an elevator lobby as all the retail will be on the +15 level. 

Sure you can place a sculpture on the street and make it look clean and neat but that isn’t enough to make people gather and linger as a café or restaurant patio could do.  Sorry, nobody wants to live and play on streets that are “chock-a-bloc” full of office buildings.


In the 50 block Central Business District there is nothing but office buildings which means there is no one there after 7 pm and on weekends.  The smaller office buildings block the views of the good contemporary office architecture like Jamieson Place.  

Bring back the "Mom & Pop"

Great streets have lots of little pedestrian oriented shops at street level, not corporate glass canopies and lobbies.  Stephen Avenue has some of these elements but none of the other streets or avenue in the downtown have any contiguous pedestrian oriented retail.  Stephen Avenue is great in the summer with the patios, but in the winter it becomes a dark, dreary place with no sun, no patios and mostly “expense account” restaurants.  Kudos to the Calgary Downtown Association for all of its work to try and make it more colourful and cheerful, but I am afraid it is a losing battle. 


Downtown Calgary needs more "mom and pop" shops like this rather than glitzy towers if it is going to be vibrant 18/7.  

Dare to be different!

Perhaps we need to accept reality!  Our downtown is our central business district and it will always just that - a business district and nothing more.  The reality is our downtown (from 9th Avenue to Bow River, from Macleod Trail to 8th Street SW) will never be a major tourist attraction and it will never attract a lot of people to live there.  However, it will be one of North America’s leading downtown office parks!

Every city centre is different - we are not Vancouver, Chicago or Portland. Every city evolves differently due to numerous different factors and influences.  We should never strive to be like other cities, we should focus only on being Calgary and being the best we can be given our inherent strengths and weaknesses.  

As such we must understand and accept that as a major corporate headquarters city, with downtown as the hub of our LRT system, we need to continue to foster a strong central office core that will be vibrant 12/5 (12 hours a day, five days a week). 

We can then use our vivacious office core as the catalyst for expanding our existing live/play urban communities (Beltline, Bridgeland, Inglewood, Kensington and Mission), which are as good as anything in Chicago, Vancouver or Portland.  As well, we must create new ones along the LRT – East Village, SunAlta, University Village and Westbrook Village and along 16th Avenue NW next to next Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.


Two new modern office towers in Chicago demonstrate how they are situated in a synergistic manner and you can see the entire building with all of its articulations and textures.  

Be Brave

Recently, I attended the d.talks (conversations about design and built environment) panel discussion on “Bravery” as it relates to urban design planning and development in Calgary.  One of the key messages was delivered by Sonny Tomic (Manager, Centre City Planning and Implementation, City of Calgary) which was we need to be patient, that Calgary’s evolution into a more interesting urban city is happening more quickly than most people think – SETON, Currie Barracks, Calatrava Bridge, RiverWalk, Memorial Park redevelopment and the East Village public art.  He thinks we are close to the “tipping” point where all of a sudden Calgary will have a very exciting urban Centre City.  

Perhaps the “bravest” thing we can do is to lose our “urban inferiority complex” and become proud of our Centre City, as one of the best in North America for a city of a million people


The Calgary Tower no longer dominates the skyline. more often than not it looks more like a UFO amongst the numerous office towers.  

New Downtown Office Towers:

  • Brookfield Place, 56 floors
  • Calgary City Centre, 36 floors
  • GWL Tower, 28 floors 
  • Manulife Tower, 27 floors
  • Telus Sky, 58 floors (office/condo)
  • 3 Eau Claire, 48 and 43 floors (office/condo)

If you like this blog you might like:

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Is Calgary's Downtown too dense?  

Top 10 Flaneuring Finds in Portlandia

Calgary: North America's Newest Design City  

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. 

Live like a local in Chicago's Hotel Lincoln next to the park....

After this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, August 3, 2013.  Melissa McCarville, Regional Public Relations Manager, emailed "this is a fantastic piece about Lincoln Park! Love you detail and the places you mention are just perfect. Great, great, great story.  You captured the essence of living there - and I can say that because I did for 4 years!"

By Richard White

How small could you go?

How small a space could you really live in and be happy?  And not just for a weekend getaway – but on an ongoing basis. The current craze in the condo development community seems to be who can create the smallest condo!  In Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, 400 square foot condos i.e. the size of two parking spots, is becoming quite common.  And Vancouver’s new development called Balance boasts the smallest condo in Canada - a 297 sq. ft. micro condo. 

I didn’t think I could live in anything under 1,500 sq. ft. – that’s, until I spent a week in a well-designed 475 sq. ft. suite at the Hotel Lincoln in Chicago.  Now I am really rethinking how much space I need after spending a week in their chic, contemporary junior suite.  It had two bathrooms at opposite ends of the suite, which works well for couples getting ready to go out at the at the same time.  The suite was open concept - a full king size bed at one end and a sitting area at the other (comfortable sofa, chair seating and coffee table) at the other.  Tucked along the wall was a desk, small coffee area and wall mounted swivel TV so it could be viewed from the bed or the sofa.  It all worked very well.  

In order to live small you need to have a coffee spot close by that you feel comfortable hanging out at.  It becomes an extension of your home.  Elaine"s  Coffee Call in the lobby of the Hotel Lincoln is just such a place. 

The Neighbourhood

Downstairs was Elaine’s Coffee Call, a great place for a morning coffee and toast (I think I could live on their PBJ toast, with its pecan butter) and people watching – it was a happening place.  Who needs a big kitchen when there are cafes, pubs and restaurants just outside your door?  The key to living small is to have lots of amenities nearby.

If we lived at the Hotel Lincoln, I think we would have soon considered Nookies as an extension of our home.  Located just a block from Hotel Lincoln (in funky Old Town) – we loved the home style cooking and ambience. In fact, you can bring your own wine and they don’t charge any corkage and if you don’t finish your bottle, you can just take it home.  How good it that? We learned that is not uncommon in Chicago.

Who needs a big screen TV and media room when it’s so easy to wander over to the local sports bar, cheer as loud as you want without your spouse shouting “don’t make me come down there.” Bonus there are no empties or mess to clean up either.

On our first night in Chicago we headed to The Old Town Pour for dinner and to watch the Chicago Blackhawks in a Stanley Cup playoff game. We have never been in a bar that was so loud and so full of energy – who would want to stay home when, instead,  you could be part of that! 

Who needs a media room when you have a sports bar just a block or two away. 

Downtown Fun

Not a sports fan?  More into comedy?  No problem. Second City is located just a few short blocks away, with performances nightly, with many nights offering multiple performances.  Forget reruns of Friends, Big Bang Theory or Seinfeld; enjoy live comedy instead with a room full of kindred spirits. Living small is about living in your community.

The Hotel Lincoln was perfectly located for living without a car.  Bus stops are just steps outside the door, as is the huge Lincoln Park with its free (yes free) zoo – yes free!  Imagine… walk out your door down the street and in five minutes you are wandering in a hundred year old (1868), 35-acre zoo… beats having a cat or a dog in my mind. 

Or, head to the beach in the summer. It too is only a few minutes walk away.  It is almost like having a pool in your own backyard.  The closest that you might get to this in Calgary would be those living in the condos near Hotel Arts! (Did you know that you don’t have to be a hotel guest to enjoy the Hotel Arts pool? I just found out!)

Imagine having Second City in your backyard, beats watching sitcom reruns....

Lincoln Park Zoo is a wonderful walk in the park with the bonus of being able to get up close and personal with the animals. 

Aerial view of Chicago's beaches from the Hancock Building with Lincoln Park at the top.  Beach, park, zoo, farm and farmer's market makes living small easy in Lincoln Park or Gold Coast communities in Chicago. 

Rooftop Patios

Who even needs their own little balcony or patio when you can hang out on you own roof top patio?  We were able to experience what this would be like at the Hotel Lincoln as they had one of the coolest and most popular rooftop restaurants in Chicago. It doesn’t get much better than to come home, sit back and have someone serve you your favourite adult beverage.

Calgary doesn’t make enough use of its  rooftops (office or condos) for restaurants. An exception will be Qualex-Landmark’s new condo Mark on 10th, which will have a rooftop patio that I suspect with become the residents’ second living room.  You don’t need a large space if you have the right amenties both on site and on the street.

What about laundry you say? Chicagoans have that figured out too; a local dry cleaners on every block.   Well maybe not every block but just about.  On our way to Nookies for example we passed a dry cleaners/tailors that would have made it easy to just drop off our cleaning at our convenience (or I expect they would pick up too).

And to top it off, every Wednesday and Saturday in the summer a Farmers’ Market in Lincoln Park is literally right across the street. No need for your own garden when you have all the fresh fruits and vegetables you can imagine, as well as breads, jams, honey and flowers across the street.  

Brenda looking over the options at the Lincoln Park Farmers' Market across the street from the Hotel Lincoln in Old Town. 

Last Word:

Living small in Chicago I think would be easy.  I’d recommend that if you are contemplating buying a small condo, that you rent a hotel room in the area for a month so you can see if there are sufficient amenities to make small living realistic. I am thinking condo developers would be wise to have a couple of furnished room that they rent out for a month to prospective buyers – consider it a test drive. 

Condos in Calgary are definitely getting smaller, many in on the 500 sq. ft. range.  A well-designed 500 sq. ft. space might just be the ticket for a single first time buyer, or someone who travels a lot, or a true urbanite who really lives and embraces their local community.

P.S. Don’t forget the big benefit of small living is that it takes no time to clean up, leaving you more time to play!


JT writes: "I would easily live in 500 sf in the middle of any city if it was just me.  It would be even better if it was central Chicago and with a healthy budget.  I'd add this wrinkle - add a person and you add 500 sf of space need.  A family of four gets you to 2000 sf.  Try living with that size of family in 1000 sf like we did as kids- it is not fun, especially when you have the option of living in bigger.

The small solution is a great one to populate urban spaces but the band of potential residents is narrowed to the singles with enough disposable income to live a lifestyle of spending in the public realm. 


Nookies is a family restaurant in Old Town that serves up home-cooking meals for locals. Bring your own wine is encourage and no corkage is charged. Just like being at home, except you don' t have to cook or clean up.  

Hotel Lincoln on Lincoln Park in Old Town is the perfect place if you want to live like a local when visiting Chicago. 

Who needs a backyard or a patio when you have a park next door - horse shoes anyone? 

Most backyards aren't big enough for a pick up game of baseball...Lincoln Park is perfect... 

Olympic Plaza needs mega makeover?

Reader Comments re: Olympic Plaza needs a mega makeover?

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

Derek Besant on his  Olympic Plaza SONGLINES project: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog: Everyday Tourist  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you like this blog you might like: Poppy Plaza Review  

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

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

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

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

What should be Calgary's iconic image to the world?

In May Tourism Calgary hosted their annual "White Hat Awards" where they recognized individuals who have made a difference in Calgary's hospitality industry.  Just a few weeks before the ceremony I got a call that I had been nominated for the Media Recognition Award. I was very surprised as my writing is not pure tourism propaganda, rather, I hope, it is a rigorous evaluation of our city's urban sense of place within an international context.  

Over the years I have compared Calgary to places like Paris, Lyon, Frankfurt, Dubai, Perth and Portland sharing with readers the lessons to be learned from those cities with respect to how to enrich urban living in our city.  It is only recently that I have perhaps focused more on Calgary from a tourist perspective.  

However, there is a strong link between tourism and urbanism, if you can make a city centre an interesting place to live then I think you will make it a great place to visit.  Tourist are often attracted to cities that are vibrant places to live - Paris, New York, Chicago, Montreal or San Francisco quickly come to mind.  

One of the other things that tourist cities have in common is that they have iconic images that are instantly recognizable internationally - the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, The Clouded Gate (The Bean)  or The Golden Gate Bridge.    

If Calgary wants to attract more tourists it must develop several iconic images that become it postcard to the world and say "Come And Visit."  In fact the last time I looked it was ihard to find good postcards of Calgary, most of the time if you go to souvenir shop there are a bunch of out-dated postcards of Calgary's skyline hidden amongst the Banff and Rocky Mountain postcards - even in Calgary souvenir shops.  

Fortunately, I suspect postcards are going the way of the dodo bird. With digital cameras and smart phones, who needs postcards in the 21st century?   

While we may not need postcards anymore we still must brand our city with several iconic images that "shout out" Calgary is a fun place to visit.  Currently we probably one iconic image - The Calgary Stampede and it only works for 10 days of the year.

 However, there are several good candidates and new ones being created every year.  I thought I'd share a few with you and then perhaps you can share your ideas and together we can create Calgary's top 10 iconic images. 

Criteria for being an iconic image are:

  1. Must be photo friendlly
  2. Must be memorable
  3. Must have mass appeal
  4. Must be unique to Calgary 
  5. Must be timeless

My picks are:


The Peace Bridge: This is photo of the underside of the Peace Bridge taken by Neil Zeller and was used by Tourism Calgary from my Media Recognition Award.  The Peace Bridge has become one of the most photographed structures in the City.  Like a lot of urban icons it was hated by many but over time has become part of a city's brand e.g. EiffelTower. 


The Trees on Stephen Avenue - the trees are a big bold statement and they are on our signature street Stephen Avenue.  Like all good icons they too were controversial and locals have a love hate relationship with them.  Before The Bow, Wonderland and the Peace Bridge, Calgary Economic Development and Tourism Calgary used them extensively as a statement of Calgary modernism. They are a great link between public art and architecture.  

The Calgary Tower is definitely one of our past icons.  It is not longer the tallest structure in the city, however, it does pop up in the most unexpected places as it pops in and out of view.  It could be our mid-century modern icon with its Jetson like design. 

The Conversation certainly must be consider as a candidate.  It creates the human touch that is so often missing from icons.  I love this image as it also recognizes that we are a winter city which too often we try to push under the rug.  The image also says business which is so much a part of our corporate culture.  Good icons work on many levels.  

There are three potential icons in this photo Suncor Centre, The Bow and Wonderland.  There is an interesting juxtaposition of art, architecture, corporate and culture and the individual.  Wonderland talks about our youth and innocence as a city that aspires to greatness.  

Not sure this is the right image, but the Family of Man sculpture has the potential to be an iconic image.  It conveys a modern caring city which I think is exactly what were are and is the image we'd like to convey to the world.  it will be interesting to see what happen to this piece of art and if it gets moved.  It deserves a signature site it would be a great gateway into the downtown from the northeast where most airport arriving visitors enter the downtown. 

The Saddledome should definitely be on the list as it unique shape and location create a postcard view of both our rivers valley and the skyline.  It will be interesting to see what happens to when a new arena is built.   


The one icon that comes to mind is the Bow River - a timeless icon. It is a beautiful colour and clear water (other than at run-off), is open all winter (unusual for a winter city) and is followed for almost its entire length in the city by walking paths and bike trails. I can think of no other city in Canada that has the same access to their major river.  Perhaps the postcard shot of the Bow is looking south at the downtown at the Centre Street bridge.  Certainly the Peace Bridge and Bow Tower are the new icons.  GG

My vote goes to The Conversation and Wonderland.  The office towers aren't really anything special, there are too many like it in other cities. MW 

Interesting article. For me as a relatively new arrival in the city I find the city has very few iconic structures. I think the Peace Bridge and the Saddledome are good examples but other than that..... Truth is that the city gets its beauty (if you can call it that ) because of its' proximity to the mountains. Most pictures of Calgary show the mountains in the background. If Calgary was located in the bald Prairie it would be no more interesting than Regina.

The Calgary tower is no longer remarkable, the Bow river valley is ordinary  ( eg compared to Edmonton) the Encana (Bow) tower is impressive but not very architecturally unique. There are no Churches or schools of much interest and the University has very utilitarian boring buildings with no efort at continuity. For example the University of Saskatchewan is iconic (also Queens) because of the theme that runs through the buildings and the association of beautiful stone buildings with an important academic function. Who would waste time taking a tour of the university of Calgary campus? JM

Each of these makes a connection at a certain level. I personally like the big white head, but for a city Image to the world i guess it has to be the calatrava bridge. CO (from Saskatoon, world traveller).

I don't know that any single image really works. Maybe we, as Calgarians, are too close to the city to choose one representative icon. Every one of these images says SOMETHING about Calgary, but doesn't say "Calgary" in a way that would make a visitor or newcomer feel familiar with the city's style, personality and "feel" upon arrival. If we just picked the most stunning image, it would be the Bow/Wonderland or Calatrava's bridge — or perhaps one of the new west C-train stations. But do these really represent what the city is? Do they oversell Calgary in one sense, and undersell it in another? I'd like to ask a visitor who has spent a few weeks here to describe Calgary, then choose an image based on that. One that shows our "good side," of course! MD

Here's a nod to one of our earliest icons, Calgary City Hall, one of the exemplary buildings that earned Calgary the nickname,  The Sandstone City.  (George Webber (Calgary photographer).


George Webber's reminds us that Calgary is home to some iconic sandstone buildings from the early 20th century that should be considered as one of our postcards to the world.  

From Reddit got some interesting comments:

Ha, I actually think the nearly endless rows of manufactured homes is more Calgary than a view of the mountains. Me too, but you'll always hear something like "Only an hour away from the mountains!" in every promotion of Calgary tourism.

I thought this image actually did convey a lot of what Calgary is in some ways. The attractive parts of nature, of the vast wilderness that once characterized this land a century ago, the cowboy days of making a go of it in a virgin territory; all things said about Calgary as something people want to and claim to take pride in. In reality they are real, but obscured by distance or time, as you can see from the haze obstructing the view of the mountains.

In the foreground, the stark contrast of hundreds of thousand of identical vinyl cubes with the same black asphalt roofs are clear in focus, representing the sprawl that is the reality of life in Calgary here and now. The only thing I would have liked in the picture as well is something representing the beltline/downtown core area, which is where the pockets of culture in Calgary that actually do exist are.

The downtown skyline from Crescent Heights with mountains in the background and Bow River in the foreground is my iconic image of Calgary.  


Stephen Avenue at lunch hour when thousands of office workers migrate to the walk the street is a unique phenomena that could be an iconic image of Calgary. 

Good discussion. Another iconic image whose heyday has now sadly passed is the main ski jump tower at COP. It is still eye-catching, but was once quite breathtaking, standing out against the sky with the Olympic rings on the side. Talk about a symbol of Calgary's coming of age as a world city! Now, the ill-conceived dirt pile WinSport has built up beside it detracts from its visual impact, but it's still worthy of acknowledgement MD.

"Missing from the images is my suggestion - Calgary's first public library opened in 1912 in the grounds of what was then known as Central Park.  It was a Carnegie funded library now called Memorial Park branch. Many cities decommissioned their Carnegie libraries in fact some have been demolished and I'm proud of Calgary for continuing to operate ours as a library. I would also include the memorial to the fallen in both world wars and other wars in the picture as it too is located in Memorial Park on the same grounds as the library." Says GW

"Another unusual iconic image often overlooked is Western Canada High School with a memorial in the school grounds fronting on to 17 Ave.  I included the history of that memorial and the original private boys' school, the first in Calgary - Western Canada College - in the book I compiled to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Western Canada College a decade ago in 2003.  The war memorial is unique in that it is the only city school that has one. It was erected in 1927 to honour the old boys and masters of Western Canada College who died defending their country. Although the buildings that formed WCC were torn down years ago, the school's namesake, Western Canada High School continues to connect the past to the present." Say GD 

If you like this blog you might like: Beautiful Bowness  or Poppy Plaza or

Calgary History Capital of Canada

Architecture River Cruise In Chicago

Normally, we are all about “taking the path least travelled” yet when it comes to the very popular Chicago architectural river cruises, we were all over getting in line to join the masses to take the 75-minute cruise up and down the Chicago River to see and learn more about the city’s amazing history and architecture.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation cruise is one of the most engaging, enlightening and entertaining experiences we have enjoyed in a long time.  Our guide, a retired architect, was a fascinating storyteller who made architecture both interesting and understandable, no small feat given the need to use architectural lingo like curtain wall, footprint, setbacks, art deco, post-modern, bundled tube and skeleton frame.   

A view down the Chicago River which provides a dramatic perspective to view the skyline and visual history of Chicago, which is so linked to its buildings.  

Examples of the early 20th century skyscrapers with their ornamental roof and strong vertical lines.  The early skyscrapers were church-like in their vertical thrust into the sky i.e. heaven. 

A modern skyscaper that mirrors some of the verticalness of the early skyscraper but with new materials that are much more reflective and much less ornamentation.  The age of architectural minimalism started in the mid-20th century and is still popular today. 

Did you know that “Chicago” is an Indian world for stinkweed, a plant prevalent in the swamp that is now the city?  We learned about how the “Great Chicago Fire” of October 8, 1871 that took the lives of 250 people, left 100,000 people homeless and destroyed over 17,000 homes and buildings, was the catalyst for the city to become the Skycraper City.  Chicago is home to the first skyscraper the Home Insurance Building built in 1885. It was the first building not made of bricks and mortar, but instead had a metal frame. This reduced the weight of the building and allowed taller buildings.  Subsequently, the Chicago School of Architecture was created with many high-rise buildings built form the mid 1880s to 1910.  The design of the buildings often consisted of a three parts: a wide base, a narrower tower on top of the base and a decorative top.

We also learned about the “reversal of the river.”  In the late 19th century, the Chicago River which runs through downtown, was used as an open sewer. However, since it flowed into Lake Michigan. it polluted Chicago’s drinking water. After thousands died from water-related diseases, it was determined the river needed to be reversed.  So, a 26-mile canal was dug 15 feet deeper than the river so when the sanitary and ship canal opened in 1900, the river began to flow backwards naturally as a result of gravity.  Today, the river is much cleaner and while it is still a working river, it is becoming more and more an urban playground with residential development and pathways for recreational uses along its banks.   

Th black Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower)  was  the tallest building in the world when built in 1973.  The neighbouring South Wacker Drive tower reflects many of the same massing (shape) elements but incorporates more decorative elements similar to the early 20th century towers and therefore is called post-modern architecture.  It is the tallest building in the world known only by its street name. Built in 1990, it has a larger circular crown at top that is illuminated at night to make it the most visible building in Chicago's impressive skyline. 

An example of the many parks that are being created along the Chicago river as it becomes more and more an urban playground than a working river.  

A view of the recreational pathway that meanders along the river, making downtown a more attractive place to live.  

For photographers, the river cruise simply “eye candy.”  It seems like every minute there is a new perspective, a different juxtaposition of architectural styles.  We were fortunate to take the cruise on a warm, blue-sky day – the light was spectacular.

Our tour guide was full of fun little factoids and memorable comments including:

“Architecture is the art in which you live in.”

“In Chicago, things are always changing. Nothing stays the same.”  A quote from Mark Twain

“Chicago is sometimes called Paris on the prairies as the river and its bridges are the heart of the city.”

“Tall, dark and handsome” is what some people call Chicago because its signature skyscrapers of the 20th century are tall, dark and handsome buildings – Sears Tower and John Hancock Tower. 

The contrast between the early and late 20th century architecture is very obvious in Chicago.  Note how the earlier skyscrapers were all about the vertical lines which give them an uplifting sense of place.  The late 20th century buildings often have more are horizontal lines that negate the visual verticalness of the structure making it less sky oriented.   

Another example of late 20th century minimalist office architecture.  The building's shape is dramatic with its razor-like edge and flat reflective glass facade.     It has immediate WOW factor, unfortunately there is not much to look at once the WOW is gone.  Some call this "look-at-me" architecture as it grabs your attention but doesn't hold it. 

Along the river you go under many bridges or all different styles.  This old bridge which is permanently elevate is very sculptural and provides a context for how cities have evolved.  There are 18 bridges along a 2 mile stretch of downtown. 

The lattice work as you pass under many of the bridges is incredibly beautiful and detailed. Urban beauty is often in the intricate details of the buildings, structures and public space.  It is often missing in modern urban design, which is often why people refer to the modern downtown as the concrete jungle.  

An example of the bridgehouse where the bridge operator would have a panoramic view of the river and be responsible for elevating the bridge as needed to allow shipping up and down the river. 

Our recommendations:

1.     Book the river cruise tour before you leave home so you aren’t disappointed

2.     Go on your first day as it will provide you with a perfect orientation to the city and its illustrious history

3.     Sit at or near the back of the boat. You’ll have no problem hearing well and this will prevent lots of “turning around” to see or take pictures after the tour guide finishes their banter about the buildings.  

An example of new residential/hotel architecture. Note it still has the basic elements of the Chicago School of Architecture i.e. wide base with a tower on top of the base and then a decorative element on top.  Today this is called podium point design and is very popular for condo developments  around the world. 

Marina City was completed in 1964.  Its corncob-like facade is a unique design that stands out immediately in the skyline.  At 65 floors the twin towers were the tallest residential buildings in the world when they were built. Note the bottom floors is actually a parking garage if you look closely you can see the cars.  

The CBD apartment building is another of Chicago's distinctive architectural gems.  In this case the pattern of different sized balconies creates a facade that is visually playful and exciting. 

 If you like this blog you might like:

The Curse of Minimalism  

Calgary: North America's newest design city!

 more information on Architecture River Cruises 

More information on Chicago Tourism at ChooseChicago



The Suburbs Move to City Centre in Calgary

I have lived in Calgary's city centre for over 20 years and observed the evolution of the different communities from cottage houses to new urban communities with a mix of residential homes.  During that time I have also visited many city centres in cities across North America from Portland to Ottawa from Vancouver to Miami. While I have seen some infill homes (the removal of an old cottage home to create one or two new homes) nowhere have I seen anything on the scale of what has been happening in Calgary's city centre.  

In every community within 10 km of the downtown Calgary there is an infill under construction on nearly  every block. Literally hundreds of new homes are being built in the city centre, in addition to hundreds of new condos in mid and high-rise towers. 

The infill homes are on the same scale as the homes in the suburbs starting at  2,000+sf of living space and two car garage.  More and more young families are moving into the communities revitalizing them. I recently looked at the civic census and over 4,500 children and teens live in the north-side city centre communities alone where a lot of the infilling is happening. These communities have great access to elementary Jr highhigh schools  and three post secondary schools, as well as major hospital and children's hospital. 

While Calgary is often criticized for its large carbon footprint is probably the most contiguous urban region in North America with few edge cities and one of the most dense city centres with respect to commercial and residential development.

The following are some photos I took on my morning walk today. 


I had to take a second look when I turned on to this Hillhurst street in Calgary's thriving city centre.  At first glance you would think it is a parade of show homes in a new suburb 20+km from downtown. But no this is just one of many streets with multiple infill homes being built within 5 km of dowtown. 

While most of the old homes get torn down some are recycled and repurposed like this one. 

Further along the same street are some older infills with mature gardens like this one. Reminds me of my recent walks through Chicago's Gold Coast community.  

I love the diversity of design and materials. No cookie cutter homes here. However there is the twin phenomena i.e. when lot divided two homes of similar  design get built so it looks like a series of twins. 

I love the diversity of design and materials. No cookie cutter homes here. However there is the twin phenomena i.e. when lot divided two homes of similar  design get built so it looks like a series of twins. 

Strollers, bikes and trikes are a common site on the front lawns and verandas. There is also often chalk art on the sidewalk. Playgrounds in these communities have all had mega makeovers to become family gathering places. 

Strollers, bikes and trikes are a common site on the front lawns and verandas. There is also often chalk art on the sidewalk. Playgrounds in these communities have all had mega makeovers to become family gathering places. 

There is even a new sense of design emerging that incorporates sloped roof lines that reflect the old prairie grain elevator and the jagged rocky mountains.  This house also has an alley home at the back .  

There is even a new sense of design emerging that incorporates sloped roof lines that reflect the old prairie grain elevator and the jagged rocky mountains.  This house also has an alley home at the back .  

A neighbour's backyard becomes the kid's personal playground just like in the suburbs.

One of the many upgraded playgrounds in Calgary's City Centre.  No home is more than a few blocks from a playground.  

The Bow View pool is one of many family amenities in Calgary's City Centre.  

The Riley Park wading pool is park is a summer oasis for young families.  Calgary has over 5,000 parks and 700 km of pathways with the City Centre being the hub.  

Other blogs that might be of interest: 

Calgary: City of Parks & Pathways   

Urban Cottage Living & Gentrification  


Window licking in Chicago

One of the great ways to explore any city is to walk its streets and just observe.  One of my favourite things to do is to take pictures of the shop windows.  It is my form of window shopping and at the same time documenting a city's unique sense of place.

I find that many of the reflections combine a rich layering of imagery - the window display, the architecture across the street, the people walking by, the cars and bikes driving by, street furniture, trees and flowers.

I like the visual complexity - it is hard to read these photos at a glance, it takes some time to decipher the details.  There is often a wonderful a sense of energy, as well as a sense of as you capture the fleeting moment of people walking by.  There is randomness and sense of surprise.  I don't compose the picture and just point and shoot.  

I have used the term "window licking" in several blogs now - Paris and Portlandia.  I do so because the french phase for window shopping "fair du leche-vitrines" translates into English as "licking the windows."  

I think the images I have chosen for this photo essay demonstrate the charm and character of the streets of Chicago from Michigan Avenue aka Magnificient Mile, to Old Town and Bucktown.  

Love to hear your comments.


Not sure what is about eyewear stores but it doesn't matter if it Calgary or Chicago, it seems they often have the most creative and fun windows.  This one has a pop art, Jetson-like design.  The eye glassed are set inside what looks like large eyeballs.  How fun is that? 

This may well be one of the most provocative windows I have ever encountered that wasn't a sex shop.  Found on a side street just north of Michigan Ave at the edge of the Gold Coast.  It is both fun and erotic!

This may well be one of the most provocative windows I have ever encountered that wasn't a sex shop.  Found on a side street just north of Michigan Ave at the edge of the Gold Coast.  It is both fun and erotic!

This is a street window in an office building. I don't usually take notice of these, but this one conveyed to me a sense of isolation and minimalism that is too often associated with office buildings at street level.  For me it has a 21st century Edward Hopper like quality to it. 

This is a street window in an office building. I don't usually take notice of these, but this one conveyed to me a sense of isolation and minimalism that is too often associated with office buildings at street level.  For me it has a 21st century Edward Hopper like quality to it. 

Found this amazing Portuguese Bakery in Bucktown that was right out of the '60s. Places like these are the thrill that every flaneur is looking for.  Anybody can go to the tourist traps. 

Found this amazing Portuguese Bakery in Bucktown that was right out of the '60s. Places like these are the thrill that every flaneur is looking for.  Anybody can go to the tourist traps. 

I stared at these wigs for a long time wondering if they were worth a picture. Then I notice the Texas Long Horn and smiled.  Another find in Bucktown! 

I stared at these wigs for a long time wondering if they were worth a picture. Then I notice the Texas Long Horn and smiled.  Another find in Bucktown! 

Yes this is over the top, but I loved the reflection of the historic architecture with the modern fashion and kitchy display.  

Yes this is over the top, but I loved the reflection of the historic architecture with the modern fashion and kitchy display.  

We walked by this place serval times on Michigan Avenue and we always stopped and marvelled at the display.  It was three floors of nothing but old sewing machines, it was just as impressive from the bus as from the street.  Created a definite statement.  Wish more places would take the time to be creative and create street statement.   

We walked by this place serval times on Michigan Avenue and we always stopped and marvelled at the display.  It was three floors of nothing but old sewing machines, it was just as impressive from the bus as from the street.  Created a definite statement.  Wish more places would take the time to be creative and create street statement.   

Mens' shop aren't usually as creative as women's but this window caught our attention. Love the shorts and jacket - I am not sure I could pull that off. 

Mens' shop aren't usually as creative as women's but this window caught our attention. Love the shorts and jacket - I am not sure I could pull that off. 

This is street art at its finest.  It is like a set to a play that is about to happen.  There is an open-ended narrative.  I could look at this all day and it would continue to speak to me.

This is street art at its finest.  It is like a set to a play that is about to happen.  There is an open-ended narrative.  I could look at this all day and it would continue to speak to me.

This is a stationary store window in Old Town.  I loved the  fun use of the pencils.  It was only later that I realize that reflection of the one-legged women really dominates the photograph and gives it an another level of fun/surprise which is what window licking is all about. Great streets are full of surprises.  

This is a stationary store window in Old Town.  I loved the  fun use of the pencils.  It was only later that I realize that reflection of the one-legged women really dominates the photograph and gives it an another level of fun/surprise which is what window licking is all about. Great streets are full of surprises.  

Whole Foods Lincoln park....

Often when we are travelling we like to check-out the local grocery store, after all Miss B is a nutritionist.  It also fits with our motto "when in Chicago, do as the locals do" which includes grocery shopping.  One evening, after a few days in Chicago's northside we found a brand new Whole Foods and thought lets check it out. Maybe grab a snack and head to our room. WOW!  

First off the place had great "street vibe" as there is pub at the entrance offering over 20 craft beers on tap. Later I found out you can grab a beer and then go shopping, not the other way around.  How civilized?  

There was also a community table at the entrance where several people we busy on their laptops pecking away ear phones in place i.e. they were each in their own little world. You could have been in a cafe in anyplace in the world. In fact part of the the area was designed as a tiki hut with grass roof.  We also learned that all of the furniture had be purchased at local thrift stores as a part of their commitment to the environment.  Miss B, the thrift store queen, loved it! 

We wandered the store a bit and Miss B found the wine bar and saddled up for a drink? To our pleasant surprise there were offering a flight of wines for sampling.  We didn't realize how hungry we were and so we ordered the charcuterie plate and a cheese platter and sat back and enjoyed the show.  

It was interesting to watch as others saddled up to the wine bar, it really was a community hangout.  Some actually just grabbed a bottle of wine from the wine section of the store and brought it over with them had it opened and enjoyed a glass or two and then took the rest home. How civilized? 

We then noticed some people bringing whole meals to the tables behind the wine bar and realized you purchase your food elsewhere in the store and bring it over to enjoy your dinner with a fine wine.   

The "whole" experience was very enjoyable.


The wine bar at Whole Foods store Lincoln Park, Chicago.  There was a nice ambience, even though it was in the middle of a grocery store.  There was great people watching not only at the bar but in the yogurt section as one lady had to climb up on the coolers to check out product at the top, almost falling in as she did so.  

Welcome to Whole Foods in Chicago's Lincoln Park. This is the pub at the entrance to the store.  How welcoming is that?  They even invited the community to come and watch the NHL and NBA playoff games at the pub.  Lots of local craft beers for $4.  

I found out this is the second largest Whole Foods in the chain.  It has several themed restaurants in the store including this '50s style diner. 

I found out this is the second largest Whole Foods in the chain.  It has several themed restaurants in the store including this '50s style diner. 

Don't like diner food, then there is a Smoke House, or Pizza Shop etc. 

Don't like diner food, then there is a Smoke House, or Pizza Shop etc. 

The store is impressive at night.  What you don't realize is that the top of the store is a parking garage.  There area over 400 parking stalls including a small surface lot next door.  Chicago has lots of above ground parked, which are well designed, don't harm the streetscape and cost half the price of underground parking. Good way to balance costs with good urban design.  There are patio table on the street to further enhance the pedestrian friendliness of the street.   

The store is impressive at night.  What you don't realize is that the top of the store is a parking garage.  There area over 400 parking stalls including a small surface lot next door.  Chicago has lots of above ground parked, which are well designed, don't harm the streetscape and cost half the price of underground parking. Good way to balance costs with good urban design.  There are patio table on the street to further enhance the pedestrian friendliness of the street.   

Note: It would be great if Calgary's Eau Claire Market could be converted into a Whole Foods store.  This is exactly what is needed to make this area take-off as a mixed office residential district.  Ideally the streets would be full of town homes and midrise condos with great staircases like those in my blog "stairways to heaven." 

Chicago's Gold Coast: Staircases

Perhaps the biggest and best surprise of our recent Chicago visit was discovering the Gold Coast neighbourhood just north of the "Magnificient Mile" and not far from our Hotel Lincoln suite. It is predominately a residential community with wonderful tree-lined streets and stately apartment blocks that date back to the late 19th century.  

The front gardens are meticulously manicured and the boulevards are like little gardens with their little wrought iron fences protecting the flowers and shrubs.  But what really caught our eye were the many elegant staircases that create inviting and grand entrances.  

When visiting a city we encourage you to wander some of the residential communities to see how the locals live, both the rich and famous and the young and restless.  

This twin staircase was the one that capture our attention and made us stop in our tracks.  Does it get more inviting than this?  The black wrought iron is prevalent throughout Chicago. Like brick it is a timeless urban design element that should be employed more in urban neighbourhoods as it creates an immediate sense of place. 

This twin staircase was the one that capture our attention and made us stop in our tracks.  Does it get more inviting than this?  The black wrought iron is prevalent throughout Chicago. Like brick it is a timeless urban design element that should be employed more in urban neighbourhoods as it creates an immediate sense of place. 

Another curved staircase that demonstrates the importance of ornamentation and decoration to create pleasant walking streets in urban setting.  The flowers magnify the sense of beauty and pride of ownership. 

Another curved staircase that demonstrates the importance of ornamentation and decoration to create pleasant walking streets in urban setting.  The flowers magnify the sense of beauty and pride of ownership. 

Not all of the staircases were wrought iron.  This stone staircase provides a nice contrast to the black iron railing.  

Not all of the staircases were wrought iron.  This stone staircase provides a nice contrast to the black iron railing.  

The contrast of the white house and black railings creates an elegance that is timeless. There are lots of textures and lines that make the street visually interesting for pedestrians.  It is the visual complexity that makes the streets of the Gold Coast great pedestrian streets even though there are no shops.  It would be interesting to see what these streets are like in the winter with no vegetation. 

The contrast of the white house and black railings creates an elegance that is timeless. There are lots of textures and lines that make the street visually interesting for pedestrians.  It is the visual complexity that makes the streets of the Gold Coast great pedestrian streets even though there are no shops.  It would be interesting to see what these streets are like in the winter with no vegetation. 

Another twin staircase to an upper door that is very rich in its ornamentation.  While the entrance is gated you don't feel shut out like you do with the six foot wood fences so prevalent in new subdivisions.  The lines are clean, concise and clear; making for a inviting sense of space. There is a wonderful interplay of the shadows and light from trees and decorative elements that soften the entire urban landscape. 

Another twin staircase to an upper door that is very rich in its ornamentation.  While the entrance is gated you don't feel shut out like you do with the six foot wood fences so prevalent in new subdivisions.  The lines are clean, concise and clear; making for a inviting sense of space. There is a wonderful interplay of the shadows and light from trees and decorative elements that soften the entire urban landscape. 

The Gold Coast should be on everyone's list of places to visit when in Chicago.  It should also be an inspiration and lesson for developers and planners on the importance of ornamentation and decoration for creating inviting pedestrian streetscapes. 

Lessons learned flaneuring North America!


By Richard White, revised July 20, 2014 

Top Ten Lesson Learned Flaneuring

  1. Thou shalt always look all ways – up and down, left and right, inside and out.
  2. Thou shalt stop often to look, listen and reflect.  
  3. Thou shalt choose comfort over fashion – especially when it comes to footwear.
  4. Thou shalt think like a boy scout - be prepared for wind, rain, snow, sleet and sun!
  5. Thou shalt take the sidewalk/path/road/stairs/trail less travelled at all times.
  6. Thou shalt honour thy “holy weekend” by going for at least one long walk to somewhere new and different.
  7. Thou shalt smell the flowers – as well as the food, sewers and exhaust... and embrace them all!
  8. Thou shalt never over research or over plan your trip. 
  9. Thou shalt not let photo-taking detract from “experiencing the moment.”
  10. Thou shalt attempt to “get lost” as often as possible.

Some Random Flaneur Finds

Green Apple Books was a great find when we were in San Francisco.  The entire Clement Street district was discovered when we wandered away from the Haight Asbury area. 

Calgary's Inglewood community is still home to two barns just off the city's original Main Street. 

I love to flaneur my own neighbourhood and I am always amazed at what I find even after 30 years. 

This ivy covered warehouse in Chicago was pleasant flaneur surprise. 

We stopped in a Dottie's, in Circleville, Utah on Highway #89 on our epic 8,907 km spring 2014 road trip to stretch our legs.  It was here that we learned where to find the Butch Cassidy's family homestead and that Dottie's has the best German Chocolate cake ever. And, it was only $2 for a huge piece.  We will be back. 

Found this live work play sign on a window in downtown Memphis. Live work play has been my mantra for over 25 years. 

Found this live work play sign on a window in downtown Memphis. Live work play has been my mantra for over 25 years. 

I had time to kill while Brenda was shopping so I went flaneuring and found the Good Mod literally by accident. Found an odd sandwich board leading to what looked like an abandoned warehouse in downtown Portland. In fact,  it lead me to an old elevator to upper floor where I found this salvage warehouse space. Too cool! 

I had time to kill while Brenda was shopping so I went flaneuring and found the Good Mod literally by accident. Found an odd sandwich board leading to what looked like an abandoned warehouse in downtown Portland. In fact,  it lead me to an old elevator to upper floor where I found this salvage warehouse space. Too cool! 

The iron stairs in Chicago's Gold Coast neighbourhood - the best streetscape in the world!

The iron stairs in Chicago's Gold Coast neighbourhood - the best streetscape in the world!

Flaneuring in Ottawa we managed to sniff out this "off off" the beaten path bakery. 

Flaneuring in Ottawa we managed to sniff out this "off off" the beaten path bakery. 

A block off the Vegas strip is a retro pre "Ronald" McDonalds. 

A block off the Vegas strip is a retro pre "Ronald" McDonalds.