Beakerhead: Education coefficient needs improvement?

Richard White, September 14, 2014

Beakerhead's premise of a smash-up festival of science, engineering and art is perfect for Calgary with its plethora of engineers, geologists, software developers and IT people and our lust to become an international cultural centre.

However, what I saw (based on visiting a couple of sites during the day, one lecture and following many twitter feeds) was lots of sizzle (literally, it seemed to be all about the fire), but not a lot of substance.  I think I have some qualifications to make this statement as I have a MSc, have published scientific papers (all be it many decades ago) and for the past 30 years, I have been part of Calgary’s cultural scene.

Maybe I am old school, but when I went to the Stampede Grounds' smash-up site, I was expecting something more challenging and educational.  What I found was a playground full of loud adolescent students (I understand there are over 20,000 students participating in various Beakerhead events) having a lot of fun, but I am not sure what they were learning about art, science or engineering.  Back story: I also have experience establishing curriculum-based education programs. I didn’t see any notes being taken, no didactic information and no guided programs - it seemed like a free-for-all.

I didn’t see much that was challenging from an art, science or engineering perspective either. A solar-powered bike isn’t exactly new or innovative, neither is a warming hut with a wood stove or a couple of mini-homes. Although I was invited to drop by the site by an artist, I have no idea where the art was. It was more like a trade show. 

Maybe I just chose the wrong place and time as some of the evening pics on twitter looked much more animated and visually interesting.  

This fun, multi-armed robot was perhaps the most photographed and tweeted image of the festival (Photo Credit: Elred Naxela)

The burning man, as I called it, was very popular at the Stampede Grounds. Later learned it was The Gee Gnome, which explains the tacky pink flamingos, sand and fence; this was suppose to be a front yard setting with a fun gnome. I think? 

Net Blow-up created in Austria is billed the first self-supporting, climbable structure in the world.This spider web climbing structure was popular at the East Village site. (Photo Credit: Elred Naxela) 
 

  A ride in the solar-powered tricycle was fun and probably second to the robot as the most photographed object.

A ride in the solar-powered tricycle was fun and probably second to the robot as the most photographed object.

  The Spirit House by artist Califoria Jayson Fann is like a human-sized birdhouse turned on its side. It was only later in reading the Calgary Herald that I learned this was an art project as there was no information available that I could find. Maybe there was an App?

The Spirit House by artist Califoria Jayson Fann is like a human-sized birdhouse turned on its side. It was only later in reading the Calgary Herald that I learned this was an art project as there was no information available that I could find. Maybe there was an App?

These youth seemed to be having fun throwing the big dice up in the air and playing the classic game of snakes and ladders.

This tiny house/shed was cute but not really innovative. Yes, you could live in the space, but it really is no different than one of those summer trailer vacation homes that have been around for decades. 

Love the idea of warming huts that Winnipeg has implemented along the river at The Forks.  Good tourism plug for Winnipeg, but where is the science or the art?  Each winter The Forks has a call for proposals from designers to create unique warming huts like this one.

Low-tech, old school fun! 

Last Word

An old equation states "enlightenment = engagement + entertainment + education." I would say Beakerhead's engagement and entertainment value is very high, but there is an opportunity to enhance the educational coefficient.

Reader's comments:

CC wrote: "good points, seems a bit weak on the theory." 

CA wrote: "Beakerhead in Banff was about art and intellect. Now about spending grant money for a show. Still cool but has lost it's way."

JG wrote:  "My Grade 5 daughter and my husband went to Beakerhead on Saturday night. Their assessment is that it did meet expectations. Apparently, a U of C researcher was on site explaining the construction and mechanics of the fire-octopus. Also an explanation of laser cat and the collection of art that it shot out of its eyes. Perhaps the multiple venues and duration of events led to inconsistency of experience, but that's also a bonus as it allowed many people to take it in over a 5 day period. At the very least, it was able to draw Calgarians into different neighbourhoods they may otherwise not have a chance to visit."

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University of Arizona: Resort vs Research

Downtowns should be fun!

 

Calgary's Audacious New Library

By Richard White, September 5, 2014 (An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald).

The idea of a new iconic central library has been around for decades (Vancouver got its iconic library in 1995, as did Denver and Seattle in 2004.  In fact, it was acknowledged at the Calgary Public Library Foundation’s preview that one of the reasons Councilor Druh Farrell originally decided to run for council in 2001 was to foster the development of a new central library.

She and others have been championing the idea tireless and today she is Council’s representative on the Calgary Public Library Board. Nobody can say the Library Board or Council has rushed into this project, it has been a slow painful process for some and for others a strategic struggle.

Finally the wait is over. 

  Vancouver's iconic Central Library has been the envy of many Calgarians since it was built in 1995.

Vancouver's iconic Central Library has been the envy of many Calgarians since it was built in 1995.

Think Global Act Local

The new library's design team of Snohetta and DIALOG was announced in November 2013 and since then has been working hard to develop a design that will capture the attention of both Calgarians and the world.  It was a good choice as Calgary’s DIALOG team is headed up by Rob Adamson, who was born in Calgary, got his architectural degree from the University of Calgary and has spent his entire career in Calgary – he can obviously speak to Calgary’s sense of place.  His projects include the impressive TELUS Spark and the new international wing of the Calgary Airport. 

In addition, Fred Valentine one of Calgary’s most respected architects (architect for the NEXEN building) has also been advising the Library’s steering committee and Board with respect to design issues and opportunities. 

Craig Dykers heads up the Snohetta team in New York City who bring to the table a wealth of international library experience including the award winning Bibliotheca Alexandria.

The Design

The design team for Calgary’s new central library make no bones about it they have an audacious (their words not mine) vision: to create the best library in the world.  They were quick to that creating the best library is more than just about design, it is about being “right for this place and time.”  Craig Dykers of Snohetta argued, “Libraries are not about the building, the books or the information but about the people.”  He also noted that the best libraries must evolve with time and Calgary's new library must be able to do just that.

The inspiration and rationale for the design of the new library as unveiled at the Calgary Library Foundations’ Preview September 3rd and again at a sold out presentation (1,200 attendees) at the TELUS Convention Centre on September 4th is very complex.  Everything from the curve of the underground LRT tunnel to the Chinook arch were mentioned as factors influencing the building’s conceptual design.  

  Rendering of the shape and massing of the proposed new downtown Library.

Rendering of the shape and massing of the proposed new downtown Library.

  Diagram illustrating the shape of a drift boat. 

Diagram illustrating the shape of a drift boat. 

  Shape of a drift boat from all sides

Shape of a drift boat from all sides

Drift Boat?

What struck me most when looking at the rendering is that it looks like a boat.  At first I thought of a canoe but then it hit me – it looks like the drift boats that are used by fly fishermen on the Bow River. These boats have a flat bottoms with flared sides, a flat bow and pointed stern. They are designed to handle rough water and to allow fishermen to stand up in the boat, even in flowing water. Whether intentional or unintentional there are some interesting links to Calgary's sense of place (rivers) and culture (recreation).

Rendering of the new library's 3rd Street SE facade.

  Rendering of the 3rd Street SE facade in the summer with the Municipal Building on the left. 

Rendering of the 3rd Street SE facade in the summer with the Municipal Building on the left. 

Yin Yang on 3rd Street SE

I was also struck by how similar the massing is to the Municipal Building that will run parallel to the new library on the west side of 3rd Street SE. Both are block-long horizontal mid-rise buildings in a downtown that is dominated by its verticalness.  Inside both buildings will have a floor to ceiling atriums as their dominant design feature.

The Municipal Building’s design is unique with a stepped façade on the west side, an obvious reference to the foothills and the mountains and a flat east façade, a design metaphor for the prairies. Dykers indicated he thought what defined our city’s unique sense of place is its position between the mountains and the prairies.

While nobody said it, I think there could be a nice “yin and yang” design materializing between the angular Municipal Building and the curved new library. I think there are also links with the design and massing of the new National Music Centre. The synergies between the three buildings could create something special from an urban placemaking perspective.

The façade of the proposed new library has a repeated geometric pattern that is in the shape of a house or shed. It creates an obvious scientific, mathematical or engineering visual impression.

This too might be appropriate as Paul McIntyre Royston, President & CEO of the Calgary Library Foundation announced the new library will have a Research Chair - a first for a public library in Canada.  He spoke of the new library as being an “incubator for research and ideas.” He also went on to say “all great cities have great libraries” and it was the team’s goal to create a great library for Calgarians and he wasn’t afraid to reiterate that vision is to “create the best library in the world”

 

The Municipal Building is a massive blue glass triangle sitting on top of a concrete rectangle. The historic sandstone city hall in the bottom right corner is still used as offices for Mayor, Council and meeting rooms. The building makes obvious references to the foothills, the big blue prairie sky and the powerful forces of faults, folds and shifting tectonic plates that formed the Canadian Rockies. 

The west facade of the Municipal Building alludes to Calgary's sense of place i.e. where the prairies meet the mountains; the triangular shape and stepped facade creates a unique shape. The glass facade creates wonderful reflections of the historic sandstone city hall building to the north east. 

  From the northeast the Municipal Building has an intriguing profile as a result of its triangular shape that will contrast nicely with the propose new library's curved shape at the same corner.

From the northeast the Municipal Building has an intriguing profile as a result of its triangular shape that will contrast nicely with the propose new library's curved shape at the same corner.

  This view of the Municipal Building from the east will disappear when the new library is built. 

This view of the Municipal Building from the east will disappear when the new library is built. 

Last Page

I like the fact the design is not something twisted, cantilevered or cubist, which seems to be all the rage these days. The shape and skin are intriguing with a sense of playfulness without being too silly.  I expect only time will tell if this is the right building for Calgary - today and in the future. 

The design of the Calgary’s new Central Library is off to a good start. I am glad it isn't imitative of other architecture as is so often the case in Calgary.

I hope that as the design evolves it will just keep getting better. Kudos to the design team, the Library and CMLC staff! 

Denver's Central Library designed by Michael Graves, in 1995. 

  Seattle's Central Library designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, in 2004. 

Seattle's Central Library designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, in 2004. 

Vegas' Crazy Container Park

By Richard White, May 15, 2014

What would you do if you had a spare $350 million? In 2008, after selling Zappos, an online shoe and clothing site, to Amazon for $1.2 billion, Tony Hsieh (Zappos’ CEO) decided to undertake his own urban renewal project. He bought up land in Las Vegas’ east end and created Container Park.

Container Park is perhaps the most exciting and unique urban development project I have ever seen.  Though currently it is just one entire block (at the east end of Freemont Street), there is lots of room to expand.  Using 40+ old shipping containers, some stacked on top of one another, Hsieh effectively transformed the once - empty block into an attractive, animated urban village.

Half of the block is a vibrant entertainment center with boutiques, restaurants, lounges, a huge children playground with its three-story tree house (young adults also love the playground at night). There is also an outdoor concert venue for the likes of Sheryl Crow (who we missed by a few days) and indie bands. 

Container Park, in sharp contrast to the adjacent Old Vegas’ Freemont Experience and the Strip is focused on being an incubator for small-scale start-ups in the fashion, art, food and music industries rather than mega international players. To date, over 50 small businesses have joined the party so to speak.

The other half of the block is a quiet learning campus with several containers positioned to create a campus (kind of like the old portable classrooms of the ‘60s). Here, the Container Park community, as well as others meet and share ideas to help germinate new ideas or expand existing ones.

Hsieh’s vision is to “create the shipping container capital of the world, while at the same time becoming the most community-focused large city in the world.”  Judging by the number of people hanging out when we visited (both day and night), he is well on his way in turning his vision into reality.

It is amazing what Hsieh has been able to accomplish in a few years, given the decades it has taken Calgary to get the East Village revitalization off the ground. Container Park opened in the Fall 2013 and is currently the toast of the town. However, the real test of success is best determined in 5 or 10 years when the “lust of the new” has worn off.

At night the entrance to Container Park is very dramatic with a fire breathing grass hopper that is like something out of Burning Man. 

Once inside it is a place to dine, have a drink and hang out with friends.  It is like a patio or back deck party. 

NEOS is a fun playground game that everyone seemed to enjoy. 

During the day it was the kids enjoying NEOS with the adults watching on. 

  The three storey tree house was popular during the day.  Who would have thought of a playground as the central element of an urban village. BRILLIANT! 

The three storey tree house was popular during the day.  Who would have thought of a playground as the central element of an urban village. BRILLIANT! 

Container Park by day with downtown Las Vegas in the background.

Container Park is like one large patio, with wonderful soft seating.  I took this picture quick as one group left and another was about to grab it. 

The learning campus is quiet more contemplative place. I took this just after a group had finished some sort of meeting workshop. 

Footnotes:

As a Calgarian I am totally jealous of Vegas' Container Park.  It would be a great way develop some parking lots or vacant sites along a major transit route with retail, residential or office buildings.  Perhaps it could be the model for a mixed-use development of the land around an LRT station.   

I encourage everyone to check out Container Park when you are next in Vegas!

 

I wonder if the dogs are intimidated by this fire hydrant. This is actually a private dog park, - you have to be a Hydrant Club member to access it.  Dog owners pay a subscription fee for obedience training, doggie day care and access to this grass oasis in a sea of gravel parking lots.