Built in 1981, Eau Claire Estates on the Bow River at 4th St SW, was one of city’s first luxury urban condos. Though it was supposed to be the start of a mega Eau Claire urban renewproject by Oxford Properties who owned several blocks in Eau Claire, it sat all alone for nearly a decade.
Backstory: For newcomers to Calgary, it is hard to imagine in the ‘70s and ’80s, Eau Claire was a rundown community of old homes, surface parking lots (there are still lots of those) and women of the street. When the Federal Government introduced the National Energy Program in October 1980, Calgary quickly slid into a recession and the hopes for a quick revitalization of the Eau Claire community quickly disappeared.
It wasn’t until the mid ‘90s that Eau Claire’s revitalization was rebooted with opening of Eau Claire Market, Eau Claire Y, Sheraton Hotel and Prince’s Island Estates condos. But even that was a bit of false start as it took yet another 10 years to get projects like the Princeton and The Waterfront condos off the ground.
Eau Claire Estates & Burj Khalifa?
A little known fact is Eau Claire Estates was designed by Chicago-based Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) architects, a renowned highrise specialist since 1936. Today, SOM is best known as the architect of the world’s tallest building - Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai.
Eau Claire Estates is interesting in that it is not a single tower, but rather a family of 10 towers (with 14 elevators), the tallest being 23 floors. Somewhat analogously, the Burj (163 floors, completed in 2010) is constructed as a series of 27 setbacks resulting in what looks a family of towers stacked on top of each other.
That is where the similarities end, as the Burj is a majestic, slender, bright glass structure that towers over everything else in the Dubai skyline, while Eau Claire Estates is a foreboding dark brown brick structure. (Even one of the residents who lived there for 30 years thought the brick was too dark.) While the façade is a flat monochromatic brick wall that offers no articulation or decorative qualities from balconies or windows, it has hints of modernism with the various slanted rooftops that anticipate the roofs of future office buildings like First Canadian Place and Suncor Centre.
Eau Claire Estates, with no grand street entrance or townhomes with doors to the sidewalk, presents a dark, blank, gated community-like wall that is very pedestrian-unfriendly. However, for the residents it is an oasis with its two interior courtyard gardens boasting spectacular flowers in the summer and a huge lobby that serves all 10 buildings.
Today, Eau Claire Estates lives in the shadows of the shiny blue glass Devon, Centennial and Millennium office towers and the timeless red brick brick and sandstone Princeton condo complex.
The decision by Oxford Properties to hire SOM architects to design Eau Claire Estates in the late ‘70s was a bold a move. It was on par with the early 21st century decisions to hire famous international architects (UK’s Norman Foster, The Bow; Spain’s Santiago Calatrava, Peace Bridge and Denmark’s Bjarke Ingles, TELUS Sky) in an attempt to put Calgary on the map of international cities having iconic architecture.
Yet while the decision was bold and the architect famous, Eau Claire Estates hasn’t truly stood the test of time. It hasn’t become a classic example of late 20th Century architecture. Nor does it add any charm or character to Eau Claire’s sense of place. Lesson learned - hiring an international iconic architect doesn’t guarantee you will get an iconic building.
Another lesson to be learned is that community redevelopment takes decades, Eau Claire has been at since the early ‘80s and there is still lots of work to be done.
By Richard White, March 21, 2015. This blog was commissioned by Condo Living Magazine for their March Edition.