The Art of Architecture and Colour

For the past 35 years, I have observed - with interest - the evolution of Calgary’s urban design culture from its pragmatic prairie conservatism to today’s more liberal contemporary designs. Perhaps the biggest change has been the use and abuse of colour.  I was reminded of this when recently exploring the Beltline and seeing Lake Placid Group’s The Park - the new condo next to Memorial Park with its dark blue glass facade. 

I was a bit shocked as it was, to my eyes, so strikingly different from the promotional renderings which showed a more transparent, light green building, like a huge green house and more synergistic with the greens of the park.  My first impression of the deep blue was it was too dark, too heavy and too gloomy.  I have the same reaction to the dark glassed Keynote Towers just further east.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and my eyes are always attracted to buildings with bright, bold, cheerful colours like the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  Guess I am a kid a heart!

Original computer rendering of The Park condo from Memorial Park.

  Actual photo of The Park condo from Memorial Park.

Actual photo of The Park condo from Memorial Park.

Does anyone care?

I decided to ask Rob Taylor, President of the Beltline Community Association to see what he and his group thought of the change of the design. He informed me many people didn’t even notice the change and some that responded negatively at first, later changed their minds. He reminded me “that not everyone has to like every building.” How true!

I then thought I would get some other insights into Calgary’s new culture of colour. Joe Starkman, Partner at Knightsbridge Homes is the guy responsible for those bright orange and yellow University City condos on Crowchild Trail at the Brentwood LRT Station.  He indicated the public response has been a 50/50 split between those who like the colours and those who don’t.  The colours by the way were inspired by colours of grasses, bushes, flowers and trees at different seasons in Nose Hill, Blakiston Park, Strathcona Hill and Canada Olympic Park - all of which can be seen from the condo’s picture windows.

The multi-coloured University City condos at the Brentwood LRT Station.

Mid '90s green glass condos in Calgary West End.

Arriva condo in Victoria Park -  subtle use of colour. 

Beige/Brown City

Bruce McKenzie, VP at NORR architects, who designed the striking AURA I and II across the street from the Beltline’s Barb Scott Park shared with me that when he and his family arrived back in Calgary in 1991 after four years in Bermuda (where architecture celebrates the vitality of the island with vibrant colours), they were astonished at the “brownness” of the city.  He is a big fan of integrating colour into architecture and looking to nature for colour inspiration. At the same time, he cautions the use of bold colours in large scale as they create a “look at me architecture without any meaning or relevance to sense of place.”

New Pixel condo in Kensington.

Paul Battistella, General Manager at Battistella Developments has championed the idea of colour and condo design for several decades now. For him “colour is very personal and is reflective of a person’s personality.”  His design team uses colour both literally (bright yellow balcony highlights in Pixel) and psychologically. “We try and tap into the psychological appeal of colour and how it connects to a person’s self image.” Orange was chosen as the name for their ‘90s East Village condo (when East Village was only a dream) because the colour matched the “eclectic creative” people that live there.  Their new East Village project named “Ink” will have multiple colours on its exterior, reflecting the diversity of psychological profiles of purchasers.

A not-to-be-named architect once confided in me, saying, “many architects do not understand colour. Many are afraid of colour as it adds a complexity to the form, rhythm and light of the architecture which confuses them.”

AURA condo from Barb Scott Park.

Last Word 

Starkman, an architect by training, thinks “the new architecture we are seeing being built in Calgary today is quite refreshing and spectacular in many circumstances…all contributing to a dynamic rebirth of downtown Calgary.”  I think most Calgarians would agree with this statement.

Note: An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Condo Living Magazine.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtown Calgary: Paint it black

Tale of three Calgary Pedestrian Bridges

Chicago: Architecture River Cruise

Everyday Tourist follower Sonny Tomic sent in this photo of a colourful new boutique office building in downtown Calgary.



Calgary's City Council must stop micro managing!

Sometimes I just shake my head, wondering what are they thinking?  Why is City Council spending so much time debating and making decision on things that obviously should never even come to Council in the first place?

I was reminded of this, this past Monday when two of the agenda items were perfect examples of things that should never come to Council. First was the ongoing decision by Council to make the decision to approve every secondary suite application in Calgary.  In this case, Council should approve policy for Secondary Suites in Calgary and then trust administration implement it – end of debate.  Worse case scenario let the Ward Councilor make the decision and others just rubber-stamp their decision.

The second was the debate on community and street names proposed for the Brookfield Residential’s new Livingston community.  In this case Council has approved policy and clear guidelines for Community and street names. Why are they debating the names of streets?

I think the naming of communities and streets is critical as part of celebrating Calgary’s history and fostering a sense of place.  Yes I think in the past we have made some poor choices, but there is no point lamenting over names like Coral Springs, Tuscany or Royal Oak - we need to move on.  We already have a “Community and Street Naming” policy and it is Council’s responsibility to review the policy if it is not working – end of discussion.

Calgary's City Council can't continue to govern the city like it did 30 or 40 years ago. 

Waste of everybody’s time

It is not only a waste of Council’s time, but also staff time as dozens of senior staff have to hang around the Council meeting waiting for their agenda item to come forward.  There is also the time it takes for other staff to gather and compile all of the information for Council meetings for the agenda items they shouldn’t be discussing in the first place. It would be enlightening after every Council (and Committee meeting for that matter) to add up the amount of staff time that has been invested vs. the value added.

Backstory: As I was writing this blog it turns out someone has estimated it costs $10,000 for every Council meeting that goes past per meeting in just over time.  It is probably the same cost for Planning Commission and other meetings that drag on.

Council Members vs. Corporate Board Members

This type of behaviour would never survive in the private world.  Can you imagine Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors having to deal with every customer or staff complaint in person or Suncor’s Board of Directors deciding on the naming of wells or who gets which corner office in the Suncor Centre?

Calgary’s sheer growth over the past 10 years should dictate Council has to be a governance Board and not a working committee.  The City’s current 2015 to 2018 plan calls for $22 billion in capital and operating expenses compared to the $10.2 billion in the 2005 to 2008 plan. 

Council has no time to get bogged down in minutiae of the implementation of policy at the expense of larger issues. As stewards of a multi-billion business Council members should be focused on setting direction, goals and policy, not day-to-day detail. 

Delegation Opportunities

One suggestion I have heard for Council to better manage the City is to create more City owned corporations like ENMAX.  For example, Water & Sewer Services could become a utility company with its own Board of Directors instead of being a department of the City.  Similarly, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation has done a good job of developing the City’s land in East Village; perhaps it should be responsible for developing all City owned land. Attainable Homes Calgary Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of the City perhaps its mandate could be expanded to include the work being done by the Calgary Housing Company.   

Perhaps the City should be hiring a Governance Advisor rather than an Integrity Commissioner, who could help them manage their Board and Committee meetings more effectively.  Remember the old adage, “time is money.”  While almost all of the Councilors complain they are too busy, one has to wonder: Are they busy doing the right things?

Last Word

Council is often challenging others to do things differently, but in many ways it is still governing the City as if it was the ‘70s.  Today, Calgary is a complex corporation with over 12,000 employees and an annual budget of over $4 billion.  It needs to start managing its affairs as if was a corporation and not a working committee.

 PS

Before I posted this blog I shared it with 10 key informants asking for their input to make sure my comments were constructive and appropriate.  Collectively these individuals had over 125 years of experience in senior positions with the City and over 150 years of corporate experience. They all encouraged me to post the blog, saying change is needed immediately. 

By Richard White, February 11, 2015


What's with the names - Arts Commons & Contemporary Calgary?

Is it just me, or does Calgary now have the most ambiguous names in North America (maybe the world) for its performing arts centre (Arts Commons) and public art galleries (Contemporary Calgary)?  Call me “old school” but isn’t there something to be said for naming public buildings in a public-friendly manner?

Recently, the EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts changed its name to Arts Commons.  I expect the change was precipitated by the fact EPCOR’s naming sponsorship had expired so they had to drop the EPCOR name.  But surely they could have come up with a better name, something less vague and misleading.

The new name and logo for the old EPCOR Performing Arts Centre has no link to the City or to the building's architecture. 

One colleague said, “It sounds like a bohemian artists’ co-operative of studios and galleries,maybe even a small performance hall with rehearsal spaces.” Another said “Arts Commons” sounds like a little park or street corner in Eau Claire or maybe on Prince’s Island; maybe a new public space in East Village.  Yet another said the name was meaningless to her, and “certainly doesn’t change my experience of going to the Jack Singer concert hall or one of the theatre spaces.”  An artist I spoke with said it reminded him of the old Art Central that was recently torn down to make way for the new TELUS Sky tower.

It certainly doesn’t convey an image of being one of North America’s major performing arts centre with five performance spaces, with a total of over 3,200 seats in one of North America’s fastest growing cities.  

When the new name was announced last December, Johann Zietsmann, President and CEO of the new Arts Commons said, “This new name reflects the momentum the centre has been gaining over the last few years, and best communicates where we want to be as part of Calgary’s cultural landscape.” Henry Sykes, Chair of the Arts Commons Board of Directors explained, “It is about increasing awareness and creating a better experience for both our resident companies and our patrons. It is about being welcoming and open to all.”

Sorry gentlemen, I don’t buy it.  How does a name like Arts Commons make the Centre more welcoming, more open, a better experience for performers, increase public awareness or enhance the facility’s position within Calgary’s cultural landscape?  I hope the new name was properly tested with the Calgary public before it was chosen. Maybe I am just a grumpy old man and the new name works resonates with the younger demographics.  However, I haven’t had a single person - young or old - tell me they like the name over the past month.

Here’s an idea…..why not just revert to the Calgary Performing Arts Centre (or CPAC for short)?  It is simple, descriptive and easy to remember and no need for an explanation – all important criteria for good naming.  It says exactly what it is and what city it is located in.  Certainly one of the purposes of a major civic performing arts centre is to help build the City’s brand/image as a place of culture.  Arts Commons could be in Red Deer or Iqaluit for that matter – it says nothing about “place.” 

Call me stupid, but applying the tried-and-true KISS principle to the naming of arts buildings is always a good idea.

The Performing Art Centre is located on the south side of  Olympic Plaza. The red brick building contains two theatre spaces, the green roof building on the far left an office building and the old eight storey Federal Public Building was renovated to includes offices on top of the  Jack Singer Concert Hall on the ground level. It is part of an arts district with the Glenbow Museum and Calgary Telus Convention Centre on the next block. 

What’s with Contemporary Calgary?

I find it hard to believe anyone thinks the name “Contemporary Calgary” is a good name for a public art organization with two gallery spaces and soon a third.  Sure, I can understand that with the merger of the Art Gallery of Calgary and the old Triangle Gallery (whoops, I mean MOCA i.e. Museum of Contemporary Art) that they would want to avoid any reference to previous names.

For many years the triangular space on the plaza of the Municipal Building was called the Triangle Gallery. In 2011, it was changed to MOCA - Museum of Contemporary Art, before merging with Art Gallery of Calgary and Institute of Modern & Contemporary Art (IMCA) to create Contemporary Calgary. 

I can also understand they wouldn’t want to make any reference to the Institute for Contemporary and Modern Art (IMCA). It was formed many, many years ago but was never able to build a major public gallery in Calgary focusing on contemporary art.  Obviously, they were looking for a fresh start. I totally get it.

“Contemporary Calgary” could easily be confused with a modern furniture store, or maybe a tony fashion boutique. One colleague, who shall remain nameless, as he is key figure in Calgary’s visual arts scene, thought it might be a good name for a consignment clothing store.  Just to add to the confusion, the former Art Gallery of Calgary space on Stephen Avenue is called C and the old Triangle Art Gallery space C2. Yikes!

I bet to the vast majority of the public and many culture vultures, the name Contemporary Calgary conveys nothing about being a visual arts organization or about being a public, not-for-profit organization. In fact, it sounds more like a private enterprise.  One person I emailed to ask what he thought sheepishly emailed me back to say she had to look it up!

Again, I think something simple like Calgary Art Museums or Calgary Contemporary Art Museums would have worked just fine.  The term “museum” works well to convey the idea of a public building that displays artifacts.  And “contemporary art” says that this is not a place full of historic paintings, drawings and sculptures.

The 1967 Centennial Planetarium and Science Centre building is currently empty while Contemporary Calgary determines how best to convert it into a public art gallery/museum space and then raise the money for renovations and operating costs.

Last Word

I realize my sample size is small, but as Malcolm Gladwell divulged in his book “Blink,” at a certain point in your life, you have accumulated enough knowledge and experience in certain areas that you know in the “blink of an eye” if something is right or wrong after which you spend hours, days or months justifying your observation or decision.  After 35 years of being involved in Calgary’s cultural landscape, I know these two new names are meaningless to most Calgarians and tourists, as well as national and international cultural leaders.

In the near future, both Arts Commons and Contemporary Calgary are going to go to the public and corporate community, with multi-million dollar capital campaigns. Arts Commons has ambitious plans to upgrade their ‘80s building into a 21st state-of-the-art facility. Contemporary Calgary has plans to convert the 1967 Centennial Planetarium building into a modern art gallery.

I believe both groups would be better served if they had simple names that reflect their purpose.  As one CFO said to me, “if I got a call from Contemporary Calgary, I would immediately think they were going to try and sell me new office furniture.”

The best way to communicate is by being clear and concise, not convoluted and confounding.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Glenbow: A new kind of art museum

Calgary Civic Art Gallery: Do we dare to be different?

Does Calgary have an inferiority complex?

Iconic Canadian art hidden in YYC office lobby