Downtown: From Concrete Jungle to Glass Gallery

Recently Thomas Schielke (German architect who works for lighting manufacturer ERCO) wrote a piece for ArchDaily website titled “Veiled in Brilliance: How Reflective Facades Have Changed Modern Architecture.”  I was surprised when he started off his piece with the observation that “modern architecture promoted the monotony of large glass facades that have bored our urban citizens.” He then goes on to talk about how recently more unconventional reinterpretations of the glass façade has create more visually interesting jewel-like buildings.” 

Link: Veiled in Brilliance: How Reflective Facades Have Changed Modern Architecture

He points to Hamburg, Germany’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall designed by Herzog & de Meuron as perhaps the best example of the visionary glass culture in the way the building captures and distorts the perception of the city, water and sky.

The images of Elphi as it is nicknamed are impressive, but I would put Calgary’s collection of sparkling office towers up against any other city’s collection I have seen.

Perhaps we have an unfair advantage as we have more days and hours of sunlight than all most any skyscraper city and we have some of the cleanest air, which creates ideal conditions for sunlight reflections off glass facades.  We also have one of the most dense downtowns in the world with two, sometimes three towers on one block which further enhances the interplay of different architecture, facades and light into playful distortions.

Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, Hamburg, Germany by Herzog & de Meuron architects.

Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, Hamburg, Germany by Herzog & de Meuron architects.

Calgary's architectural surrealism is evident across its 50+ block downtown core.

Calgary's architectural surrealism is evident across its 50+ block downtown core.

Calgary Advantage 

Perhaps we have an unfair advantage as we have more days and hours of sunlight than all most any skyscraper city and we have some of the cleanest air, which creates ideal conditions for sunlight reflections off glass facades. 

We also have one of the most dense downtowns in the world with two, sometimes three towers on one block which further enhances the interplay of different architecture, facades and light into playful distortions.

Eight Avenue Place, Calgary, Alberta, Pickard Chilton and Gibbs Gage Architects

The Bow, Calgary Alberta, Norman Foster architects. 

My Favourites

Perhaps my favourite is Eight Avenue Place, which changes colour constantly through out the day and year as the sunlight reflects off of the various facades – one minute it is deep blue the next steely grey.

The Bow Tower because of its huge concave surface facing south captures the sky and clouds in unique ways.  The postcard shot is looking up into a blue sky and so the top of the building and sky merge - hence the name skyscraper.

I love to stand on the 9th Avenue side of Bankers Hall’s 9th and how it interacts with Gulf Canada Square’s flat glass surface. 

I also love the way the Calgary Tower gets twisted and distorted in the facades of various buildings, sometimes five and six blocks away.

Bankers Hall silver and gold towers reflected in Gulf Canada Square tower.

Outdoor Art Gallery

Each new building brings a whole new whole new interpretation of our downtown’s sense of place. 

The curved vessel-like shape of 707 Fifth Tower, designed by the highly regarded international architectural firm SOM (they designed the world’s tallest building Burj Khalif Tower in Dubai) is going to create some amazing new artworks. 

As will Telus Sky (designed by world-renowned BIG architects) with its pixelated façade that twists and narrows from the ground to the sky. I can’t wait to see how it interacts with our prairie sky and glass giants (The Bow and Brookfield Place), Suncor Place’s red granite and Bow Valley Square’s four concrete rectangles.

Calgary’s downtown is no longer an ugly concrete jungle, but rather is a playful outdoor art gallery.

Hope you enjoy this exhibition of art from our downtown….

Muncipal Building, downtown Calgary
Is it just me or does this look like what Lawren Harris would paint if he was trying to capture the spirit of Calgary's urbanism.  

Is it just me or does this look like what Lawren Harris would paint if he was trying to capture the spirit of Calgary's urbanism.  

Last Word

One of the biggest criticisms of downtowns in the 20th Century was that they became ugly concrete jungles.  However, by the ‘90s the emergence of glass facades for office and condo towers changed everything.  Douglas Coupland (Vancouver novelist and artist most famous for his book Generation X) nicknamed Vancouver “The City of Glass” as a result of the multitude of glass condos dominating their skyline by the end of the 20th century.

For decades I have loved the way Calgary’s glass towers capture our big blue prairie sky and neighbouring buildings to create wonderful surrealistic images.

To me it makes our downtown an ever-changing outdoor art gallery. 

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Perhaps my favourite reflective building to date is the EMP Museum in Seattle designed by Frank Gehry.  Not only does it have a wonderful concave and convex facade (inspired by him cutting up a guitar and using the shape of the pieces to create the design of the building) but it also has intense reds and blues also taken from the deconstructed guitar.  This photo captures the Seattle Space Needle peeking out from an ominous shadow.  

Calgary: Old Bridges Get No Respect

Regular readers of the Everyday Tourist blog will know that I love bridges. This past summer I have developed an appreciation for two of Calgary’s older pedestrian bridges that don’t get the respect they deserve.

The Edworthy Bridge (whoops Boothman) has a unique design with huge holes that over a great place to view the Bow River. 

Bridge with big holes?

Even if you are a long-time Calgarian, I bet you have never heard of the Harry Boothman Bridge. I hadn’t until I researched on the bridge that connects Parkdale with Edworthy Park, which I had always heard of as the Edworthy Bridge. Logical.

The Boothman Bridge has a wonderful sense of passage created by the middle circle that frames the bridge's entrance.  The top circle frames Calgary's wonderful celestial blue sky. 

Calgarians from all walks of life use the Boothman bridge. 

It turns out it is named after a Calgary Park Supervisor and was built in 1976, but that is where the information ends.  I checked with the City of Calgary and they have no information on Boothman, the cost of the bridge or who designed it. The Glenbow archives has a photo but no other information on the bridge. Amazing!

Every time I visited the bridge this year it was packed with people (I must confess, my visits were mostly on weekends). In fact, it seemed busier than either the Peace Bridge (between Prince’s Island and Sunnyside) or the King Bridge (between East Village and St. Patrick’s Island). 

On the southside the bridge lands at a huge picnic area that is busy even in early spring. This photo was take April 3, 2016. 

However, I was told by the City that is not true - Peace Bridge gets about 4,500 trips per day in the summer, King gets 2,200 and Boothman 1,600. 

I can’t help but wonder what the public’s response was to the bridge in the ‘70s as it was a key link in the early development of Calgary’s Bow River pathways system.  Was there a controversy over the cost and design?  I highly doubt there was an international design competition.  I wonder what people thought of the concrete bridge’s design with the big holes.  I guess we will never know?

On the north side the bridge lands at a popular cafe and a sunny spot for buskers.  

Editor's Note:

After this blog was published Everyday Tourist loyal reader B. Lester wrote to say: 

The designers of the Boothman Bridge were Simpson Lester Goodrich; my old firm. We also designed the Carburn Park  pedestrian bridge (still my favorite; have a good look the next time you are in the area of Deerfoot and Southland Drive); the Crowchild Trail pedestrian bridge at McMahan Stadium (the vibrations caused by the crowds of football fans are always a subject of some awe as the crowds pass over before and after every game); and the Deerfoot Trail pedestrian Bridge near Fox Hollow.
The challenge for pedestrian bridge designers in the "old" days was to create an interesting landmark on a very tight budget. City administrators in those days were willing to consider interesting designs, but only if they cost no more than a bare bones solution. Our view was that crossing a bridge should be an "event" in itself and we struggled to come up with solutions which would create identifiable landmarks without spending additional public dollars.

I wrote back and asked for more in formation on the rationale for the design and cost and quickly received the following info.

 

The Boothman bridge was designed back in the '70's in the days of peace, love, and rock 'n roll. It was the fledgling days of the back to the earth movement with geodesic domes and round bird's eye windows. The holes in the bridge were reflective of that movement.
The principal designer was my partner Mike Simpson who, although an engineer, had strong ties to the environmental design movement (a founding partner of the Synergy West environmental consulting firm), to the Alpine Club of Canada, and was responsible for a number of increasingly "out-there" home designs in the following thirty years.
Mike is the visionary responsible for the Sacred Garden at St. Mary's church in Cochrane and for the Himat project, a sculpture created to raise funds to assist small villages in Nepal. He is a very unique individual and I was fortunate to work side by side with him for 25 years.
I have no records of the costs of the Boothman bridge though I would hazard a guess at around $300,000. Six years later, I recall having multiple discussions with the city to justify the $1,000,000 cost for Carburn bridge. (Probably equivalent to $10 million in today's dollars?)

John Hextall Bridge

Again, I bet you are scratching your head saying, “Where the heck is that bridge?”  Perhaps you know it better as the old Shouldice Bridge that you can see from the Trans Canada Highway as you pass from Montgomery to Bowness.

The Hextall Bridge was constructed in 1910 by local businessman John Hextall who sought to create an idyllic garden suburb west of Montgomery called Bowness. In 1911, Hextall negotiated with the City of Calgary take over the bridge plus two islands that would become Bowness Park, in exchange for an extension of the Calgary street railway system connecting Calgary with Bowness via the bridge. 

However, only a small number of houses and a golf course were constructed before the economic bust of 1913 halted most construction until after World War I. However, Bowness Park became an immensely popular leisure area – it was the St. Patrick’s and Prince’s Island parks of the early 20th century.  Park crowds of up to 4,000 people were common on Sundays in the mid 20s, huge given the city’s population being only about 60,000. 

The Hextall Bridge, the gateway to Bowness, continued as a street railway bridge until 1950 when it was turned over to vehicular traffic.  However, it was too narrow for cars plus a sidewalk so in 1985 the City approved a new four-lane concrete bridge, turning the Hextall Bridge into a pedestrian/cyclist bridge and incorporating into Calgary’s vision for a world-class, citywide pathway system.

The design, known as the Pratt through-truss system, is a type of truss with parallel chords, all vertical members in compression, all diagonal members in tension with the diagonals slant toward the center.

The components were manufactured in eastern Canada and shipped to the site for assembly. Ironically, this is similar to the Peace and King Bridges, which were also constructed elsewhere and assembled in Calgary.

Hextall Bridge's criss-cross trusses are a lovely example of the industrial sense of design of the early 20th century. 

Why Shouldice Bridge?

In 1906, James Shouldice purchased 470 acres of farmland about 8 kilometers west of the City of Calgary in a community then known as Bowmont. In 1910, Shouldice donated 43-hectars of river valley to the City of Calgary with the understanding that the land would be used as a park and that the streetcar would run to end of his property.  In 1911, the city created Shouldice Park, which has since become one of Calgary’s premier outdoor athletic parks. In 1952, Fred Shouldice, son of James made a financial gift to the City to build a swimming pool on the site. 

The bridge has colourful flowers at each entrance and huge planter boxes in the middel of the bridge.  Cyclist and pedestrians share the space with ease. 

No Respect

Personally, I think the Hextall Bridge is Calgary’s prettiest pedestrian bridge with its huge flower boxes and lovely criss-cross ironwork. But I doubt I will get many Calgarians to agree with me.

When I asked the City if they had any pedestrian/cyclist counts for the bridge they said they have never done counts for this bridge.  I wonder why?

The patina of the wood and steel (with exposed rivets) contrasts with the highly polished sleek look of Calgary's modern pedestrian bridges. 

Last Word

It is eerily how similar the stories of Bowness and Shouldice Parks are to what is currently happening in Calgary:

  • The idyllic visions of new master-planned suburban communities on the edge of the city.
  • The boom and bust of the 1910s. 
  • The donation of land and money to create parks and new recreation facilities by private citizens.

While all the social media chatter these days is about the Peace and George C. King bridge, it is important to remember that Calgary has been building bridges to connect communities to each other and to public spaces for over 100 years. 

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Affordable Housing Can Also Be Attractive!

Attainable Homes Calgary Corporation (AHCC) has engage some of Calgary's leading contemporary architectural firms - NORR, Sturgess, Nyhoff and Hindle to designing affordable and attractive homes for Calgarians. 

The Courtyard designed by Sturgess' for Attainable Homes' condo in Mount Pleasant creates a playful shared space for residents, as well as enhancing the amount of light into the homes. 

NORR Architecture

In the established neighbourhood of Glenbrook, AHCC teamed up with Truman Homes and NORR architects to build Glenbrook Park, a 60-unit apartment and townhome condo project.  Yes this is the same developer, Truman Homes who is currently responsible for the funky Kensington Legion project in West Hillhurst.  NORR one of Calgary’s largest architectural firms, it is a leader in residential design with projects like Savoy in West Hillhurst, Ezera at Riley Park in Hillhurst and Aura I and II in the Beltline. 

Glenbrook Park’s unique exterior combines deep red, tan, white and dark grey vinyl siding in horizontal and vertical profiles, with bold white balconies that combined with cultured stone accents and a flat roof create a contemporary design.  “The biggest difference between this project and other infill condos is there is no underground parking which saved about $30,000 per unit, significantly enhancing the affordability,” says NORR’s Vice President, Business Development, Bruce McKenzie.

NORR's Glenbook condos for Attainable Homes.

Sturgess Architecture

Architect Kevin Harrison at Sturgess Architecture, Calgary's leading boutique architectural firm, designed AHCC's Mount Pleasant project.  The building is composed of 31-units arranged in two linear blocks, consisting of a two-storey townhouse base with two floors of apartment above with an internal courtyard.  

At street level, the townhouses front doors opening to the sidewalk creates a compatible street edge with existing homes.  The courtyard facilitates increased sunlight and views from both the street and alley units and creates a greater sense of community via the shared space. 

In addition, by recessing south facing patios and extruding north facing patios, residents have with natural shading for the former and sunlight for the later in the summer months, as well as create more visual interest.

Nyhoff Architects

AHCC’s Varsity 4818 is a 26-unit townhouse development in Varsity designed by Nyhoff Architects, who have a reputation for creating quirky designs.  Their projects include the King Edward School transformation into an “Arts Hub and Incubator” and the redevelopment of the St. Louis Hotel in East Village. 

For Varsity, Nyhoff had created a very contemporary design that allows the rectangular shapes of the white balconies, dark windows and entrance with just a hint of lime green play off each other to create a bold contemporary statement that could fit into East Village.  Nobody would suspect this to be an affordable housing complex. 

Varsity 4818 is Nyhoff Architects uses bold colour to create a contemporary townhouse development for Attainable Homes. 

Hindle Architects

In Bowness, AHCC’s newest project is on a site originally slated to be used for the Sarcee Trail expansion. Architect Jesse Hindle (yes, the same architect Brookfield Residential used for their Altadore 36 and Henry in Parkdale condo projects) took inspiration from the distinctive jagged rooftop of nearby Sunnyside Greenhouses to create 50 fun and funky new homes.

Hindle explains “the architecture of the project is inspired by the form, rhythm and materials of the neighbouring nursery greenhouses to create a buffer between the busy commercial/industrial activity to the east and the residential neighbourhood to the west.  The townhouse's sheet metal facades introduce a colour scheme for each home (composed of burgundy, orange and red panels) that link the buildings to the site's landscape and the continuous flow of CP Rail cars that give the site its unique character.”

Hindle's ARRIVE at Bowness creates a lovely visual rhythm that reflects both the roof of the nearby Sunnyside Greenhouses and that of a long line rail cars. 

Attainable Homes 101

Attainable Homes (a wholly owned subsidiary of The City of Calgary) partners with builders and developers to obtain homes at a discount and then passes on the savings onto the homebuyers, the caveat being when you sell your home AHCC gets part of the appreciation. For example, if the home is sold in 1 to 2 years, the owner keeps 25% of any appreciation; after 2 to 3 years, the appreciation is split 50/50 and after 3+ years the homebuyer keeps 75%.

To date AHCC has sold over 500 homes that have enhanced and diversified the housing stock in 19 Calgary communities.

Last Word

“I think we’ve been successful in engaging a variety of architects who have brought creative approaches to finding ways to make interesting building that can be priced at a point that makes the homes affordable to hard-working Calgarians” states Jamie Findlay, Development Manager, AHCC. 

An edited version of this blog was published in Condo Living Magazine's July Issue. 

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