Calgary is NOT on the cusp of becoming a "Design City?"

Last Saturday, CBC Calgary as part of its "Route Ahead" feature published my piece profiling how Calgary has engaged several international architectural firms to create exciting new buildings, bridges and public spaces in our City Centre.

While the piece was well received by many including Mayor Nenshi, there were criticism that the piece focused too much on starchitects, rather than local urban designers and that Calgary has a long way to go before it will be recognized as a "Design City" by world travellers.  

What was edited out of the CBC piece was the following paragraph by Saskatoon architect Charles Olfert who while very impressed by how far Calgary has come over the past 20 years, points out why Calgary is NOT yet a "Design City."

Saskatoon architect, Charles Olfert one of the founding architects of Saskatoon’s aodbt architects is a regular visitor to Calgary, as well as a world traveler. 

When asked if Calgary is on the cusp of becoming a design city he replied, “Do big name, out-of-town designers make Calgary a ‘Design City,’ I would have to say, NO!  To me, Copenhagen epitomizes a ‘Design City’ as its commitment to quality and design goes beyond just the buildings.  They have a “Design Centre” to assist visitors to explore the city’s many uniquely designed buildings and public spaces. When you ask a Copenhagen resident about a building, they will often know the name of the architect and the idea behind the design concept. The overall community’s engagement in design is amazing.”

He adds, "Calgary is well on the way to becoming a design city, but it is not the big name starchitects that will ultimately achieve this goal. It will be when there is a design awareness and appreciation in the everyday culture of the community. Copenhagen has achieved this."

While Olfert is just one person, I do respect his opinion as informed and as an outsider. Sometimes it is hard for Calgarians like me to be objective about the city we love.  In researching this piece several urban design professions from Calgary also cautioned me about calling Calgary a "design city." 

I hope that those of you who live in Calgary will use this blog and google maps to tour downtown with family and friends and decide for yourself if Calgary is on the cusp of becoming a design city.  I'd love to hear what you think!

Here is a reprint of the CBC News Calgary piece with more and different photos.

Calgary: Calgary's global architecture, a nifty walking tour.  

Will BIG’s Telus Sky and Sonhetta’s new Central Library put Calgary on the map of world Design Cities?

Sure we are not a Dubai, New York City, London or Singapore.  But when it comes to being on the world map of Design Cities, we have come along way in the past 20 years. Global designs, has changed the face of our city.


Architectural and urban design tourism has become popular of late.  It kicked off which the downtrodden industrial Spanish city of Bilboa commissioned Frank Gehry to create the iconic Guggenheim Museum.  It's since attracted millions of visitors from around the world.  Got tourists to go to a place they might never otherwise have seen.

Today many cities around the world are investing billions in wacky new architecture to try and recreate what is now called the “Bilboa Effect.” Calgary is also joining the chorus.

We've got two major projects underway that could help us achieve a critical mass of exemplary urban design. The Telus Sky project designed by the firm of international superstar architect Bjarke Ingels. And the the Norwegian design firm Sinohetta's new Central Library.

These international designs right here in Cow Town will join a host of other major new design projects since 2000.  It may be a bit early to call ourselves a 'Design City', but let's take a stroll across town, and you can decide for yourself.

One of many urban design hidden gems in downtown Calgary. Close up of Calgary artist Ron Moppett's  five-panel mosaic titled “THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER.” 

One of many urban design hidden gems in downtown Calgary. Close up of Calgary artist Ron Moppett's five-panel mosaic titled “THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER.” 

New Central Library is taking shape. 

New Central Library is taking shape. 

National Music Centre, 2016

Designed by Portland’s Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, the massing of the building looks like a huge sculpture, perhaps a Henry Moore “Reclining Nude.” 

The curved glazed terracotta tile walls are in fact inspired by musical instruments. The façade changes colour with the angle of the sun during the day and from season to season.  It also includes a mega bridge over 4th Street SE, which enhances Calgary’s reputation as the world leader in sky bridges. 

The Bow Tower, 2011

Designed by London’s Sir Norman Foster, the diagonally structural braces creates a unique triangulated façade.

The shape of the building was inspired by the bend in the Bow River as it flows through downtown.  However, as you enter the downtown from the northeast it looks a bit like a big barrel of oil….coincidence? 

Wonderland sculpture, 2011

Designed by Spain’s Jaume Plensa, “Wonderland” is a ghost-like head of a young girl that sits on the plaza in front of the Bow Tower. 

There is also a lesser known sculpture by Plensa on north side of the building called “Alberta’s Dream” which is a self-portrait of Plensa sitting on the ground hugging a tree.  His body is covered with the names of Alberta cities and towns. 

Imagine, Calgary a city of tree huggers…could the artists be making a political statement? 
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Brookfield Place (East Tower, 2018)

London’s Arney Fender Katsalidis (AFK) architects were engaged by Brookfield Properties to create a signature building in the heart of downtown.

At 247m it is now Calgary’s tallest building. While it retains the rectangular shape the dominates Calgary’s skyline, it is notable for its rounded glass corners that gives it an iPhone like shape. 

The Core, 2012

Toronto’s MMC International Architects were hired to renovate and integrate what was once Lancaster Square, Devonian Gardens, TD Square, Eaton Centre and old Eaton’s department store into one 'super' shopping mall. 

To do this they created the world’s largest point-supported structural glass skylight - 26m wide and 200m long.

Stephen Avenue Galleria Trees, 2000

The original plan for Bankers Hall was to have a glass canopy over the entire street. But that didn't happen.

Oxford, the then owners of TD Square, weren’t thrilled about having anything attached to their building. So they built 'trees'. The construction of these giant white creations was almost as controversial as the Peace Bridge, because it involved removing the real trees on the block.

While they are called trees, one of the early (and unfortunate) nicknames was “pooper scoopers”.  Yikes. Apparently some felt they looked like something you’d use to clean your kitty litter. The original design was much more elegant as they had slender legs at street level, however the city demanded the bulky boots in case they were ever hit by a vehicle.

This mega public artwork was the idea of Ric Singleton, and the Trizec Hahn design team who developed the Bankers Hall complex.

Eight Avenue Place, East Tower, 2011, West Tower, 2014

Designed by the American architectural firm Pickard Chilton, the shape of the Eight Avenue Place towers was inspired by the planes, angles and sense of thrust of the Rocky Mountains. 

This is actually the second design for the two buildings.  The original design by Gibbs Gage was also inspired by the Rockies but with darker glass. This building is as attractive inside as out, with its cathedral-like lobby, paintings by Canadian masters like Riopelle and Shadbolt and a uniquely designed Starbucks.  

707 Fifth, 2017

707 Fifth is designed by Chicago’s SOM Architects, (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) - one of the largest and most influential design firms in the world.

Their portfolio includes Chicago’s Willis Tower, 1973 (tallest building in the world for 20 years) and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (2010) the tallest today.  They are considered to be leader in international style glass tower, minimalist form.

While not the tallest building in Calgary at 27 floors, it respects the glass façade and modernist/minimalist school of office architecture.  With its curved edges and elliptical shape it has a soft femininity that makes it stand out in Calgary’s plethora of stocky old boy towers. 

It also adds to Calgary’s growing portfolio of blue glass towers that started with Canterra Tower now Devon Tower. 

4th Street LRT Station, 2012

Calgary’s Jeremy Sturgess designed the futuristic oval glass bridge at the 4th Street LRT Station which juts over 7th Avenue.  Right there, in the Harley Hotchkiss Gardens, (designed by Winnipeg’s Scatliff, Miller & Murray), you'll find the signature sculpture “DoReMiFSolLaSiDo” by Saskatchewan artist Joe Farfard. 

Originally the sculpture planned for the park was going to more of a conventional cowboy western theme. But Jeff Spalding who was then the CEO at the Glenbow convinced everyone to do something more contemporary.

The eight horses galloping across the park represent Calgary past, present and future. They pay homage to the importance of the horse as part of Calgary’s unique culture – First Nations, Calgary Stampede and Spruce Meadows. 

Be sure to go up close so you can discover all of the miniature images of western heritage Fafard has integrated into the design of each of the horses.

Centrium Place, 2007

Centrium is a precious jewel-like building created by Calgary’s Gibbs Gage architects.

It subtly cantilevers over the sidewalk so the top is wider than the bottom creating what looks like diamond shape.  The facades glass is made up of difference rectangular shaped glass panels in a random pattern that was loosely inspired by the famous Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. 

Jamieson Place, 2009

Gibbs Gage Architects is also responsible for Frank Lloyd Wright inspired Jamison Place with its prairie style twin columns enhancing the vertical thrust from sidewalk to sky.

The Winter Garden inside on the 1-5 level is arguably the most elegant and tranquil place in Calgary, with its infinity pond and living wall.  It is also home to three hanging glass sculptures by the world’s most famous glass artist David Chihuly.

Peace Bridge, 2012

The Peace Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava is perhaps the most loved and hated work of art in Calgary.

From an international design perspective it is notable in that it is diametrically opposed to Calatrava’s other bridges which are always white with gabled wires creating a light, soaring, wing like visual effect. 

Because of the helicopter pad and that fact that it had to spans the width of the river without any posts, Calatrava used a double hex structure. The choice of red is obvious as it links to the Flames, Stampeders and Calgary Tower, as well it signifies “good luck” in Chinese culture.

One might even wonder if Calatrava is also commenting on Calgary’s “red neck” image?


East Village Riverwalk, 2011

Since day one, East Village’s Riverwalk has been a hit with Calgarians.

Designed by the Stantec’s Calgary office, this pedestrian promenade now extends from Centre Street to Fort Calgary on the Bow and Elbow Rivers. The Riverwalk has won numerous landscape architect awards, and was instrumental in convincing Calgarians and developers that the City was committed to high design as part of the redevelopment of East Village.

George C King Bridge, 2014

Designed by French design firm RFR and Calgary’s Halsall Associates, this bridge hasbeen nicknamed the “Skipping Stone” bridge - as it has three arches that resemble a stone skipping over the river. 

Unlike the Peace Bridge there was no controversy associated with the King Bridge as an extensive and transparent community engagement process was implemented.  While the Peace Bridge is bold and bulky, the King Bridge is playful and elegant. 

Together they create a wonderful pedestrian circuit along the Bow River.

St. Patrick’s Island Park, 2015

Denver based Civitas, and New York based W Architecture, have transformed St. Patrick’s Island into a charming urban playground with a pebble beach, picnic grove, pathways, playgrounds, plaza and private places to sit. 

In 2016, the Island took top honours in the Great Public Space category in the Canadian Institute of Planners' Great Places in Canada competition.


While Calgary doesn’t have the biggest, tallest, wackiest or weirdest architecture in the world, we do have some very unique and intriguing buildings, bridges, plazas and parks.

Even with the downturn, there are opportunities for maginificent designs. Things which add to our sense of pride, things which, when they strike the eye, just make our days that much better

So put on you walking shoes, head downtown and you be the judge if the Calgary you thought you knew, is maybe on the cusp of becoming a design city?”

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