Love it or hate it-- Calgary skyline screams home
What the city's evolving skyline says about who we are
Jennifer Allford, Calgary Herald
Published: Sunday, January 06, 2008
It disappears and magically reappears while you walk along Nose Hill. Busloads of Japanese tourists stop in Rosedale to take its picture, offset by the magnificence that is the Rocky Mountains. Driving north on Macleod Trail, it emerges suddenly, urgently even, as you ascend from the strip malls and car dealers of Erlton.
There are many different views of the Calgary skyline, and each tells part of the story of the city.
Any TV cameraman or woman will tell you the particular skyline shot they need to tell a certain story: if it's about hockey, the Saddledome is in the foreground; if alluding to the city's prairie roots, you shoot east from Broadcast Hill; many photographers flock to Scotchman's Hill for their money shot.
It seems Calgary's skyline is transformed every time he's looked through the lens over the past 30 years.
"I have shot the skyline so often, in every season, and it's always a little bit different," Genereux says. "There's always a different building -- and that's what the skyline always says to me: Calgary is always changing."
Constant change -- growth -- is, of course, a big part of Calgary's story. Over the decades it's resulted in a variety of shapes, heights, trends, proportions, textures and colours plus at least one structure that elicits a full range of opinions (are you one of those laughing with -- or at -- that stadium shaped like a saddle?).
The collection of buildings crammed between the Bow and Elbow rivers, 14th Street and 17th Avenue in the southwest, has evolved in fits and starts along with the city's economy. Cranes have heralded the booms; plentiful parking lots have told of the busts.
Pat Moore has seen it all.
The legendary community volunteer and self-described "dyed-in-the-wool Calgarian" has watched the skyline grow, even as parts of it have disappeared, for seven decades now.
"I remember the days when the skyline was the Palliser Hotel and the Robin Hood Mill," recalls Moore. "The mill disappeared and I don't know how many people have commented to me over the years about how they miss it."
Moore misses a lot of old buildings that were ripped down in the name of progress. And, she's not too fond of the plain corporate boxes that kept popping up to replace them in the '60s and '70s.
When Moore looks at Calgary's skyline, she sees an impatient teenager who doesn't reflect on the past or look ahead past Saturday night's date.
"We seem to follow the trends, which shows the lack of confidence westerners have. We want to look like Toronto rather than having confidence in who it is we are."
Moore is pleased with the growing aplomb she sees in the more unique shapes that touch the sky -- the Petro-Canada building and Bankers Hall -- and she's looking forward to seeing more interesting silhouettes in the sky as we grow past the teenage years.
The city has attempted to guide development of those silhouettes with plans and policies that date back to the Mawson Plan of 1914 (the grand vision for a "beautiful city" tanked with the economy of the day). The latest document, the 2005 Centre City Plan, sketches out a long-term vision and a number of ideas for developing the city's core.
There are policies to ensure lasting views of green spaces and landmarks; there are Sunlight Preservation Guidelines and a Shadow Sensitive Areas Concept, all meant to help create a "livable, caring and thriving place."
This "What Not to Wear" guide for our gangly teenager recognizes that the peaks and shadows, towers and glass tell a story about who we are. The skyline is a physical manifestation of the expectations and associations people have about the city where they live, work and/or play. The skyline is a big part of what the cool kids call our brand.
Stephanie Jackman, president of Blueprint Brand Strategies, explains: "A brand is the relationship between an entity and its stakeholders and it's created through interactions and personal experiences. Every organization has a brand, whether it is created deliberately or by accident, and a city is no exception."
Jackman sees the thriving economy in the skyline. She sees recreation with the rivers and the Talisman Centre. She sees Stampede Park and a western heritage. Jackman also sees growing pains.
"Calgary's skyline reflects the entrepreneurial spirit and vast opportunities available to a percentage of the population. It also reflects the challenges associated with a traditional city model that concentrates work and housing in different geographies, limiting the access to these opportunities and alienating portions of the population."
Look carefully; you can see difficult commutes to the core, skyrocketing house prices and social inequities in the skyline.
There are about 30,000 people who live downtown and another 120,000 people who work there. By 2025, there will be as many as 70,000 residents and 180,000 workers downtown. That could mean between 16 and 26 shiny new 30-storey towers by 2025.
There are a handful on the books now: Centennial Place I, City Centre I, Jameson Place. The Penny Lane Towers will mimic the mountains to the west. EnCana's Bow Tower will be named for the river. These projects -- conceived and built in an unprecedented boom -- reflect the bravado of the times.
The Encana project in particular has provoked much thumping of the chest.
The 58- storey Bow will trump its neighbour, the Petro-Canada Tower, to become the tallest office building in Canada west of Toronto. The building -- designed by internationally acclaimed architectural firm Foster + Partners -- is widely credited with putting Calgary's skyline on the world architectural map.
Not so fast, says Trevor Boddy, former Calgarian and architecture critic. While he likes the tower's design and concedes it will help define the skyline, he says hiring a big, famous architect isn't nearly as daring as it appears.
"It's easier to buy your reputation than earn one," reflects Boddy. "It's like relying on names when you shop at Holt Renfrew; like not picking by texture colour or fit, but picking by name. It represents insecurity and lack of confidence in innovative architecture more than some breakthrough."
Boddy says Calgary will know it's grown up architecturally when it can support a few provocative local mid-sized firms as well as the existing big corporate firms and the small creative ones.
He says what's already remarkable about Calgary's skyline is reflected not in architect's renderings, but in children's drawings that show impossibly tall towers surrounded by tiny bungalows.
"Calgary's always had a very unusual skyline and I don't know any other place in the world where single-family houses get that close to 40-storey towers."
Boddy hadn't thought much about this unique feature until a cab ride downtown in the 1970s with one of the most famous architects in the world, Rem Koolhaus.
Koolhaus was thrilled at the anomaly of buildings next to bungalows and Boddy recalls their conversation whenever he drives into the Calgary's core.
"Most cities have a belt of older buildings, or warehouses or apartment buildings around the core, but Calgary has that amazing kind of vista down a Kensington street to the wall of towers."
Paul Hardy lives on one of those streets in Kensington. When the acclaimed fashion designer looks across the river at the skyline -- specifically the matching gold and silver towers of Bankers Hall -- he sees commerce and consumerism.
"This is a very consumer-driven city; there is a lot of keeping up with the Joneses and high stress in this town," offers Hardy. "When you look at the skyline, there's almost a spirit of consumption you can see."
But Hardy also sees pure, aesthetic beauty. He likes what he calls "the rhythm of the skyline" particularly from the bluff in Rosedale. In design theory classes at art school, students were taught to squint at objects in order to see their purity.
The skyline passes Hardy's squint test: "When you look across, you see the negative space and it outlines a really nice balance."
Genereux's favourite shot of the skyline is from the Calgary Zoo's south parking lot: the river's in the foreground and the towers loom beyond. The cameraman -- who has spent years working on the road -- always finds Calgary's skyline welcoming: "It doesn't matter which major highway you drive in from or whether you're flying in, the first thing you see is the skyline. And it screams home."
It's a comforting sight.
Even with its teenage angst (complete with bouts of acne, the odd bad tattoo and ill-placed piercing), Calgary's skyline reflects the struggle to cope with the appetites, growing pains and stretch marks that accompany rapid growth.
"Good design always respects the past and reflects the future," adds designer Hardy.
When asked what Calgary's skyline would be if it were an item of clothing, he hesitates only for a second, before offering up, "It would be a clean, crisp, white shirt."
Let's hope our still-growing arms don't poke too far out of the sleeves.
© The Calgary Herald 2008