Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Brutalism in Downtown Calgary

Anyone who is familiar with downtown Calgary is familiar with streets where the appeal of walking evaporates or turns from pleasant to sinister with a couple of steps toward a blank wall that avails itself to nothing more than a garage door. If one was going to try to dissect the downtown area and root out the source of the cancer and decay the first impulse might be to target the Cecil Hotel or the Calgary Drop In Centre (DI) as sources of blight that has drifted west.

There is an argument to be made that the Cecil and DI are problems with the downtown fabric but the issues run a little deeper than two buildings and the population that hover around them. Arguments about the east-west appeal of downtown Calgary have been cited earlier but at this point I'd like to discuss the architecture that straddles the northernmost stretch of MacLeod Trail.

Brutalism evokes images of a certain form of violence but the term came from a style of architecture that made extensive use of raw, exposed, unadorned concrete and strong repetitive lines. The connotations of the term seem quite fitting, however. In the case of many of the buildings north of the Central Library in downtown Calgary, namely the Calgary Board of Education's (CBE) Kremlin-tribute offices, the Harry Hayes Building that houses so many federal government offices and many of the buildings around them, there is little to invite people to walk in those neighbourhoods.

Part of the issue with the lack of curb appeal is the limited purposes of those buildings but even with the "Family of Man" sculpture there is little that is pleasing to the eye or invites people to linger for more than their cigarette break. Some of the other public art is of a nature that jars notions of aesthetic and gives one a very clear reminder of how absurd notions of modern were a generation ago. While buildings like these may have evoked some bizarre notion of what the future would look like, today they are inert and perhaps even despotic in some way.

There is potential in this neighbourhood as Bow Valley College undergoes expansion and renovation of its campus, plans are being unhatched for a new Central Library and the CBE plans to vacate its offices in 2011. There is little chance that anyone else would want to call those offices home, so hopefully plans will be put together to use that space in a more civilized manner.

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