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.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Repeling Calgary's Downtown Pedestrians

A few years ago the administration at Kansai International Airport, a gleaming engineering achievement on a man-made island near Osaka, Japan, was refused to reduce escalator operation by controlling them with a motion sensor that would shut them down when not in use rather than running them around the clock. Their argument? They were an elite, world class airport and to their mind, world class airports just don't do such things. Never mind the fact that airports don't sink into the Pacific Ocean either, saving energy by stopping the escalators just didn't fit with the image they wanted to portray.

I start with this anecdote because it is something that comes to mind when walking the streets of downtown Calgary. Stephen Avenue is a blessing for pedestrians and an aimless wander is rewarded with iconic public art, a variety of architecture, street vendors restaurants and the opportunity to people-watch over a beverage or witness whatever events someone has tried to concoct. Going south from there the reward as there but intermittant. Eleventh Avenue SW has a great appeal and anyone looking to weave and wander their way toward 17th Avenue or 4th Street would find plenty of reason to keep walking.

North of Stephen Avenue, however, there is little to attract pedestrians. The office towers are there and people will make their way too and from work but to walk west to east along any of the Avenues between Stephen and Prince's Island doesn't offer a lot. Block after block of the avenues consists of blank walls or - just as bad - glass facades that give the public a view of the tower elevator bank and security desk. While the newer office buildings are a more attractive sheen, they do little to make it a more appealing place to walk. The glass facades at street level are just a more modern version of the cement surfaces from past generations. There is little reason to walk there unless one absolutely has to.

This is where my reference to Kansai International's grandiose sense of airport-self comes in. It would take very little for these newer buildings to increase their interaction with the streetscape by giving pedestrians a little bit more to interact with as they walk by. Cafes, mom and pop restaurants, convenience store are all in a position to thrive given the traffic passing through 9 to 5, Monday to Friday but with many of these buildings there is no sign of them at street level.

Why do the owners or architects of these towers resist opening up ground level retail space? Is it a matter of reinforcing for passers by - usually their employees or tenants - the eminence, liquidity or market capitalization of the company with the skyline beacon? It might be the only reason I can come up with. It may, of course, also be a matter of profitability for running businesses in those locations. A major part of the problem is that most of the downtown area between Stephen Avenue and Prince's Park is devoted to either office towers or parking. Other cities would have downtown areas with a variety of buildings and enterprises with pubs, churches, shopping and hotels mixed in to the urban fabric.

This is not to say that these isn't any variety in downtown Calgary, but it is not enough to generate and sustain pedestrian traffic. Once pedestrians get a few blocks north of Stephen Avenue the sights or curb appeal diminishes pretty quickly. The Avenues seem to be dedicated first and foremost to getting cars in and out of the parking lots, whether underground, street level or blight of visual blights, built above ground.

Building the variety into the downtown business district will take some time but with additional public art and more access to amenities other than office elevators there will be greater reason for pedestrians to make the walk. Perhaps someone will have a creative idea or two the next time the decision is made to fill a parking lot with a new building.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dead Space in Calgary's Core

One of the more puzzling and irritating, not to mention ignored, parts of downtown Calgary is the NW corner of the intersection of 7th Avenue and 2nd Street SW. It is by name, though not intent, a park, but one that is uninviting and underutilized, despite being at the core of the downtown area, right next to a C-Train station. Eve

At the moment, like much of 7th Avenue, access to the park is limited by construction, but the issues with the park existed long before the construction began.

The most unappealing things about the park are the brutalist waist- or chest-high planters and the Plus 15 pedestrian bridge casts a shadow over the area. These elements alone make it as welcoming as a chain link fence. Whenever I have visited the area, I have encountered no more than one person, and it has usually been a homeless person hiding out or napping off the warmest part of the day. If people tend to have this same experience on a regular basis, it would emphasize the fact that the large planters provide a great place to hide if one has criminal intentions. There are buildings in downtown Calgary that have cozier smoking areas outside their doors.

As if the design of the space was not enough to discourage people from using it, a sign indicates "Private Property, Restricted Access."

Regardless of the label, it is and ought to be a public space and one used to its maximum potential, especially in light of its location. Too much of downtown Calgary has surrendered itself to being a staid business district and devoted itself to the efficient movement of people from their sheltered parking to their offices and back all in the comfort of the great indoors. Ironically enough, the Devonian Gardens is just across the street and an elevator ride away.

Not only is the park a blight in itself, though the Plus 15 hinders its potential, it detracts from the visual and pedestrain access to the buildings just north and west of it. A great improvement to the area would start by removing the barricades along 7th Avenue. Those bulwarks in the image above are not required to protect the area from an errant vehicle from plowing into the park. Opening up the park to the sidewalk would definitely encourage people to come in and use the area. If I were to dream a little I'd go further and remove everything made of that brutalist cement and a variety of materials. Those planters would look far better if they were made of wood or even - I know, I'm dreaming - planted right into the ground.

While it is only a part of one block, this "park" is just one of many elements of downtown Calgary that discourage people from walking around the city. Complement this park with the parking garage on the east side of 2nd Street and there is not much to encourage people to meander the core.

I'll take up other issues with downtown shortly.