Architecture Should Better Reflect Our Values

July 2, 2008 - Ray Pennings

Calgary is currently buzzing with architectural ambition and aspiration. The skyline will be changed with the construction of EnCana's new building, The Bow, along with several other new downtown projects. Various new residential communities market features that not only make them distinct, but also reflect creativity and a desire for beauty.

Ideally, a city's architecture should not only be an inspiration to its citizens, it should be a reflection of those things that are at the core of its values and beliefs.
It is a concrete and steel manifestation of how we dress; the colours we choose to highlight our natural state and the cut of cloth we select to best enhance our God-given features.

Cities that do not pay attention to their architecture -- physical and intellectual -- are likely to be as unattractive and incapable of inspiring interest and excitement as any one of us would be if we showed up for an evening out wearing a sweat suit and a pair of brogues.

In that sense, cities of aspiration are no different than individuals. Cities, too, need to dress for success.

When it was first established, Calgary was no different than most 19th century cities. It was designed around commercial and cultural establishments -- the train station, the stockyards, hotels, theatres, secondary and post-secondary schools and certainly churches.

These were the places where people worked, lived, learned and found inspiration.
Yet throughout the 20th century, Calgary developed much like many other western North American cities, building from within an imbalanced central core.

The downtown remained a centre of commercial activity, but as people moved to the suburbs their cultural activities moved with them.

Given that the family home is the core of culture, this shift inspired churches, schools and shopping centres to follow people to the suburbs -- a move that almost clear-cut culture from the civic core, leaving it a place only for commercial or business activity. And, too often, the rush of churches, schools and shopping to the suburbs was not planned in an architecturally inspired fashion.

Suburbs, for the most part, are comfortable and utilitarian, but quite uninspired.
There are exceptions. McKenzie Towne, located in the southeast corner of the city, is one example of a community where core ideas, and not simply utilitarianism, shaped the design.

The residential areas of the community offer distinct styles that incorporate elements of European, English, and Greek architecture. Following the "New Urbanist" principles that inspired it, McKenzie Towne has a pedestrian-friendly and accessible main street with shops that provide the staples of modern life as well as quaint items of interest.

Critics will argue, not entirely without merit, that despite its design McKenzie Towne is not a real town. They point to the fact that it still averages almost two cars per household and that few of its residents actually work in the neighbourhood, meaning it is incomplete as a centre of commerce and culture.

There is merit to this argument, but there is also little doubt that the developers of the area have created a framework for a real town, offering streets that give opportunities for intimacy and surprise, and structures -- High Street, McKenzie Towne Church, the Towne Hall, St. Albert the Great Church -- that offer a sense of distinctiveness.

There is certainly more than one way to achieve a well-dressed city.
Midnapore, a classic example of how suburban lava can consume a real town, offers different hints at how identity can be revived and re-established.

St. Mary's University College and its presence have not only allowed the area to preserve its past, it seems also to inspire its mind and soul for a brighter future.

As Calgary continues to grow, we need to aspire together to build a city that works and expresses itself well. Imagine, for instance, the difference that would be made if Calgary were to have its own opera house -- something that would impose itself on the city's visage in the manner of the Sydney Opera House in Australia -- instead of the somewhat utilitarian and non-descript presence of the Jubilee Auditorium.

What a huge difference would be made to how we looked and how we felt about each other if the Epcor Centre for Performing Arts were as imposing and inspiring as the Lincoln Centre in New York?

The Calgary Flames will be shopping for a new arena soon. What should it look like, particularly given the unique design of the Saddledome has become synonymous with the city's physical and cultural image? Are there other organizations needing a new
home which could end up defining both them and Calgary?

Ideas matter and civic planning is about the practical expression of ideas and imagination. Calgary has plenty of heart, but only planning in good faith can make sure it achieves its true potential as a city of aspiration.

Ray Pennings is vice-president of research for the Work Research Foundation. Check out his blog at www.rpennings.blogspot.com.

Posted in Cities.

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Originally Published

date: July 2, 2008
publisher: Calgary Herald