Is Calatrava the future of Calgary? Let's hope so

LISA ROCHON August 1, 2009

As psycho-cultural snapshots, there's nothing more entertaining and instructive than the sound bites of Calgarians who like to loudly protest against the possibility of evolving a merely functioning city into a more visually enticing metropolis. To attempt something more than the utilitarian - as in the red-and-white torpedo-shaped pedestrian and bicycle bridge designed by architect-engineer genius Santiago Calatrava to shoot across Calgary's Bow River - is to risk a public flogging.

Check the dark tone of reporter Jason Markusoff, who in an interview printed this week in the Calgary Herald requires Calatrava to answer the following petty, chauvinistic charges: "As I walk along the riverbank, where this bridge is going to be, people I ask say this is the epitome of terrible decisions. This was a bad use of taxpayers' money. Why should we be hiring this fellow from Spain to build this bridge?"

Calatrava, responsible for more than a dozen ecstatic bridges around the world and the soaring white atrium at Brookfield Place in downtown Toronto, stoops to defend his Spanishness. (He cites the multiculturalism of Canadian cities, even Calgary, and his decision to send all three of his sons to Lakefield College School in Ontario.) He is forced to defend the idea of spending money during harsh economic times. (He cites the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center and the George Washington Bridge as achievements belonging to the Great Depression.) Finally, he suggests, for what it's worth, that "to build things with beauty is a matter of dignity and not a matter of time."

But how to defend his stunning record as a maker of iconic designs when confronted by the ultimate diss by a whinging Herald reader who wrote to the paper that Calatrava's work belongs in an elementary-level art class: "This to me looks like something a child in school would dream up and it would cost far less than $24.5-million." If that's the case, good on the Alberta school system. It's must be producing some creative minds.

Luckily, such negativity represents only part of Calgary's collective consciousness. In fact, several Herald readers wrote in to praise Calatrava's vision, calling it, among other things, "beautiful" and "brilliant." They're part of the rising tide in Calgary that would clearly love to see their city cultivate and support what so many other cosmopolites have long enjoyed.

Significantly, the new Calgarian is rejecting the suburbs for a more intensified, multilayered urban experience. And the numbers indicate that they're on the march: By 2035, the number of citizens living in Calgary's downtown will have doubled to 60,000, with a total of 180,000 people working there. I'm betting on those Calgarians and their ambition to grow a city with beauty as a matter of dignity.

Even in the last week, despite the childish insults hurled at Calatrava, the new cultural consciousness has gained tremendous ground. One of the most invigorating shout-outs for a reinvented Calgary involves the Cantos Music Foundation and the five international firms that have now been shortlisted to design its new headquarters.

Cantos is a non-profit organization with an impressive collection of instruments and extensive outreach programming. It has a solid reputation in Calgary, but is barely known across Canada. Still, its executive director, musician and musicologist Andrew Mosker, working with the Cantos board, has spearheaded an ambitious campaign to put the foundation on the map as Canada's national music centre.

And guess who accepted the invitation to come out and play? Some of the world's most innovative design thinkers. Cantos has lured a truly impressive short list and paid each of those on it $50,000 for their brainstorming efforts.
They include: French architect Jean Nouvel, winner of the 2008 Pritzker Prize, and the man behind the mesmerizing Copenhagen Concert Hall; American architects Diller Scofidio + Refro, fresh from redesigning Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York; Canadian firm Saucier + Perrotte, responsible for some of Montreal's most daring architecture; and Allied Works, designers of the coolly minimal, 16-storey addition to the Seattle Art Museum. The short list of luminaries also includes a lesser-known firm, Studio Pali Fekete Architects (SPF:a) of Culver City, Calif., but what that outfit lacks in stardom it makes up for with a proposal of warmth and passion.

All five teams have provided their design solutions and narratives in the form of colour renderings and, for the most part, captivating videos. Ateliers Jean Nouvel presents a 19-storey tower that's as razor-thin as a giant projection screen, proposing that the 80,000 square feet of collections and performance and restaurant space required by Cantos be concentrated vertically to create a grand new public space on 4th Avenue. There's a lot that makes sense in that - and the Calgary skyline would benefit from something truly iconic - but how to create a human exchange of musical notes in a tall tower?

Diller Scofidio + Renfro has opted to place a glass-box addition on top of the King Eddy Hotel and bridge it across the street to a crumpled contemporary building. From the outside, the compressed, folded planes look like a design has-been, although, on the inside, the atrium - defined on both sides by several storeys of open experimental sound rooms and collection spaces - is convincing as a lively symphony of space.

Allied Works relied heavily on overworked metaphors in their presentation but managed to pull out the powerful idea of a ground-floor welcome room that would move and groove according to the touch of its visitors. Saucier + Perrotte massed heavy black volumes of glass above and around the site, but saved the most enticing gesture for an interior space that doubles as a gathering and performance area. The most seductive interior, however, goes to the entirely wooden chamber, or "soundscape," created by SPF:a.

In the right design hands, the Cantos National Music Centre, with a current construction budget of $75-million and an endowment of $25-million, could claim for itself a territory as large as Seattle's Experience Music Project or even the Cité de la musique in Paris.

"I felt very strongly about engaging the great architects of the world," says Mosker, who over the last decade has travelled to some 200 music and cultural centres around the world, ultimately determining that the Cantos centre should not be a museum - but a museum undone.

Along the way, the Calgary Municipal Lands Corporation, a land-ownership entity independent of the City of Calgary, awarded Cantos the right to develop the historic King Eddy site and another property across the road on 4th Avenue. Both sites are in Calgary's East Village, an area of former tanneries, and battery and asbestos manufacturers, and these days its share of homelessness.

As chief property owner, the CMLC is working out a laudable plan to revitalize the area with new public space and bike lanes, as well as green roofs and an efficient district energy centre. Improved amenities are to be financed through tax-increment financing, which borrows against the value of future revitalization to bankroll cultural triggers and requisite improvements to infrastructure. The East Village is Canada's first municipal-levy zone, or TIF, to be launched, an impressive example of forward thinking.

I wish I could declare that the outrage over Calatrava's sensibly costed and beguiling pedestrian bridge belongs to a minority of voices. And I will, I hope, but only once major funding from the public sector and private donors is secured for the new music centre - and when the Epcor Centre, designed by Vancouver architect Bing Thom, lands the funding to expand its performance-arts centre in Calgary's downtown. Those announcements are expected this fall. Stay tuned to see whether Calgary is intent on a stunning rise - or a childish tumble down a nasty hill.