Calgary's global architecture, a nifty walking tour

Join well-known Calgary urban design critic and bon vivant Richard White, as he walks us through the best buildings our city has to offer. There's a trove of "new" in and amongst Calgary's square towers of yesteryear.

The city has come a long way in the past 20 years, with more projects nearing completion

Once complete, the new Central Library in Calgary will join a host of new buildings, bridges and places that are helping to put the city on the design map. (Calgary Municipal Land Corporation)

Will BIG's Telus Sky and Snohetta's new Central Library put Calgary on the map of world design cities?

Sure, we aren't a Dubai, New York City, London or Singapore — but when it comes to being on the world map, we've come a long way in the past 20 years.

Global design has changed the face of our city.

If you build it, they will come

Architectural and urban design tourism has become popular of late. It kicked off when the downtrodden industrial Spanish city of Bilbao commissioned Frank Gehry to create the iconic Guggenheim Museum, which has since attracted millions of visitors from around the world. 

That building got tourists to go to a place they might never have seen.

Today, many cities around the world are investing billions in wacky new architecture to try and recreate what is now called the Bilbao Effect, and Calgary is joining the chorus.

We've got two major projects underway that could help us achieve a critical mass of exemplary urban design: The Telus Sky project designed by the firm of international superstar architect Bjarke Ingels, and the Norwegian design firm Snohetta's new Central Library.

These international designs right here in Cow Town will join a host of other major new design projects since 2000. It may be a bit early to call ourselves a "design city," but let's take a stroll across town, and you can decide for yourself.

Heck ... print the story out, and you can create your own walking tour.

National Music Centre, 2016

850 Fourth Street S.E.

The National Music Centre's curved exterior and immense bridge over Fourth Street S.E. was designed by Portland's Allied Works Architecture. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Designed by Portland's Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, the massing of the building looks like a huge sculpture, perhaps a Henry Moore Reclining Nude

The curved glazed terracotta tile walls are inspired by musical instruments. The facade changes colour with the angle of the sun during the day and from season to season. It also includes a mega-bridge over Fourth Street S.E., which enhances Calgary's reputation as the world leader in sky bridges.

The Bow Tower, 2011

500 Centre Street S.

The Bow, with its unique triangulated facade, is curved to mimic its namesake river. (Richard White)

Designed by London's Sir Norman Foster, the diagonal structural braces create a unique triangulated facade.

The shape of the building was inspired by the bend in the Bow River as it flows through downtown. However, as you enter the downtown from the northeast it looks a bit like a big barrel of oil … coincidence? 

Wonderland sculpture, 2011

110 Sixth Avenue S.E.

Wonderland, one of two sculptures by Jaume Plensa outside the Bow. (Submitted by Hugo Villi)

Designed by Spain's Jaume Plensa, Wonderland is a ghost-like head of a young girl that sits on the plaza in front of the Bow Tower. 

There is also a lesser known sculpture by Plensa on north side of the building called Alberta's Dream that is a self-portrait of Plensa sitting on the ground hugging a tree. His body is covered with the names of Alberta cities and towns.  Imagine, Calgary, a city of tree huggers … could the artists be making a political statement?

Brookfield Place, East Tower, 2018

First and Second street and Sixth and Seventh avenue S.W.

The east tower of Brookfield Place already rises above downtown, here pictured with the as-yet-unbuilt smaller west tower. (Submitted by Brookfield Office Properties)

London's Arney Fender Katsalidis (AFK) architects were engaged by Brookfield Properties to create a signature building in the heart of downtown.

At 247 metres it is now Calgary's tallest building. While it retains the rectangular shape the dominates Calgary's skyline, it is notable for its rounded glass corners that gives it an iPhone-like shape. 

The Core, 2012

333 Seventh Avenue S.W.

The giant glass roof of the Core shopping centre is the world's largest point-supported structural glass skylight. (Richard White)

Toronto's MMC International Architects were hired to renovate and integrate what was once Lancaster Square, Devonian Gardens, TD Square, Eaton Centre and an old Eaton's department store into one "super" shopping mall. 

To do this they created the world's largest point-supported structural glass skylight — 26 metres wide and 200 metres long.

Stephen Avenue Galleria Trees, 2000

Eighth Avenue S.W. between Second and Third streets

The Stephen Avenue Galleria Trees were built after the then-owners of TD Square objected to having a covered area over the street. (Google Maps)

The original plan for Bankers Hall was to have a glass canopy over the entire street, but that didn't happen.

Oxford, then the owners of TD Square, weren't thrilled about having something attached to their building, so they built the trees. The construction of these giant white creations was almost as controversial as the Peace Bridge because it involved removing the real trees on the block.

While they are called trees, one of the early (and unfortunate) nicknames was "pooper scoopers." Yikes. Apparently some felt they looked like something you'd use to clean your kitty litter. The original design was much more elegant as they had slender legs at street level, however the city demanded the bulky boots in case they were ever hit by a vehicle.

This massive public artwork was the idea of Ric Singleton and the Trizec Hahn design team who developed the Bankers Hall complex.

Eighth Avenue Place, East Tower, 2011, West Tower, 2014

525 Eighth Avenue S.W.

The two towers of Eighth Avenue Place were inspired by the shape of the Rocky Mountains. (Google Maps)

Designed by American architectural firm Pickard Chilton, the shape of the Eight Avenue Place towers was inspired by the planes, angles and thrust of the Rocky Mountains. 

This is actually the second design for the two buildings. The original design by Gibbs Gage was also inspired by the Rockies but with darker glass. This building is as attractive inside as out, with its cathedral-like lobby, paintings by Canadian masters like Riopelle and Shadbolt and a uniquely designed Starbucks. 

707 Fifth, 2017

707 Fifth Street S.W.

The soft lines of 707 Fifth were designed by the same firm behind the Willis Tower and the Burj Khalifa. (Google Maps)

707 Fifth is designed by Chicago's SOM Architects, (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) — one of the largest and most influential design firms in the world.

Their portfolio includes Chicago's Willis Tower, the tallest building in the world for 20 years, and Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest today. They are considered leaders in international style glass tower, minimalist form.

While not the tallest building in Calgary at 27 floors, 707 Fifth respects the glass facade and modernist/minimalist school of office architecture. With its curved edges and elliptical shape, it has a soft femininity that makes it stand out in Calgary's plethora of stocky old boy towers. 

It also adds to Calgary's growing portfolio of blue glass towers that started with Canterra Tower, now called Devon Tower.

Fourth Street LRT Station, 2012

Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue S.W.

The Fourth Street LRT station downtown was designed by local architect Jeremy Sturgess. (Richard White)

Calgary's Jeremy Sturgess designed the futuristic oval glass bridge at the Fourth Street LRT Station that juts over Seventh Avenue. Right there, in the Harley Hotchkiss Gardens (designed by Winnipeg's Scatliff, Miller & Murray), you'll find the signature sculpture Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si Do by Saskatchewan artist Joe Farfard. 

Originally the sculpture planned for the park was going to have more of a conventional cowboy western theme, but Jeff Spalding, who was then the CEO at the Glenbow, convinced everyone to do something more contemporary.

The eight horses galloping across the park represent Calgary's past, present and future. They pay homage to the importance of the horse as part of Calgary's unique culture, including First Nations, the Calgary Stampede and Spruce Meadows. 

Be sure to get up close so you can discover all of the miniature images of western heritage Fafard integrated into the design of each horse.

Centrium Place, 2007

332 Sixth Avenue S.W.

Centrium Place's glass panels are inspired by Piet Mondrian. (Google Maps)

Centrium is a precious jewel-like building created by Calgary's Gibbs Gage architects.

It subtly cantilevers over the sidewalk so the top is wider than the bottom, creating what looks like diamond shape.  The facade is made up of difference rectangular-shaped glass panels in a random pattern that was loosely inspired by the famous Dutch artist Piet Mondrian.

Jamieson Place, 2009

Fourth Avenue and Second Street S.W.

Jamieson Place, with its Frank Lloyd Wright stylings, houses the winter garden on its Plus 15 level. Right, a piece by the world's most famous glass artist, Dale Chihuly. (Richard White)

Gibbs Gage Architects is also responsible for Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Jamison Place, with its prairie-style twin columns enhancing the vertical thrust from sidewalk to sky.

The Winter Garden inside on the Plus 15 level is arguably the most elegant and tranquil place in Calgary, with its infinity pond and living wall. It is also home to three hanging glass sculptures by the world's most famous glass artist, Dale Chihuly.

Peace Bridge, 2012

Arguably one of the most photographed spots in Calgary, the Santiago Calatrava-designed Peace Bridge differs from most of the architect's work. (Richard White)

The Peace Bridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is perhaps the most loved and hated work of art in Calgary.

From an international design perspective it is notable in that it is diametrically opposed to Calatrava's other bridges, which are always white with gabled wires creating a light, soaring, wing-like visual effect. 

Because of the helicopter pad and that fact that it had to span the width of the river without any posts, Calatrava used a double helix structure. The choice of red is obvious as it links to the Flames, Stampeders and Calgary Tower, as well it signifies "good luck" in Chinese culture.

One might even wonder if Calatrava is also commenting on Calgary's "redneck" image?

East Village Riverwalk, 2011

The RiverWalk, which stretches along the south shore of the Bow River from the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers to the Centre Street Bridge. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Since day one, East Village's Riverwalk has been a hit with Calgarians.

Designed by Stantec's Calgary office, this pedestrian promenade now extends from Centre Street to Fort Calgary on the Bow and Elbow Rivers. The Riverwalk has won numerous landscape architect awards and was instrumental in convincing Calgarians and developers that the city was committed to high design as part of the redevelopment of East Village.

George C. King Bridge, 2014

The George C. King bridge connecting East Village to St. Patrick's Island escaped the controversy of its up-river neighbour thanks to public consultation. (Richard White)

Designed by French design firm RFR and Calgary's Halsall Associates, this bridge has been nicknamed the "Skipping Stone" bridge thanks to three arches that resemble a stone skipping over the river. 

Unlike the Peace Bridge there was no controversy associated with the King Bridge as an extensive and transparent community engagement process was implemented. While the Peace Bridge is bold and bulky, the King Bridge is playful and elegant. 

Together they create a wonderful pedestrian circuit along the Bow River. 

St. Patrick's Island Park, 2015

1300 Zoo Rd N.E.

In 2016, the St. Patrick's Island took top honours in the Great Public Space category in the Canadian Institute of Planners' Great Places in Canada competition. (Genevieve Normand/Radio-Canada)

Denver-based Civitas, and New York-based W Architecture have transformed St. Patrick's Island into a charming urban playground with a pebble beach, picnic grove, pathways, playgrounds, plaza and private places to sit. 

In 2016, the island took top honours in the Great Public Space category in the Canadian Institute of Planners' Great Places in Canada competition.

Check it out.

More to come

While Calgary doesn't have the biggest, tallest, wackiest or weirdest architecture in the world, we do have some very unique and intriguing buildings, bridges, plazas and parks.

Even with the downturn, there are opportunities for magnificent designs. Things which add to our sense of pride, things that, when they strike the eye, just make our days that much better.

So put on your walking shoes and head downtown. You be the judge of whether the Calgary you thought you knew is on the cusp of becoming a design city.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at