Calgary

OPINION | Calgary ahead of the curve on modern architecture

Calgary’s architecture has often been criticized for being too boxy and conservative. Not any more.

Developers definitely thinking outside the box when it comes to 21st century design

The Snohetta-designed Calgary Central Library features a sweeping curve along 3rd Street S.E. that was inspired by the curve in the LRT tracks that go underneath the building. (Richard White)

This column is an opinion from Richard White, who has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.

For decades, Calgary's architecture has been criticized for being too boxy and conservative, despite the fact that the city's two most iconic mid- to late-20th century buildings were curvilinear.

The Calgary Tower, which opened in 1968, has a columnar base with a round observation platform at the top. While many citations credit Calgary architect Bill Milne as the person who designed the Calgary Tower, it was, in fact, Calgary architect Albert Dale.

The Calgary Tower, which opened in 1968, is one of the city's most iconic buildings, and definitely not boxy. (Richard White)

The Saddledome (designed by Barry Graham of Calgary's Graham McCourt Architects) was completed in 1983. It has a saddle-shaped roof (well, technically it is an inverted hyperbolic paraboloid). 

Recently, when driving by the new Calgary Cancer Centre, with its curved design starting to take shape, I began to wonder if Calgary is ahead of — or behind — the 21st century's architectural love of the curve. I thought I should investigate.  

The curve vs. straight line architecture

The increased ability of computer programs to aid in the design and fabrication of buildings has resulted in the ability to create more complex designs that incorporate more curved elements than ever before.

Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid became internationally famous for her sensual and futuristic architecture dominated by curving facades. Many consider Hadid (who passed away in 2016) the most inventive architect of the 21st century.

Will Craig, a principal at Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning in Calgary, says, "the rise of the curve was driven by a desire to break away from the minimalism and straight line architecture that largely defined the '50s, '60s and '70s.

The new Calgary Cancer Centre at the Foothills Medical Centre is starting to take shape. It consists of two curved, L-shaped forms that come together to create an enclosed gathering place for patients and their visitors. (Richard White)

"One of the pioneers of the curve approach was Frank Gehry, who is known for his swoopy architecture. The rise of international design architects coming into Calgary over the past 20 years probably accounts for why we are seeing more curvature in our new buildings today."

(FYI: I have always thought Calgary architect Jack Long's 1967 brutalist Centennial Planetarium, where a circular dome intersects with numerous different rectangular planes at seemingly random angles, could be considered a predecessor of Gehry's esteemed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, built 30 years later.)

Ironically, Calgary-born architect Douglas Cardinal championed the use of "the curve" back in the late 1960s, long before Hadid and Gehry. A prime example is St. Mary's Church in Red Deer, which opened in 1968, just five years after Cardinal obtained his architectural degree from the University of Texas. 

The façade of the Red Deer church is curvilinear, with undulating brick walls and a bowl-shaped roof that was innovative at the time.

Cardinal went on to design several other major buildings, all dominated by the curve, including the Edmonton Space and Science Centre (1984), the National Museum of the American Indian (2004, Washington, D.C.) and the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, 1989). Sadly, there is no Cardinal building in Calgary.  

The Water Centre, which was completed in 2008, was Calgary's first significant building in this century to integrate a major curved element into its design. (Richard White)

21st century curves

Calgary's first significant building in the 21st century to integrate a major curved element into its design was The Water Centre, which was completed in 2008.

Designed by Calgary's Sturgess Architecture and Edmonton's Manasc Isaac Architecture, it looks like a huge metal culvert when driving along 25th Avenue S.E., just east of Spiller Road. It creates both a dramatic and unique sense of place.

The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) campus was radically transformed in 2012 with the addition of two modernist buildings that incorporated major curved elements into their designs.

The Johnson-Cobbe Energy Centre has a futuristic, goblet-shaped structure at the entrance, and the Aldred Centre has a wavy roof that dominates the streetscape along 16th Avenue N.W. Both were designed by Calgary's Gibbs Gage Architects.

The Bow office tower, designed by London’s Foster + Partners, opened to much fanfare in 2013. It really put Calgary on the map as a potential new international 'design city.' (Richard White)

This was soon followed by the Bow office tower, designed by London's Foster + Partners. It opened to much fanfare in 2013.

Its convex shape, along with its triangulated diagrid steel support structure, creates a unique façade design.

The Bow really put Calgary on the map as a potential new international "design city." 

The curved skybridge at the National Music Centre was inspired by the curves of various musical instruments in the museum’s collection. (Richard White)

In 2016, the National Music Centre opened with its huge curved skybridge (Plus-15) that links the King Eddy building on one side of Fourth Street S.E. with the new museum building on the other.

Designed by Portland's Allied Works Architecture, its curved walls and sculptural openings on the outside and inside are inspired by the curves of various musical instruments in the museum's collection. 

The 707 Fifth office building, designed by internationally renowned architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, features a distinctive all glass, elliptical vessel shape. (Richard White)

The following year, the 707 Fifth office building, designed by internationally renowned architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, opened with its distinctive all glass, elliptical vessel shape. 

That same year, the futuristic Shane Homes YMCA at Rocky Ridge also opened, on the northwest edge of the city. Designed by Calgary's GEC Architecture, it has an undulating roofline that mimics the rolling Rocky Mountain foothills where it is situated.

(FYI: Barry Graham, who designed the Saddledome, was one of the founding partners in GEC Architecture.) 

Then it was the Snohetta-designed Central Library, opening in 2018, with its sweeping curve along Third Street S.E., inspired by the curve in the LRT tracks that go underneath the building. The strong use of the curve motif is continued inside the building as well.

Bridges getting in on the act

Even Calgary's new pedestrian bridges are dominated by curves. The 2012 Peace Bridge, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, is dominated by its tubular shape, making it look and feel more like a tunnel than a bridge over the Bow River.  

The Peace Bridge was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Even Calgary's bridges are getting into the act when it comes to curves. (Richard White)

And the George C. King Bridge (aka the Skipping Stone Bridge), designed by the Paris-based architectural design firm RFR, is dominated by three elegant arches that skip across the Bow River from one side to the other, like a stone skipping over the water. 

The latest editions

Telus Sky, designed by Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group, is Calgary's newest iconic building, with its distinctive, champagne-bottle shape.

The building has a larger floor plate at the bottom to accommodate the Calgary offices of Telus, and then tapers to a smaller floor plate for the residential homes above. The building's pixelated design makes it look as if it twists into the sky, creating a very dramatic curve.

Telus Sky, designed by Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group, is Calgary’s newest iconic building, with its distinctive, champagne-bottle shape. (Richard White)

The new Calgary Cancer Centre at the Foothills Medical Centre is starting to take shape. Designed by Calgary's Dialog in collaboration with Stantec, it consists of two curved, L-shaped forms that come together to create an enclosed all-season garden/gathering place for patients and their visitors.

Last word

Retired Calgary architect Tom Tittemore says the increased use of curvilinear forms in Calgary's architecture indicates the growing sophistication of our city.

"I believe the incorporation of curvilinear forms is more 'public friendly,' although like any other type of architectural expression, it can be used elegantly or clumsily," Tittemore says.

While Calgary has yet to match the outlandish and/or outstanding curved designs of Cardinal, Gehry or Hadid, the city's developers and architects are definitely thinking outside the box when it comes to architectural design in the 21st century.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Richard White

Author Everyday Tourist blog

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, the Calgary Public Art Board and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about the city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.

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