Calgary: The Events Leading Up To Sir Norman Foster

In my girlfriends apartment there are a bunch of issues of the Walrus lying around. I saw that there was one called “the cities issue” that examined the history of Calgary. It was one of the best articles I have read about the city’s past. The article really made me hopeful for Calgary’s future. It is a bit of a lengthy read, but it is not very often where you really get a sense of why Calgary is the way it is and where it is going (hopefully).

Calgary: The Events Leading Up To Sir Norman Foster

A British architect, oil barons, an urban vision, and creeping liberalism: what is the future for Cowtown?

By: Don Gilmore

In 1970, the year I moved to Calgary, the oil boom was just beginning to flower. Our house was in a new development at the northwestern edge of the city, and I walked past horses on my way to school, and past an isolated shack that stood on a few bare acres, waiting for a developer to raze it. The small house contained a large family of porridge-eating hillbillies, to use the phrase of a friend who was one of them. Their father was one of those handsome, hard-drinking, capable, wild-haired western archetypes who wore one pant leg inside his cowboy boot and the other outside. On good days, my friend and his father rode horses in the foothills adjoining the rented property, among the evergreens and stands of poplar that have long since become suburbs and malls. On bad days, of which there was no shortage, there was alcohol and violence.

During a particularly savage winter, a jerry-rigged addition to their house fell off when the cinder blocks it was propped up on split and collapsed in the cold of a 56°C night. The bedroom containing several children separated from the main house, leaving the father standing at the opening, wondering what forces had brought him to this. He eventually went blind, and on those occasions when he was in an alcoholic rage, intent on strangling their mother, the children piled on him like bluetick hounds on a grizzly as he flailed in his darkness. During the 1970s, the house was razed and the clan dispersed.

I think of them when I think of the oil boom of those years, a boom that brought an undeniable energy to the city, and a consuming blindness to certain notions of civic responsibility. What buoyed and defeated us was the same curse every lottery winner carries: sudden possibility. Newly rich, the city thrashed around, defining itself in a drunken spree as the Jed Clampett of urbanism.

In 1973, the Calgary Tower (formerly the Husky Tower), a Jetsonian spike that sits in the centre of the city, was still the tallest building in town. Its revolving restaurant was frequented by tourists, and by university students on lsd who watched their untouched steak sandwiches turn to carrion and observed the city passing below in a sluggish panorama. It would be an exaggeration to say that the landscape changed from one revolution to the next, but not much of one. The price of oil jumped from $3 a barrel to $17 that year due to the opec embargo, and during the height of the ensuing boom 600 old buildings were torn down annually in Calgary, and roughly $1 billion in building permits were issued each year. What we saw from the vantage point of the Calgary Tower was the residue of the 1947 boom, when oil was discovered at Leduc. There were office buildings that were ten or so storeys, a few skyscrapers (Calgary’s first skyscraper, the Elveden Centre, was built in 1960), and some graceful older structures, such as the Burns Building, the Lougheed Building, and the Palliser. Most of the original sandstone buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had already been torn down. The residential streets that bordered downtown featured modest postwar homes, and the odd Eaton’s bungalow, sold through catalogue by the department store in the 1920s, delivered by train in pieces, and assembled by the owner. Most prominent, though, were wrecking crews and construction cranes, poised in clusters: the beginning of another swift transformation.

It was a compact downtown that had two natural borders — to the north the Bow River, and to the south the railway tracks below Ninth Avenue. To the east, there was Macleod Trail, and to the west downtown quietly petered out after Eighth Street. It was an efficient, largely uninhabited core whose most humane element was the Eighth Avenue Mall (now the Stephen Avenue Mall), a lively pedestrian street that had some handsome original facades, a few encouraging restaurants, and some wonderfully cheesy western wear stores.

When the Scotia Centre went up in 1976, its three floors of retail pulled customers off the adjoining pedestrian mall, which then went into a lonely decline. The increasingly hermetic nature of downtown was aided by the +15 system, which provided elevated walkways that connected dozens of buildings (a hermeticism explored in the film Waydowntown, in which a group of young Calgarians have a bet about who can stay inside the longest). It was a bright alternative to the depressing burrows of underground walkways, and during the day the city core had the muscular energy oil money brings. In the evenings, it resembled many American downtowns: sullen and bereft.


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3 comments

  1. Tom S. · November 16, 2009

    Calgary will be a facinating blend (I suspect) of pragmatism-meets-cosmopolitanism in the coming years, that’s for sure.

  2. Joel T · November 22, 2009

    It looks like this article was written before the economic down turn. Its seems like every time this city is in the middle of a boom, all of these good ideas are presented and then the economy tanks and they are shelved. Already part of the Bow development has been put on hold and many interesting condo developments that would revitalize hurting parts of the downtown area have been cancelled or scaled back (ex. Arriva). Hopefully the trend does not continue this time seeing as vacancy rates for office and residential buildings are going up. This city seemed like it was finally moving in the right direction!

  3. Tom Howard · December 7, 2009

    Is it just me or is the Bow one of the least interesting buildings Norman Foster has ever designed? More interesting than the status quo to be sure, but still….

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