July 26th, 2013

How to Ruin a Wonderful Space

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The Devonian Gardens in 2007. Photo by norrix

The Devonian Gardens were a wonderland. Located on the top floor of the TD Centre mall in downtown Calgary, the gardens were a fully-enclosed greenhouse of tropical plants and — best of all for a kid — a million nooks and crannies to explore. It seemed like every path led to something fascinating: a hidden alcove surrounded by palms, a wood-framed playground teeming with children, a pond filled with turtles and goldfish, ringed by little coin-operated dispensers that spat out fish food instead of candy. There was an outdoor terrace, too, and in the winter it was exhilarating to emerge from the warm, soupy air of the gardens into the stingingly dry cold.

Built in the late 1970s and donated to the City of Calgary by the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, the gardens were operated as an indoor public park, open without restriction for most of the day. It was a popular spot for office workers to eat their lunch, munching on sandwiches as nannies and mothers pushed their babies down the brick paths. Men gathered in the afternoon to play chess near the gardens’ front entrance. There were more than 135 species of plants, many of them tropical, and in a dry prairie city that is brown for most of the year, the gardens felt almost surreal in their lushness, a feeling enhanced by the contrast between the jungly vegetation and the banal artificiality of the design: brown bricks, brown metal railings, faux stone waterfalls that looked like they came from the set of a cheap dinosaur movie.

Five years ago, on a February trip to Calgary, I made a point to walk through the Devonian Gardens when I spent an afternoon photographing the Plus-15 network of interconnected second-floor spaces that spans most of the downtown area. I had no idea it would be the last time I saw the gardens in their original state. Shortly after my visit, TD Centre and two adjacent malls closed for a years-long renovation that included a makeover for the gardens. When they reopened last summer, it became clear that it was much more than a makeover: it was a complete gutting of everything that had made the gardens special.

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February 23rd, 2012

Wednesday in Calgary

Posted in Canada by Karl Leung

Reminders of farmlands and country living now mix with a new generation of pioneer folk and industry. Home to big skies and the rocky prairies… we’re settling the West, and this is what it looks like today. While rightfully modern, Calgary’s still framed up with dairy silos, storage yards, and straw coloured fields.

August 19th, 2011

Prairie Skies Come to the City

Posted in Canada by Karl Leung

Well known for snowy summers and minuteman weather tantrums, Calgary was treated to some magnificent cloud cover after this Thursday’s storm.

February 12th, 2010

The Three Little Pigs

Posted in Architecture, Canada by Karl Leung

A modern play on the fairy tale with three homes from Calgary’s Sunnyside and Crescent Heights area.

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August 3rd, 2008

“To the Glory of God”

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Chinese United Church, Second Avenue SW, Calgary

July 31st, 2008

Postwar Ugly or Postwar Chic?

Posted in Architecture, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Calgary has a lot of squat apartment buildings built in the 1950s and 60s. Unlike their counterparts in Vancouver, which tend towards a breezy, pastel-coloured Art Moderne kind of style, these are typically clad in frumpy brown brick. They look cheap and outdated, but I’ve noticed a handful of such buildings that have undergone renovations that exploit their clean lines and simple appearance while discarding some of their more tasteless elements, like dumpy vinyl siding and hideous doors and windows. Is it possible that these postwar apartment houses, usually dismissed as forgettable, will one day be stylish places to live?

July 31st, 2008

Calgary Scrambles

Posted in Canada, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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I’m in Calgary at the moment. This is a fast-growing, fast-changing city, and there are a couple of interesting changes that I noticed while I was here. One of them is the introduction of two new scramble crossings in the Eau Claire neighbourhood of the city’s downtown area.

Often associated with Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing, scramble crossings are in fact a North American invention, originating in Kansas City and Vancouver in the 1940s. Basically, the term refers to an exclusive pedestrian crossing phase at an intersection controlled by traffic lights; all cars come to a stop and pedestrians are allowed to cross in all directions. For the most part, it’s a safe and efficient way of governing traffic flow, as long as pedestrians have ample time to cross.

Scramble crossings disappeared in North America for several decades, victims of the postwar dominance of the automobile. Attitudes have changed, though, and the crossings are making a comeback. In 2003, Montreal installed them without much fanfare in the Quartier international, at such corners as McGill and St. Jacques and Viger and St. Urbain; they can also be found at several other intersections, like Monkland and Girouard in NDG. There is nothing to indicate that pedestrians are allowed to cross in all directions — some figure it out but others seem hesitant to cross diagonally.

In Calgary, by contrast, the city has made a big deal of its new pedestrian scrambles, accompanying their installation with plenty of instructional signage. Painted lines in the intersection let pedestrians know that it’s okay to cross diagonally. Based on what I’ve seen, it doesn’t take long for people to grasp the concept, and with each light cycle there are people who cross in all directions. Prominent signs prohibit drivers from making right turns on red.

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July 30th, 2008

No Poor People Here

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Every summer, Prince’s Island — a beautiful island park in the Bow River, right next to downtown Calgary — plays host to a number of large festivals, including the always-interesting folk music festival, which took place last week with some big headliners and great enthusiasm. These festivals are an asset to the cultural life of Calgary, but there’s just one problem: they’re not free. Each festival surrounds itself with fences and restricts access by charging an entry fee. Sometimes the fee is relatively small, but in the case of the folk fest, it was as much as $50 for a single-day ticket. I’m torn between wanting to support a cultural initiative like this and decrying the way it occupies and privatizes an important public space.

Somebody else was less ambivalent in their opinion. This weekend, while making my way to the festival site, I came across this message drawn into the path with chalk: “Welcome to Fantasy Island. No poor people here.” It’s an apt statement, since there really weren’t any poor people at the folk fest, simply they couldn’t possibly afford to attend. Lately, whenever I visit Calgary I detect a growing undercurrent of anger and indignation, something potentially explosive that lurks among the city’s legions of working poor and homeless, many of them victims of the economic boom that has brought great prosperity to Calgary, but also a soaring cost of living. I suspect that, in the future, we’ll see more messages like the one I saw on Prince’s Island.

April 24th, 2008

A City’s Former Self

Posted in Canada, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

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Pierre Burton, the journalist, author and historian, once remarked of Calgary, “The two blocks between the Palliser Hotel and The Bay is the only part of the city that resembles its former self.” While that’s not altogether true (there are parts of town, like Inglewood and Ramsay, that retain the feel of a small prairie town) the area around First Street SW is probably the only part of Calgary with any real historical presence. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is one of the few parts of town with much urban vitality, too.

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March 12th, 2008

Something for Everyone

Posted in Architecture, Canada by Karl Leung

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Ahh the Bowness Shopping Centre. If it’s not a power centre – it’s a strip mall; that’s just Calgary. Home to baked goods, groceries, and family videos, one can always sit back enjoy a coffee, get their nails done and pick up the latest Catholic reads.

The strangest mishmash stores… complete with signs from another time.

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February 19th, 2008

Behind the Tower

Posted in Architecture, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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I took the Calgary Tower for granted when I saw it every day. Now I realize what a remarkable monument to late-sixties kitsch it really was. Built in 1967 by Husky Oil to commemorate the centennial of Canada’s confederation, its has no purpose other than as a monument — a really big monument capped by an orangey-red observation deck. It can seem grand, in a space age kind of way, when you look at it from afar, or in the midst of the downtown office district. But from other angles it just seems odd.

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February 15th, 2008

Hydro Pole Art

Posted in Art and Design, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Hydro pole street art on 4th Street SW in the Mission

February 12th, 2008

Riding the C-Train

Posted in Canada, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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Waiting for a train at Centre Street station

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Afternoon on a Dalhousie-bound train

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Door button on a 1981-vintage train

February 3rd, 2008

Construction Site

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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It would be a bit of an understatement to say that downtown Calgary is in the midst of a construction boom. Construction explosion, more like it. Nearly two dozen new condominium and office towers are under construction in the city’s compact centre; some are destined for obscurity but others, like Norman Foster’s The Bow, which will become the city’s new tallest building, are daring and ambitious in their design.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the Le Germain, a hotel, office and condominium complex currently under construction at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Centre Street, right across from the Calgary Tower. I like that it subverts the plain-box archetype that has dominated Calgary since the 1970s; by taking two different boxes and bridging them with an bunch of glass condos, it creates an unusual building in a city that strays far too often towards the banal.

At the same time, though, it’s pretty ugly — but I guess it’s better to be interestingly ugly than pleasantly average.

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