Calgary: A City Imagined and Real

Sometimes the best way to measure a city is to set out without destination and see how the city reveals itself to you. I did just this recently on my first trip to Calgary. Having studied a map of the city prior to my trip, and finding a neatly gridded, compact plan, snuggled in the arc of two rivers between the flat prairies and the rolling foothills of the Canadian Rockies, I imagined in my traditional urbanist’s mind’s eye, a beautiful city in the clear Canadian air. While exploring Calgary I was at turns disappointed and delighted.

I arrived early in the morning at Calgary International Airport just northeast of the city and boarded a local bus to connect to the C-Train, Calgary’s rapid transit system in operation since 1981. As my bus drove through still frozen farmland covered in pools of melting snow, I saw two things rising from the prairies.  To the west, the majestic Canadian Rockies, mountains of such size I could not have imagined them bigger.  And to the south and east, like mushrooms sprouting on the dark forest floor, clumps of builder beige housing developments.  A clump here, then an expanse of land covered only in bales of hay, then another clump of houses there. I wondered if the city of my imagination was going to exist or not.

Leaving the bus and boarding the very comfortable C-Train, within twenty minutes I was in the city.  After a quick trip to the Calgary Stampede grounds, where I was to speak later that day in the Big Four Building for Restore Media and the Pella Pro Expo, I headed back to the city center.  Here the C-Train runs right down 7th Avenue, one line going in each direction, with sidewalks elevated at the stops. Efficient and dignified, it is an excellent system. I alighted in what I thought was about the center of town and started walking.

Wanting to see the river, I struck off northward.  I was entirely unprepared and sad to find myself walking through a sea of hi-rise glass and steel office buildings little better than a dense office park.  The combination of the dreary gray colors, cold steel, and plain glass, with black asphalt streets, grey concrete sidewalks, and dirty mounds of still melting snow left me feeling a bit depressed, as if my soul itself were gray that day. Gazing around me I began to notice the company names on the buildings and I was reminded that Calgary is oil and gas rich. It felt as if Houston had moved north to Canada.

I wondered if the early history of Calgary: timber, grain, and cattle farming could still be found anywhere. Or had it been entirely eclipsed by eighties-style office buildings?  Finally reaching the Bow River near the Eau Claire market, I found a sad intersection of old and new: the little Eau Claire Market and Bow River Timber Company building, Calgary’s history, dwarfed by the Calgary built by oil and gas. Likewise at the market that I had hopefully imagined might be an indoor market with local goods, I found a mere indoor shopping mall had replaced what was once the main market.

Frustrated I thought I would head back toward 7th Avenue, for surely there must be s few good buildings somewhere.  Walking along streets of glass with building entrances visible only because of signs marking them, I was struck once again that while the street and blocks and even transit of a city may be great, without good architecture, good urbanism cannot exist.

At last ahead I glimpsed three buildings in a row that looked like the city I had imagined.  Three to five story commercial buildings with active ground level shops.  Finally, a small remnant of what once must have been a lovely city.

But my illusion was shattered again when I turned to look east at the blinding sun reflecting off the Bow Tower.  Under construction, the Bow Tower will be the tallest building in Western Canada, or so boasts its job site advertisement.  And it will use a lot of steel, boasts another advertisement. As I looked at it overwhelming the buildings at its base, I was not surprised the Foster+Partners had not boasted that this building would be a good neighbor.  It won’t be.

Walking further, still seeking something other than trophy office buildings, I finally spied at the end of the next block an interesting corner on a building.  Approaching the intersection, the Hudson Bay Building revealed itself to me.  Stretching an entire block with an arcade at its base, I was happy to see some part of Calgary still preserved. And just one block further, I discovered Stephen Avenue.

Now a pedestrian mall, Stephen Avenue is one well-preserved street of historic buildings dating to the early twentieth century.  Bank buildings, commercial buildings, old hotels: here I found the city I had imagined.  And here too was the greatest concentration of people. Busy walking, having coffee, enjoying the early spring, conversing, laughing and happy, this was not the depressed canyons of glass and steel I had just wandered through.

Along the way, I also found the beautiful old Grain Exchange.  Built out of local yellow sandstone it sits just nearby the Canadian Pacific Railway and the great Fairmont Hotel.  Happy to have found remnants of the city I imagined, I returned to the Stampede fairgrounds to deliver my lectures. I hope in the future Calgary will utilize its history rather than cordoning it off on one street.

Finishing my lecture that evening, I headed to the bus depot, for the greatest leg of this adventure had yet to begin.  That evening I hopped on board a bus and traveled overland from Calgary, across the shocking flatness of Saskatchewan punctuated only with grain elevators and long lines of trains, through the still-snow covered mountains above Lake Superior with its frozen waves along the shoreline, and onwards to Toronto.

Three days across Canada by bus, and another twelve hours from Toronto across the hilly Finger Lakes region of New York, down through the Poconos and through the Delaware Water Gap, finally, after the longest overland trip I’ve ever done, my beautiful city, New York, came into view. No imagination needed.

Calgary: A City Imagined and Real

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