Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Saving Place

Have you ever noticed how well Parisians dress? I have a theory about this. One of the reasons Parisians dress so well is to keep up with the beauty of their surroundings. Those steel gray Mansard roofs, the Fin de Siécle wrought iron lamp posts, that inherent beauty in endless epic vistas. This kind of one-upmanship is good for the city and good for Parisians. I like a place with high standards.

It's the 20th anniversary of Historic Calgary Week, and for many like myself who lament about Calgary's distinct lack of beautiful surroundings, it's a time of contemplation about what we have, architecturally speaking, and more importantly, what we have lost. It's a time to think about those well dressed Parisians.

My interest in architectural preservation/conservation began with my first visit to the Glenbow archives where I came across countless photos of Calgary as 'the sandstone city'. If you've never been to the archives you really should make a point of getting there. So much history, so much architectural legacy was destroyed in the name of modernization and progress, propelled by the prevailing belief that 'new' is always better. I was truly shocked. Judging by the architecture that exists today, one might think that Calgary had miraculously sprouted out of the ground around 1972. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the 70s in fact there were some very nice buildings designed during this period, it's just that a city which appears completed built at one particular time in history can appear monotonous and dull.

My interest in historic architecture continued when in 2005, I helped set up a contemporary theatre in the historic Lougheed Building on the corner of 1st street and 6th avenue in downtown Calgary. (This re-use of an historical building won a prestigious Calgary Heritage Authority Lion Award that recognizes successful conservation efforts in the city - these are given out biannually and in fact this year's winners were just announced a few days ago). I think heritage buildings give character to our contemporary streets and preserve the historical stories important to our culture. Maintaining them, whether as museums or re-purposed for new uses, intermingled with new buildings, is crucial to a multi-dimensional and vibrant cityscape.

Many pit progress and economic development against preservation of historical landmarks and spaces as if the two can not live side by side. I just finished an excellent book by Anthony M. Tung - Preserving The World's Great Cities, where Tung affirms that we can have both, indeed that we need both.

Tung set out to explore 22 cities including Rome, Cairo, Athens, Venice, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Mexico City, Beijing, London and lovely Paris, to compare their practice of urban preservation and, for the first time, to collect the information in one place. He honed most of his experience sitting on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1979 to 1988, so New York takes up a few engaging chapters in the book as well.

In New York, the push for saving historical buildings was triggered by a now infamous event – the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, the magnificent Beaux-Arts masterpiece designed by Charles McKim in 1911. Think of the Crystal Palace (sadly gone) in London or the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Now picture someone willfully tearing either down. Despite numerous protests, New Yorkers at the time (like Jane Jacobs) were utterly shocked to see that this historical landmark was taken from them forever so that the company that owned the building could make a small profit and that an average looking sports arena could be built in its place. Vincent Scully wrote that before "One entered the city like a god" in the original station and that "One scuttles in now like a rat."

Architecture can be enlightening at its best and disheartening at its worst.

Just ask Cynthia Klaassen, president of the Calgary Heritage Initiative, an organization created only 5 years ago to help ensure our architectural heritage is well looked after. They bring buildings and sites of interest to the attention of the Calgary Heritage Authority (an 11 member group appointed by city council), who then determine if the buildings have potential to be added to the inventory of evaluated historic resources using the Standards and Guidelines for Historic Preservation in Canada as their bible. We are so lucky to have people like Cynthia and the fine people at the Calgary Heritage Initiative acting as a kind of 'watch dog' for Calgary's architectural legacy.

Without going into too many specifics, this is how it works – Once a building has been chosen for evaluation, the first step is stakeholder engagement. Get the owners, community members, architects, heritage planners from the city and other interested parties around a table to start a discussion. A decision can be made whether to go for municipal, provincial or federal historical designation (being designated by one does not guarantee acceptance to all levels by the way). Using the standards and guidelines bible, the group will determine if it can be added on to the inventory of evaluated historic resources. Then its all about long term maintenance and upkeep, ensuring that the buildings are well taken care of. Cynthia stressed that one of the biggest issues Canadians have in preserving their architectural heritage is 'demolition by neglect' where irresponsible owners simply let a building deteriorate to a point where demolition is the only answer.

That and the ease of which a demolition permit can be obtained by someone.

In Calgary, getting a demolition permit could not be easier. That might explain why there are so many demolished heritage sites here. We need to create more incentives to save what we have and make it harder to destroy what exists. I applaud the valuable work that the Calgary Heritage Authority and other local groups are doing but heritage preservation has to work hand-in-hand with all levels (and laws) of city planning to be truly effective. This is something that Anthony Tung stressed in his book as well.

Try this exercise. Go on one of the many planned interpretive walks put on to celebrate Historic Calgary Week. Take a good look at buildings like the Grain Exchange or the Lougheed building downtown. How much will remain after another 100 years of modernization? What collective stories do we lose when historical architecture like this is destroyed?

Keep in mind, as Tang says in his book "When experienced as merely a local matter, as just another old building or historic neighborhood removed from the changing cityscape, the destruction around us may not seem excessive, but when viewed across the world over a century, the speed of this global ongoing transformation is alarming."

And irreversible.

It's simple really. Heritage buildings add character and beauty to a place. They help make a city distinctive and are a physical manifestation of a generation's ideas and values.

And, not insignificantly, they may even help to create beautiful surroundings that can, hopefully, make you feel like dressing a little better.

Links, links and more links here: - a series of photographs showing exact locations where historical building have been torn down and replaced with new.

Monday, July 12, 2010

High Speed beyond your internet connection

I take my high speed internet for granted. Having just this week lost a modem (they wear out), I was forced to consider my life pre-high speed. How on earth did I survive? Sure, I exaggerate, but really, life before having it seems completely different.

Imagine how improved life would be if we demanded the same high speed from our infrastructure? My husband can attest to this, I've been complaining about the lack of a high speed rail service between Calgary and Edmonton for years. He's probably very tired of this conversation which starts the moment we climb into our car to take the (featureless, flat, boring) 3 hour journey from our home in Calgary to my father in law's home in Edmonton. Imagine doing this by train, I say. Imagine sitting here now, reading a book or flipping through a magazine, checking your email on your iPHONE, oblivious to the dull scenery, sipping a cool beverage, and, God forbid, actually enjoying the trip. Imagine it taking half the time. Imagine cutting back on emissions and congestion. Imagine living like people in the rest of the world!

The numerous articles on this topic too many to mention here, include an excellent feature by Monte Paulsen in the June 2009 issue of Walrus magazine entitled Off the Rails, articles in both the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton journal, and even a Facebook group for high speed rail lovers in Alberta. My current favourite Monocle magazine launched its first Global Transport Survey in their June 2010 issue which has enlightening information on what the rest of the world is up to. It is mind-boggling the amount of material written about this topic and yet....and yet....we still have to drive to Edmonton.

The world has been enjoying the luxury of multi-modal transportation options, including the high speed train, for a long, long time now. Compared to Japan, who have had high speed rail for almost 5o years, Canada is in the dark ages. The Shinkansen officially began speeding through the countryside of Japan back in 1964, way before the words 'high speed' were associated with computers or transportation and, coincidentally, at the very same time that Canadian trains began phasing out passenger service. The need for speed infiltrated Europe a few years later and they've never looked back.

Currently China has jumped on the high speed train wagon, spreading rail lines throughout the country in world-record time. Construction which began in 2005 to connect the business hubs of Guangzhou and Beijing is now complete, with lucky riders boarding the train today as I write this blog posting.

As the Chinese were expanding their extensive rail system, Alberta was deep into study-mode, gaging the feasibility of a Calgary/Edmonton corridor high speed rail service (HSR) for the umpteenth time. In fact, in the time it took us to ignore some key findings from important studies like the one conducted by the Van Horne Institute, China had already completed the Guangzhou/Beijing line. In the time it took us to say 'maybe we need one more study', high speed rail systems throughout the world were being built.

Which begs the question, when exactly will we be ready to enter the 21st century? The irony that Canada was built on the railroad, one of the prevailing dreams of Sir John A. McDonald and gang, is not lost on me. The fact that Canada was able to construct a transcontinental railway in the 1880s, from sea to shining sea, through the Canadian shield and the Canadian rockies, and the fact that Canada is the home of a world-renowned train builder, Bombardier, makes it even harder to take. We could have a home-grown, world class, Canadian-made high speed train if only we could change our attitude.

It does seem to come down to that, and political will, which often reflects public attitudes. Some would argue that it is about money, but when did that stop us from building highways or the original CP Rail for that matter? Just think, we were able to fund and carve out spiraling train tunnels through mountains over 100 years ago. This super feet of engineering was by far the longest and most impressive railway ever constructed at the time. Why then today are we so adverse to putting money into public transportation like a HSR in our province? In a time when the entire global population is aware of the necessity to wean themselves off an ever-present oil dependency, when the prospect of relying on private automobiles alone to get you around feels like something out of a Leave it to Beaver episode, why on earth are we afraid of the train?

The money needed to build a high speed train is not insignificant but what long term public infrastructural system ever is inexpensive? Especially one with so many obvious benefits? Many argue that the time to invest in public infrastructure programs like this is in a recession – something like we are in now for example, if nothing else because construction costs are lower and it's a great way to create jobs. Even die-hards who don't care about the environmental benefits of trains, can't argue with job creation! It's important to remember that even the CPR of the 1880s quickly turned a profit and so were able to repay loans to the federal government years ahead of schedule.

Sifting through the list of findings from the 2004 Van Horne Institute's study on high speed rail in Alberta is both informative and frustrating. It's informative as it gives a great overview of history, context, financial, environmental and socio-economic benefits of building an HSR in the Calgary/Edmonton corridor along with possible rail system options (a retro-fit of current CPR tracks, or a totally new Greenfield electric and a non-electric version) and frustrating in that it was completed 6 years ago!! (side note: the study mentions that it would take approximately 6 years to build the system). In the time it took us to ignore the study results which were pointing positively in the direction of a high speed train, we could have completed the project and been comfortably and safely zipping through the Alberta countryside in high style.

It's interesting to note that the Van Hornes have been involved with rail building in Canada since the mid 1880s, when Sir William Cornelius Van Horne was the executive director of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) whose job it was to oversee the historic build across Canada. I wonder what he would think of modern day Albertans? Our stubbornness, our near pathological blindness of the changing world around us, would be baffling to someone like him.

He might be impressed with our internet connections, but for the rest, he would be sadly disappointed.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Pumping up the Volume in the East Village

It won't be long before Allied Works of Portland unveil their architectural plans for the eagerly awaited National Music Centre at the King Eddy Hotel in the East Village. After winning out over four other international finalists last fall with their 'building as instrument' proposal, Allied Works have been busy collaborating with the folks at the Cantos Music Foundation to arrive at the next stage of development. Many have high hopes for this Centre, which will act as a gateway for the East Village – the vibrant up-and-coming inner city community in the heart of Calgary.

I've been a fan of the Cantos Music Foundation for some years now, and have recently had my attention riveted to its transition into the National Music Centre (NMC) with the much publicized international design competition that included entries from Paris, New York, Montreal and Los Angeles. It was a pleasure to see such high caliber architectural firms bidding on a project here. Taking nothing away from our amazing local architects, we should be proud that Calgary is drawing the attention of well-known internationally acclaimed design firms. There's plenty of room for a few more architectural gems.

On the topic of gems, currently one of the city's hidden gems (it won't be for long), the Cantos Music Foundation houses an extensive collection of historical and contemporary musical instruments and offers a highly regarded selection of educational and outreach programs. Much loved by those who know it, with the construction of this handsome new facility, it is poised for much deserved fame.

Cantos' tireless executive director, Andrew Mosker, graciously took time from his busy schedule to chat with me about the project's progress. Whether your iPOD features hip hop or classical, jazz or folk, Andrew has your number. The vision of the NMC is to reflect Canada's unique music story, to resonate with all music lovers no matter what your style. No isolated monument, the construction of the NMC is hoped to spark more development in the East Village and perhaps create a music district for the city.

This is a $130 million project ($105 m for the building and $25 m for an endowment fund), so fundraising is top of mind for Andrew and his staff. With $25 million already promised by the municipal government, they are eager to launch a national fundraising campaign in early 2011. The target completion date is set for 2012/13, hoping to piggy back onto the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede celebrations. If you would like to find out ways you can donate to the campaign, visit Look for the Music Centre's new brand created by Identica to launch this fall.

Andrew spoke with me from Ottawa where he's been busy raising funds and forging partnerships with groups like the National Library + Archives. In his quest to make this a truly Canadian experience, Andrew is focusing on building relationships across the country, from the Country Music Hall of Fame to the Juno Awards organization – to gather together the nation's music lovers and provide them with a place to share their love of music.

The NMC includes a partial historic preservation of the much-loved King Eddy Hotel, once home to the famed blues club. Originally slated for knock-down, groups like the Calgary Heritage Initiative and Cantos spotted potential in the run-down space. Perhaps they could recapture some of the historic musical moments of the past by including portions of the building in the plans for the Music Centre. Any time a historical building in Calgary is saved is a day to cheer considering how cavalier we've been in tearing them down in the past. Bravo Cantos.

Not only will it be saving a bit of local history, the Centre will be displaying an amazing instrument collection (with heavy concentration on the newly coordinated keyboard collection), providing a space for live music, recording studios, a radio station, as well as educational spaces with room for 12 artists in residence. It will be unlike anything Calgary has seen before (Canada for that matter) and will offer a great reason for us to spend more time, outside of business hours, downtown.

Brad Cloepfil and his team at Allied Works have their work cut out for them, but they're certainly up for the challenge, having completed several high profile cultural and commercial projects in the past. Projects like the offices for ad agency Wieden + Kennedy which quickly became the catalyst in the re-development of a formerly industrial area (sound familiar?) into the now successful arts district in Portland. They are just what the East Village needs.

I could go on more about the East Village but I think I'll save that for another posting. Like Allied Works past projects, here's hoping the Canadian Music Centre is the catalyst for further development in, what could become, the hippest part of town.

A national treasure right in the heart of our city. Isn't that music to your ears?