Deciphering a City’s Values & Identity

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The Bow looking from the front plaza



mC:t    2015.06.01    #makecalgarytalk

The relationship between us and the built environment (i.e. our manmade surroundings, cities, buildings etc…) is rather fascinating in that it is a reciprocal relationship. We influence the way our surroundings are designed and built, and likewise that same built form begins to influence us. They play out how we may live, move or enjoy a place. Therefore it could be said that to an extent the built form is the materialization of a society’s identity and values.

This is something rather easy to pick up on when travelling. As an outsider, you are able to see things with more objectivity. For instance, an old city or town docked with church steeples tells you that a once (or perhaps still present) religious society lived there. In essence the most significant aspects of a society’s life tend to be emulated in the largest, tallest and most resilient structures present within their surroundings. Sounds rather obvious but brings us to the contemporary city. Do we still build this way? It may not be as clear as towering cathedral steeples, but what are society’s current values and how are they manifest within our built landscape?


Old Sandstone buildings (Alberta Court of Appeal)

Old Sandstone buildings (Alberta Court of Appeal)


Calgary’s older prominent building’s tend to fall in the category of churches, schools and other public institutions (courthouse, train station, library, city hall), some of which still stand today. They give an indication of what was important to life a century ago. However, contemporary Calgary’s built form demonstrates a new prowess. The city’s most prominent buildings now occupy the sky. Glass towers seen as far as Airdrie no doubt emulate a new society with new values. A city of prosperity at the mercy of a corporate culture. Thus appropriately the buildings housing the companies that grant this welfare on Calgary stand as obelisks within the city centre.


The 1912 Knox United Church surrounded by new buildings

The 1912 Knox United Church – The once tall church is now dwarfed by its neighbours


Can Architecture speak? The Bow tower is currently Calgary’s tallest, and without a doubt most imposing. An atmosphere of power and dominance surrounds it both at foot and from afar. It shares the name of the river – a river older than the city itself – that supplies Calgary with an essential resource. The Bow tower takes on the river’s persona as lifeblood to the city and offers a glimpse at Calgary’s current identity.


The Bow/skyline seen from Tuscany Station

The Bow/skyline as seen from Tuscany Station


Reading way too much into it? Perhaps and of course this is only one account of reading present day Calgary, but I would challenge everyone to read beyond the superficial image of a city’s skyline and find the inherent symbolism that may exist therein. This is not meant to be critical of contemporary society, but rather for us to critically look at the way we build and our surroundings to decipher what are societal values are, and if our built form is accurately reflecting them. What is your city saying about you? Do visitors see what you see? What will be the legacy of our built form and what story will it tell?

What will be the future material embodiment of Calgary?


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