Is Architecture in Calgary Generic?

KH |

mC:t    2015.06.16    #mct #yyc #yycdesign


Calgary, provoke me!


This week, I looked high and low for an instance of Calgary’s built environment that is foreign, unheard of, strange, peculiar or even ugly. I wanted to find architecture that would force me to experience a visceral reaction, be overwhelmed, fall to my knees and kiss the ground.


But in my explorations, the buildings brought forth a more thoughtful reaction. I came to the understanding, and perhaps resignation, that for the most part Calgary architecture is sensible. The conditions of the facades, floor plans and formal drivers are predominantly informed by the environmental demands of the users and economy. This realization was at once steeped in appreciation and disappointment. I appreciated the level of detail, skill, thoughtfulness and purpose that the buildings expressed; but, on a conceptual level I was left wanting something new, raw and provocative.


I began to question, is architecture in Calgary generic? Instead of creating a sense of place, are we making too much sense of place? Are we asserting our identity through built form, or in fact dissolving it?


Rem Koolhaas suggests that the “Generic City” is becoming more prevalent across the globe. We started talking about this earlier this month in Heterogeneous Typologies as Urban Homogenizer. When architecture becomes simply an expression of supply and demand, or strictly sensible, can it be seen as anything more than a homogenous urban condition?

The Generic City is the city liberated from the captivity of centre, from the straightjacket of identity. The Generic City breaks with this destructive cycle of dependency: it is nothing but a reflection of the present need and present ability. It is the city without history. It is big enough for everybody. It is easy. It does not need maintenance.  If it gets too small it just expands.  If it gets old it just self-destructs and renews. It is equally exciting – or unexciting – everywhere. [1]

Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of Calgary that are beginning to look towards new typologies. These seem mostly to be popping up in the development of the East Village. Admittedly the new development also appears to be eradicating any of the original, somewhat gritty culture and identity that had characterized East Downtown before it became a ‘Village.’  Yet still, the designs become something more than a glass or brick nod by trying to embody the character of the city and the movement of its people.

New Central Library, Snohetta, Dialog, YYC, Calgary, Architecture, East Village

The New Central Library designed by Snøhetta in association with Dialog creates an inviting promenade of public space and rethinks the role that the library plays in the downtown community. [2]


Telus Sky, East Village, Calgary, BIG, Bjarke Ingels Group, Architecture

The Telus Sky tower, designed by BIG in association with Dialog, stacks residential terraces over a conventional office building with the goal of creating a vibrant work and living environment in the heart of downtown. [3]


Allied Works Architecture, Architecture, Calgary, East Village, National Music Centre, YYC

The National Music Centre is designed by Allied Works Architecture in association with Kasian. Acoustics, light and form come together to move visitors through the nine towers that house the performance, education and exhibition spaces. [4]


nArchitects, Architecture, Calgary, East Village, YYC

The M2 Mixed Use Building by nARCHITECTS in association with Ridell Kurczaba  will give users a 360 degree experience on the triangular lot that hugs the Bow’s RiverWalk.[5]


As much as we like to think these will become icons of Calgary’s identity, it is important to note that each of these artefacts is imported from the international-cloud-of-architectural-gold. These designs and ideas are brought to us from such places as Norway, Denmark, Portland or New York. Do you think this makes a difference in expressing Calgary’s identity?


Calgary is unique as we have a strong academic culture, stemming perhaps from the city being home-base to the province’s only architectural program at the Univeristy of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. (Athabasca University now offers a distance learning program in architecture.) But as much as studio practice and academic practice are proponents of provocative design, few of these projects ever make it past the realm of pedagogy, competition or exhibition.  Is it inevitable that architects must choose between being academic and provocative versus practical and sensible?



Next: The ABCs of Urban Farming
Previous: Relative City: Vivian Manasc


[1] Koolhaas, Rem and  Bruce Mau. S, M, L, XL. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995.

[2] “Calgary’s New Central Library and Library Plaza.” Snohetta. Accessed June 16 2015.

[3] “Telus Sky.” Accessed June 16, 2015.

[4] “National Music Centre.” Allied Works Architecture. Accessed July 16, 2015.

[5] “M2 Multi Use Building.” nARCHITECTS. Accessed June 16 2015.

makeCalgary:talk provokes conversation among Calgarians about the design of our city. Catch up with us on Twitter (@makecalgarytalk), Instagram (makecalgarytalk), or Facebook.



  1. R. Donalds says:

    It’s good to see some interesting architecture coming to Calgary! However, the origins make you think about the nature of place as it pertains to the population therein. Are we defining Calgary? Or, are we defined by the viewpoints of others as they perceive Calgary?

  2. SH says:

    You know I kinda think that the most interesting aspect of characterising Calgary as generic (as opposed to conservative or boring) is that it implies solutions beyond just avant garde parametracism or what have you. A strong commitment to critical regionalism would also do the job.

  3. Nich says:

    Calgary has no definition. Calgary is a bitumen slick washed up on the banks of the Bow, an ashen oyster congealed from flowing petro-dollars and calcified into a flaky crust of charcuterie bars and rural fetishism. Calgary as a built environment is encrusted with the blemishes of self-conscious youth, posturing limply with claims of relevance and architectural innovation, seeing a child’s muscle in the mirror and fantasizing strength. Calgary is a dude ranch for architects, a virginal playground where standards have never existed and therefore cannot be high or low. Calgary is a harem of privilege, a brothel for indulging in safety, comfort, and ignorance. Calgary does not exist.

  4. Chris says:

    How about the old science centre? Please be kind to the old science centre. I really love the old science centre.

  5. Sparks says:

    I think it’s great to the see the international architecture community invited to participate in our growth. It pushes our profession forward locally, and it creates a demand for more thoughtful architecture. It encourages healthy discussion and competition on what makes Calgary better and that is better than silence.

  6. matt says:

    I am interested in how our idea of ‘authenticity’ and ‘authentic place’ plays into this conversation. Because one could argue that ‘generic’ is actually a very honest manifestation of the collision between the many lineages (aesthetic, political, ecological) and economies that led to this moment in our city. Some of our architectural treasures from 150 years ago would in their day be considered generic. So maybe there is some architectural – even aesthetic – redemption in the generic?

    Excellent article and great food for thought!

Comments are closed.