What Takes Precedence, Preserving History or Increasing Density?

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mC:t    2015.06.18    #mct #calgaryheritage

Where do Calgary’s historical buildings fit into our vision for the future?

Build vertical, densify, mixed-use, these are all terms which have become synonymous with urban development. For centuries cities have struggled with maintaining a balance between two extremes; hyper density at one end and unsustainable urban sprawl at the other.  But like most things, the city we live in today is a product of past generations and their decisions, whether good or bad, are the challenges that architects and urban planners alike are faced with. Calgary, a relative new-comer on the global stage, has already gone through a series of identity crises during its short life span. At first a frontier town and the ‘Heart of the New West’ on the CPR line, then the ‘Sandstone City’ thanks to a number of impressive sandstone buildings that once populated our streets, next (and largely still) an oil town full of large brick buildings and tall glass skyscrapers to house the corporations of big industry. Add in the unfortunate consequence of becoming one of the finest examples of suburban sprawl on the planet and what remains is an intriguing mix of buildings, styles, and ideals.


burns building small

The Burns Building, located at 237 8th Avenue S.E. was built in 1913 by Pat Burns. The clasical style six-story building was one of the original cornerstones of Calgary’s downtown, and as a result it became a Provincial Heritage Resource in 1987.


Like the majority of North American cities, Calgary finds itself in an almost desperate climb towards increasing density. The model of the automobile-centric, drive till you qualify, freeway-filled suburban metropolis has been proven to be an unaffordable and unsustainable form of urban development (see: Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities). What remains then is determining at what cost does density occur? Where do Calgary’s historic buildings, the foundation of our cities character, fit into our quest towards densification? How do we densify without destroying every root of where we came from? Calgary has already seen a large number of her iconic sandstone buildings ripped down in the name of progress, and with each demolition a piece of our city’s character vanishes.


bank of montreal stephen avenue small

The former Bank of Montreal located on Stephen Avenue was built in 1931 and is one of Calgary’s finest examples of Neoclassical Architecture. It is currently occupied by GoodLife Fitness making it perhaps one of the classiest places to get fit in.[1]


Jessie Andjelic, Founding Partner at local architecture firm SPECTACLE, states that trying to determine which takes precedence, increasing density or preserving history, is a challenge which many architects face today. As a champion of respecting our city’s heritage, Andjelic believes that it is perhaps better to gauge the significance of a building relative to the community it inhabits rather than the city as a whole. Buildings mean something to the people who interact with it, and these structures are as much a part of a given community as the people who inhabit it.


lougheed house small

The original home built by the Lougheed family has rich and deep connection to our city. Aside from being the resident of former Senator James Lougheed, it has also operated as a training workshop for women, a barracks for for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, and a blood donor’s clinic for the Red Cross Society.[2]


Organizations such as the Calgary Heritage Authority and the Calgary Heritage Initiative (CHI) are dedicated to the “preservation, productive use, and interpretation of buildings and sites of historic and architectural interest in Calgary”.[3] Architecture represents so much more than a particular style or building technique; they represent the people who occupy its interior, observe its exterior, and who engage with it as an extension of the community it inhabits. Calgary is very much still going through a phase of discovery and this involves being in a constant state of change, exploration, and experimentation. Progress does not have to come at the expense of the past, and respecting our history can result in beautiful fusions of character, style, and identity.


barron building small

Former home of the Uptown Theatre, the Barron Building has recently been granted historical status in order to protect its iconic façade. Despite the theatre shutting its doors, the character of the building’s exterior will live on for decades to come.


Tell us your thoughts on historic buildings in Calgary! Do they play a role in determining our city’s architectural identity? How much value should be placed on historic preservation? Share with us some of your own favorite historical buildings in Calgary and comment below about what they mean to you!




Next: Demolition + Incandescence: an interview with artists Caitlind RC Brown and Wayne Garrett
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[1] “Bank of Montreal Building,” photograph taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/darrellinyvr/8347542147/ date accessed June 18, 2015.
[2] “House History,” Lougheed House. http://www.lougheedhouse.com/house-history/ date accessed June 18, 2015. “Lougheed House,” photograph taken from http://ivory.blackmonk.com/attractions/lougheed-house.html date accessed June 18, 2015.
[3] “Calgary Heritage,” Calgary Heritage Initiative Society http://www.calgaryheritage.org/ date accessed June 18, 2015.


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