The Events Leading Up to Sir Norman Foster

A famous British architect, oil barons, an urban vision, and creeping liberalism all meet in Calgary’s downtown. What is the future for Cowtown?

Calgary, Financial District / Photograph by Donald Weber

In 1970, the year I moved to Calgary, the oil boom was just beginning to flower. Our house was in a new development at the northwestern edge of the city, and I walked past horses on my way to school, and past an isolated shack that stood on a few bare acres, waiting for a developer to raze it. The small house contained a large family of porridge-eating hillbillies, to use the phrase of a friend who was one of them. Their father was one of those handsome, hard-drinking, capable, wild-haired western archetypes who wore one pant leg inside his cowboy boot and the other outside. On good days, my friend and his father rode horses in the foothills adjoining the rented property, among the evergreens and stands of poplar that have long since become suburbs and malls. On bad days, of which there was no shortage, there was alcohol and violence.

During a particularly savage winter, a jerry-rigged addition to their house fell off when the cinder blocks it was propped up on split and collapsed in the cold of a 56°C night. The bedroom containing several children separated from the main house, leaving the father standing at the opening, wondering what forces had brought him to this. He eventually went blind, and on those occasions when he was in an alcoholic rage, intent on strangling their mother, the children piled on him like bluetick hounds on a grizzly as he flailed in his darkness. During the 1970s, the house was razed and the clan dispersed.

I think of them when I think of the oil boom of those years, a boom that brought an undeniable energy to the city, and a consuming blindness to certain notions of civic responsibility. What buoyed and defeated us was the same curse every lottery winner carries: sudden possibility. Newly rich, the city thrashed around, defining itself in a drunken spree as the Jed Clampett of urbanism.

In 1973, the Calgary Tower (formerly the Husky Tower), a Jetsonian spike that sits in the centre of the city, was still the tallest building in town. Its revolving restaurant was frequented by tourists, and by university students on lsd who watched their untouched steak sandwiches turn to carrion and observed the city passing below in a sluggish panorama. It would be an exaggeration to say that the landscape changed from one revolution to the next, but not much of one. The price of oil jumped from $3 a barrel to $17 that year due to the opec embargo, and during the height of the ensuing boom 600 old buildings were torn down annually in Calgary, and roughly $1 billion in building permits were issued each year. What we saw from the vantage point of the Calgary Tower was the residue of the 1947 boom, when oil was discovered at Leduc. There were office buildings that were ten or so storeys, a few skyscrapers (Calgary’s first skyscraper, the Elveden Centre, was built in 1960), and some graceful older structures, such as the Burns Building, the Lougheed Building, and the Palliser. Most of the original sandstone buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had already been torn down. The residential streets that bordered downtown featured modest postwar homes, and the odd Eaton’s bungalow, sold through catalogue by the department store in the 1920s, delivered by train in pieces, and assembled by the owner. Most prominent, though, were wrecking crews and construction cranes, poised in clusters: the beginning of another swift transformation.

It was a compact downtown that had two natural borders—to the north the Bow River, and to the south the railway tracks below Ninth Avenue. To the east, there was Macleod Trail, and to the west downtown quietly petered out after Eighth Street. It was an efficient, largely uninhabited core whose most humane element was the Eighth Avenue Mall (now the Stephen Avenue Mall), a lively pedestrian street that had some handsome original facades, a few encouraging restaurants, and some wonderfully cheesy western wear stores.

When the Scotia Centre went up in 1976, its three floors of retail pulled customers off the adjoining pedestrian mall, which then went into a lonely decline. The increasingly hermetic nature of downtown was aided by the +15 system, which provided elevated walkways that connected dozens of buildings (a hermeticism explored in the film Waydowntown, in which a group of young Calgarians have a bet about who can stay inside the longest). It was a bright alternative to the depressing burrows of underground walkways, and during the day the city core had the muscular energy oil money brings. In the evenings, it resembled many American downtowns: sullen and bereft.

I was one of the few people who lived downtown, on Second Avenue, in a four-storey cinder block apartment building that had a large graphic of a car on the east wall. On Sundays, the streets were so empty that when a film crew was shooting a low-budget movie about an apocalyptic future, they didn’t need to make any special arrangements to stop traffic. I watched them shooting one Sunday and asked a technician if they needed any extras. “It’s the future,” he said. “Everybody’s dead.”

Thirty thousand people were moving to Calgary each year during the 1970s; it was the fastest-growing city in the country. Housing had to be built quickly, and it was built, for the most part, cheaply and generically. Suburbs spread south and marched west toward the mountains, and were named for some touchstone of the good life (Tuscany, for example). Office space was desperately needed, and routine, mirror-clad towers began to fill the downtown. Calgary had the highest allowable commercial density of any Canadian city, higher than that of all but a few American cities. Height restrictions were waived, setbacks ignored, permittable land uses altered, and half of the city planning department laid off. As Phil Elder, a member of the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, put it at the time: anyone could build anything anywhere.

As the 1970s came to a close, the already potent boom took an upswing. In 1979, the city built more office space than New York and Chicago combined. Calgary was the new Rome, and by 1980 there was a sense of Roman destiny in the air, paired, inevitably, with a mood of impending collapse. I went to a Halloween party that year at a house just south of town with my statuesque girlfriend. We went as Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk. I was Doris; she was Rock. The underlying fin de siècle feeling was heightened by a blizzard that arrived near midnight. We left at 2 a.m. and drove north and skidded off the road. Eventually, we were pulled out of the snowbank by some kind locals. Standing in that blizzard at 2:30 in the morning wearing a baby-doll nightgown, holding a pink Princess telephone while my Volvo was pulled out of the snow, it occurred to me that this was the logical end of something.

In 1982, the boom began to falter. The year before, there had been 2,262 calls to the Salvation Army suicide prevention bureau; in 1982, there were 5,444. By 1984, Calgary had the highest vacancy rate in the country and 250 housing foreclosures a month. Crime flourished, people moved back to Ontario and Newfoundland, construction stalled, and new homes sat empty. Without that big-shouldered oil money to animate the newly uncrated downtown, it began to feel like the urban incarnation of Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The notion of whether I was a “good Calgarian” or even a Calgarian of any stripe was never formally put to me, but on occasion I felt the unstated censure of this question. In the early 1970s, half the citizens weren’t even born in Alberta. Yet there was a public identity. Calgary revelled in its civic facade, which was then, as now, almost universally described as “brash,” and which remains a curious mixture of rebelliousness and deep conservatism. The city is defined by certain images, most famously, perhaps, that of a Calgarian riding a horse into the lobby of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel during the 1948 Grey Cup between Calgary and Ottawa (which Calgary won).

The fact that the cowboy motif was largely an entertaining fiction, a borrowed mythology that had sold well in the US, didn’t dent its effectiveness. Nor did the fact that the oil and gas industry, that Parthenon of entrepreneurial spirit and individualism, was as coddled by government as the arts. In the early 1970s, you could still hear Texas and Oklahoma accents, guiding the “awl bidness” to the Promised Land, and those north-south alliances are intact. The city continues to fight the east, the most potent and evil embodiment of which is still Pierre Trudeau’s Mephistophelean face.

“Cities are not ordained,” Jane Jacobs wrote in The Economy of Cities, “they are wholly existential.” In Calgary, the city was existential, but the identity was ordained.

An entrenched civic character is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The city attracts people who have these traits (or think they have them) and want to join the fraternity. Here, the tautological nature of civic character gets a boost from newcomers who salute the can-do spirit of the West. Calgary remains like one of those turn-of-the-(past)-century cities where boosters composed and publicly sang songs extolling the virtues of their particular town.

A civic character that holds rugged individualism as a defining trait has a natural distrust of the collective. But the collective appeared in unlikely forms, none more unlikely than Ralph Klein, mayor for three terms (1980–89), a man who corralled the civic spirit, receiving 94 percent of the vote in his last term, a record.

Whatever else you could say about Klein (that he was a totemic rather than an administrative mayor, that he was occasionally hammered), he was beloved. He was beloved for his non-establishment postures and appearance, and for being pro-establishment. In this dichotomy, he personified the city. His terms as mayor were not exercises in mismanagement, but an absence of management. He was the inert centre around which events—and money—whirled. It was as environment minister that Klein embraced mismanagement, a trend that flowered during his tenure as premier.

Beneath the veneer of Calgary’s almost doctrinaire middle class—white, prosperous, and righteous—there was a David Lynchian narrative lurking, a subterranean mood that found its most vibrant epiphany in January 1995, when Earl Joudrie, a sixty-year-old oilman of renown, visited his estranged wife, Dorothy, at her luxury condo in the northwest part of town. They were meeting to discuss their divorce, which had been pending for five years. Dorothy was wearing a sweater, black stretch pants and heels, and as their conversation ended she shot Earl in the back six times with a small-calibre pistol. Earl collapsed on the floor, and Dorothy went to the living room and mixed herself a double Seagram’s VO on the rocks. She drank it, then mixed another. She went back to see about Earl, who was alive and conscious and lying face down in his own blood. “How long is it going to take you to die? ” she asked, sipping her drink.

Earl offered her a deal: if she called emergency, he wouldn’t press charges. Dorothy had come to the end of her plan (and her bullets), and had had several drinks and couldn’t really think of a clear way out of the situation. She dialed 911, and Earl was saved. Dorothy was tried for attempted murder and found “not criminally responsible.” There were mitigating factors, including the fact that Earl had hit her on several occasions during their marriage. Four of the bullets stayed in Earl until his death in 2006.

The Joudrie shooting captured the civic imagination. It was one of those crimes that defines a local zeitgeist, the way the Manson murders did in Los Angeles in 1969, or the assault on the Central Park jogger in New York in 1989. The city recognized some aspect of itself. Calgary was not held criminally responsible: wealthy, careless, snapped on rye, and holding a loaded gun; this was my town. It was my view that Calgary was filled with wives sipping Seagram’s VO and listening to their late-arriving husbands tell them that the price of West Texas Intermediate had slipped and those Arabs were Satan’s little helper and someone oughta. And as the women nodded and sipped their whisky, they were mentally pulling the trigger six times.

In October 2006, the city was in another boom, EnCana was on the verge of declaring the largest profit in Canadian corporate history ($6.4 billion), and it was announced that British architect Sir Norman Foster’s fifty-nine-storey EnCana building would be the tallest Canadian office tower west of Toronto. Named the Bow for its concave shape and echoing the nearby Bow River, it will have 1.7 million square feet of office space. One of the buildings on the site will incorporate the facade of the York Hotel, a 1930 art deco structure that was once a place for dandies, then a strip club and pleasant dive, and, more recently, low-cost public housing. The mixed-use development is estimated to cost $1 billion.

It will dominate the skyline, but its greatest impact may be at ground level. Covering two city blocks, it will feature a plaza, 100,000 square feet of cultural space, 200,000 square feet of retail, and an arcaded walkway. It will do for Calgary, said architect Jeremy Sturgess—whose local firm, Sturgess Page + Steel, is responsible for the street-level aspects of the project—what Rockefeller Center did for New York in the 1930s. Rockefeller Center was a grand architectural statement, and its art deco design retains its iconic place on the skyline. Like Foster’s buildings, it introduced technological innovations (being the first skyscraper to use high-speed elevators, for one). But Rockefeller Center’s greatest impact was in creating a public square on its twenty-two acres, a natural meeting place that was an innovative mix of retail and cultural facilities (among them Radio City Music Hall and the famous skating rink).

Foster’s will be Calgary’s first large building of architectural significance, a surprise. The city has the money for big architecture, and it has the mentality, the new wealth that comes home one day with two gold Cadillacs just to let the neighbours know. There are few more dramatic ways to draw attention to one’s city or one’s corporation, and yet through four oil booms this is only the second grand architectural gesture (the first, arguably, was the Husky Tower). Why?

Some of Calgary’s mundane architecture is the result of the haste with which it was constructed. During the 1970s boom, many new downtown buildings were owned by eastern concerns, and much of that architecture has an undistinguished, absentee quality. There is something else, though, a democratic impulse that prizes egalitarianism, an impulse that competes with Calgary’s corporate egotism. Like America, it is a place where anyone can grow up to be president. It elected Ralph Klein, who understood the appeal of the little guy; as a rumpled reporter, he fought city hall, then he became city hall and fought himself. Under Klein, as it had been under his predecessors and would be under his successors, the city planning department was effectively neutered. It produced visions of what could be done, but the plans were largely ignored. The political will was absent, and the city was a developers’ playground. Still, it was a fair reflection of the people’s will; its utilitarianism and shaded corridors, its convenience and generic architecture were not unwelcome. Meanwhile, the suburbs continued their steady march.

And now EnCana is leading the charge to create an urban core. It is leading the charge elsewhere as well: as the most powerful and vocal antagonist to any change in the oil and gas royalty regime. If the recommendations of Alberta’s Royalty Review Panel are implemented, the company said in late September, it would shift $1 billion in investment outside of Alberta. This was a pre-emptive strike, delivered before Premier Ed Stelmach had taken any action, a flexing of corporate muscle.

EnCana was created in 2002 by the merger of PanCanadian and the Alberta Energy Company, the latter set up by the Lougheed government in 1975 to allow Albertans to benefit from the province’s natural resources. Citizens invested in the company, and the government maintained a controlling interest. It was part of Lougheed’s plan, along with such initiatives as the Heritage Fund, to ensure that the resource wealth benefited Albertans. Under Klein’s blithe tenure, this plan atrophied (as did the Heritage Fund itself), replaced by a glad-handing vacuum. In the absence of political leadership, the resource companies have provided it themselves. As the largest Canadian oil and gas producer, EnCana has seized the reins. Formerly a government operation, newly self-made, independent, and already indignant: a shining symbol.

Alberta trades in symbols more heavily than most provinces. Perhaps EnCana is a fitting symbol, with its conflicted legacy and Freudian worries: its father was a bureaucrat, and you have to kill your father to live your own life. A corporate bully with government blood, it is repudiating the city’s suburban history, and helping to create an enlightened core. It is the new Calgary.

On October 25, 2007, the new Alberta arrived in town. With his announcement that oil and gas royalties would be increasing, Ed Stelmach signalled that the government was no longer simply the industry’s golf partner. The increases fell short of what the Royalty Review Panel advocated, were tied to the price of oil and gas, and wouldn’t be implemented until 2009, but the industry felt betrayed. It was significant that Stelmach came to Calgary to make his announcement, enemy territory both in terms of oil interests, which saw his populist decision as heretical, and in terms of the increasingly cosmopolitan citizens, who see him as a rural anachronism, an emblem of the province’s past, not its future.

In the past several years, there has been a hesitant political realization that Calgary will be judged by its urban centre rather than its outlying suburbs. There is a new mayor, this time competent and managerial, and now downtown is on the cusp of a transformation. Norman Foster is seen variously as a glamorous saviour, or as a carpetbagging Brit whose immediate legacy will be a year of satanic traffic (Sixth Avenue, a main east-west artery, will be closed for almost a year). In Foster’s favour is the fact that the city, its population having surpassed a million now, is evolving in a way that may embrace his particular vision. There was a time in the 1970s when, with my well-honed sense of undergraduate persecution, it seemed that the 470,000-odd citizens were singing in nasal unison, a conservative choir lifted toward the heavens and against me. Calgary was almost Aryan in its homogeneity, a perception reinforced by regular visits from pairs of more or less identical blond Mormons, who are a force in the area and whose visits I oddly enjoyed. But now the city has succumbed to multiculturalism; it can no longer trust itself to be Cowtown.

Sir Norman Foster isn’t the first Brit to come to Calgary and present a hopeful vision of the future. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Calgary grew from 5,000 to 45,000 people, and in 1912 a British architect and planner named Thomas Mawson came through town and recognized the ingredients for urban greatness—money, growth, ambition—and a provincial mentality that his suave British manner could exploit. Mawson addressed the Canadian Club of Calgary, delivering a speech titled “The City on the Plain and How to Make It Beautiful.” Calgary had already built a dramatic sandstone city hall in Romanesque revival style, and in the first of what would be many acts of civic hubris planted 200 palm trees, all but one of which died during the first winter.

Mawson was hired by city council to come up with an urban scheme to compete with those of Paris or Washington. His plan, rendered in elegant watercolours, was based on European models, with wide promenades, arcaded sidewalks, riverside parks, grand plazas, and the three-storey École des Beaux Arts buildings. The Fourth Street Bridge was modelled on the Pont Alexandre iii in Paris. The cpr and cnr stations faced each other along a dramatic plaza, making one’s first impression of the city memorable. With its boat slips along the Bow River, it looked like a cross between Venice and Pierre L’Enfant’s Washington.

In 1914, the Dingman well blew at Turner Valley, and the city’s first oil boom arrived, fuelling Mawson’s ambitious plan. By the summer, there were 500 oil companies in town. But the Dingman well turned out to be a false start, and little oil was actually recovered. The oil companies folded, and in August World War I was declared. The city was $2 million in debt and could barely afford to pay Mawson his $6,000 fee (knocked down from the $25,000 he initially asked for), let alone implement any of his ideas. The City on the Plain remained unbeautiful.

Calgary called itself the Sandstone City, after the rock being quarried nearby. But each boom brought a sense of a brilliant future, and a corresponding disdain for the past. The city became unhooked from local materials and a specific character, a gap that grew over the years. It was a city that lacked both providence and reflection, living resolutely in the present, more existential than even Jane Jacobs imagined. There was a popular bumper sticker in the 1980s that read, “Please God, let there be another oil boom. I promise not to piss it all away next time.” But of course we would piss it away. Such is the nature of the boom.

Calgary is a glaring emblem of that western dichotomy that presents the city as palace of sin and the countryside as pristine and morally good, a dichotomy that goes back to the bible (Sodom, Gomorrah, and their less-famous neighbours, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar, which were, like Calgary, called “cities of the plain”). In boom times, the city naturally attracts the wicked, while the hinterland remains dramatic, proximate, and breathtaking. This was another argument against the Beautiful City; if you want beauty, hop in your truck and drive west for twenty minutes.

I did so on a regular basis, skiing, cycling, and hiking in the Rocky Mountains. During the summers, I went east and north and worked in the oil fields. On one hand, the gritty realities of oil, its mess, hard labour, and innovation; on the other, to the west, God’s country. And in the centre, a shining, moneyed abstraction, its beauty expressed in the manicured yards of Silver Springs and McKenzie Towne, in its order and energy and comfort.

Walking along Fifth Avenue, it is clear that beauty isn’t important in the centre. Perhaps beauty is overrated: after studying Venice, social critic John Ruskin concluded that few Venetians were elevated by its beauty. Calgary is a bottom-line town, and the architecture reflects that. If it doesn’t bring enlightenment to its citizens, it provides value, at least, for its shareholders.

Ruskin wrote that buildings possess eloquence and they speak to us of what is important. What does Calgary’s downtown speak of? Most loudly, it speaks of growth. Growth as an aesthetic, as a moral quality. Growth implies progress, a double-edged sword, and brings newness: a continuous redemption. Past sins are absolved, or torn down.

Buildings speak in different voices, some broad and public, others more personal. Walking east along the Stephen Avenue Mall to First Street SE, I saw a Dominion Bank building I remembered, sitting on the corner, stone-clad, pilastered, and quietly majestic. In the 1980s, it ceased to operate as a bank, probably due to its increasing isolation from the thriving part of downtown, and the abandoned shell was the site of a bohemian New Year’s party. What better venue for middle-class bohemians than a bank? We viewed the city as monolithically rich and philistine, and we frolicked until dawn to the sound of Talking Heads, amid the post-boom ruins of capitalism.

The city offered much to rebel against—it was a wealthy parent, but stingy and aloof. What had it given us? Five-hundred-seat taverns, lame cover bands, the peasant dance of the Stampede, and thousands of hectares of brilliantly managed lawns. Its failing was that its growth and spiritual heart were suburban rather than urban. It came to the modern through new appliances and new cars, rather than an avant-garde. It withheld the urban experience, and as a university student I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive.

Now the bank building is an elegant restaurant. As I stood admiring this transformation, a man sidled up and told me that he had lost his eye in a fight the previous night and needed money to replace it. The eye was indeed missing, though the scar tissue looked to be a decade old. Over the years, I had had other conversations on the mall with the destitute—men needing bus fare to Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, or Edmonton; a woman who had killed two husbands, both of them polecats, and now needed a dollar. The narrative, an approach that has been largely abandoned elsewhere, is still prized here.

I walked west along the sparsely peopled mall, the sun beginning to fill the street, not dissimilar to that New Year’s Day morning over twenty years ago. A few blocks north along Centre Street is where Foster’s building is going up, a block that still has traces of skid row. In the impressive computer simulations of the Bow, there are people walking along the arcade that runs beneath the art deco frieze of the York Hotel. The EnCana building is filled with light, an atrium that stares southwest, and people congregate in the plaza. Perhaps it will do what Rockefeller Center did for New York. Or perhaps, in the bloody-minded way that thwarts the best design intentions, people won’t come, and it will be formally beautiful but lifeless.

The Bow isn’t the only new downtown development. There are construction cranes everywhere, and innovative restorations (the Lougheed Building, the Grand Theatre) are under way. A new library will cover a city block, its design determined by an international architectural competition. The University of Calgary is building a satellite campus downtown, and the East Village is being rehabilitated. All this will arrive in the near future, bringing an urbanity that the city has successfully resisted. The centre will become more desirable (and commensurately expensive), and the bordering neighbourhoods more valuable. Where will the poor go? The suburbs beckon. Perhaps they will become the ghettos of the future, a final irony. Those suburbs that both nurtured and starved us will come to a bad end, and we will dance on their grave and mourn in equal measure.

Walking north and farther west, there is Eau Claire, the strip of downtown that borders the Bow River, where I lived briefly. There were ambitious plans to build elegant residential developments on the land back then, and there have been other plans since, but they have dwindled into a homely line of mismatched condos along the river, and the Eau Claire Market, a retail/cinema complex that had an upscale wine store on my last visit, now leans more toward Flames paraphernalia.

I walked along the Bow amid the colourfully fleeced armies of cyclists and joggers coming to work, then crossed the river on the pedestrian bridge that runs beneath the light rail transit line. When the lrt system began construction in 1978, it was a contrarian notion in the face of the car- and truck-loving population. At the time, Alberta had more motor vehicles than people. It didn’t believe in public transit and was loath to carpool. There was the sense of individual freedom that comes with wealth, which is often sanguinely interpreted as pioneer spirit. But the idea of public transit has taken root; there are plans to expand the system. Calgary is now a green pioneer—the University of Calgary is planning platinum leed (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings, and the city has mandated that all public buildings have at least silver status, the strictest standards in the country.

On the other side of the Bow is Hillhurst Sunnyside, where I huddled as a student among the used bookstores, reading Camus, whose novels seemed to be a spiritual map of my immediate surroundings. L’Étranger, c’est moi. There were second-hand record stores on Tenth Street, and a repertory cinema where I watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and lit a cigarette every time someone onscreen did. Up the road were the beginnings of the expanding suburbs, and the North Hill Cinerama, where Billy Jack (1971) played for more than a year, a local record eventually broken by The Pom Pom Girls (1976). Hillhurst was the dmz between the bland suburbs and the unformed downtown.

Of course, I was equally unformed. But we were growing in different directions. “To call a work of architecture or design beautiful is to recognize it as a rendition of values critical to our flourishing,” writes Alain de Botton in The Architecture of Happiness. I could see that with my degree in English literature, I wasn’t going to flourish here; I moved east. Engineering and commerce students may have looked on Gulf Canada Square, on Esso Plaza or the Shell Centre as they were being constructed in the 1970s and seen a beauty as profound and timeless as Catherine Deneuve’s. They would flourish. I reluctantly fled, and now watch from afar as the City on the Plain threatens to become beautiful.

Don Gillmor
Don Gillmor’s book To the River  won the Governor General’s Award for nonfiction.