Calgary could look like an entirely different city today if certain architectural and urban planning projects had been realized.
In her new book, Unbuilt Calgary, author Stephanie White examines 30 failed architecture and design plans and paints an extraordinary picture of what Calgary might have looked like had these ideas come to fruition.
Of the more ambitious plans that didn’t quite make it, the complete reworking of the area around city hall is possibly the most complex.
Though some of the elements were realized – the civic centre, performing arts centre and Olympic Plaza, for example – a huge atrium and shopping complex and “civic realm” on the east side of city hall were scrapped.
“It went to a referendum (in 1980) to see what Calgarians thought of it and they turned it down because it was going to cost so much,” says White, who spent a little more than a year researching and writing the book.
“I’m glad it didn’t quite happen. It was a bit monolithic.”
Though there are some interesting ideas in the book, White says most of these discarded plans didn’t get off the ground for good reasons.
“It wasn’t usually for aesthetic reasons, it was usually down to economics,” she explains.
“What it indicates is that there’s always a fragility to the economy in Calgary that makes people quite cautious in what they propose and really cautious in what they build.”
White knows first hand how important a strong economy is to Calgary’s architectural industry. After going to university in Winnipeg and London, England, White moved to Calgary in 1977, during the middle of an oil boom.
But when the bubble burst in 1982, White saw hundreds of architects leave the city to look for work elsewhere as new building developments dried up.
“Whole offices went from 200 people to 10,” she recalls. “This boom-bust cycle has been Calgary’s architectural story as well.”
White says she didn’t have many expectations when she first started researching the book, but was fascinated by the number of century old architectural ideas that made their way into more recent designs.
Although it didn’t make it into Unbuilt Calgary, White was struck by the similarities between the 2009 aerial view rendering of the East Village plan by London-based firm Broadway Malyan and 1912 landscape designs by Thomas Mawson.
Mawson was a British landscape architect and city planner, who proposed several garden-oriented designs across Canada, including a pedestrian area near Centre St. downtown.
“It was full of walking spaces and squares and a long promenade along the river,” says White.
“If you look at the East Village plans its lots of walking spaces, plazas and promenades along the river. We’ve waited a hundred years for this, we might get it now.”