Architects rally to save ex-CBE HQ
Brutalist-era building part of city’s ‘fabric’
Its angles are sharp, concrete facade cold and the top two floors protrude over a nearby sidewalk like a jarring overbite.
In short, the former downtown headquarters of the Calgary Board of Education is a poster child for brutalist architecture, whose popularity peaked in the 1960s and early ’70s, but has long since fallen out of favour with the general public.
The five-storey building was sold in 2012 for $36.5 million to a B.C. pension fund and likely slated to be demolished and redeveloped.
But a group of Calgary-based architects believes the grey, unassuming building is misunderstood and worth salvaging.
“This building is as important to Calgary’s architectural history as any of the 1912 schools or any of the sandstone buildings on Stephen Avenue,” said Kevin Nyhoff, of Nyhoff Architecture.
“It’s part of the fabric,” Nyhoff added. “And if we allow our development community to take things down without question then we’ll lose a large part of what makes this city special.”
To that end, Kevin and Mairi Nyhoff and architects from two other firms — SPECTACLE and MoDa — challenged themselves to design concepts that would adapt the existing building into a new development.
The Nyhoff concept, which uses the existing building as a base for one of two mixed-use highrises that flank an updated public plaza, was recently awarded a Mayor’s Urban Design Award in the best conceptual/ theoretical category.
But the key word is “theoretical.”
The architects are certain the building will be razed and replaced with a towering office building or hotel. It is, after all, on prime downtown real estate in a hot market.
“For us it was an opportunity to engage the public,” said Ben Klumper, of MoDa. “We weren’t concerned about designing an end product as much as designing a reaction.”
The concepts and photographs by local shutterbug James McMenamin will be featured in an upcoming exhibit, Building Curiosity, at the Kasian Gallery at the University of Calgary.
“It’s really dangerous to turn your back on your history, to continuously erase it,” said Philip Vandermey, with SPECTACLE.
“A city, in a way, is an accumulation of different moments and developments. It’s also a process of editing,” Vandermey added. “Sometimes there will be some buildings from that era that need to be demolished to make room for new development, but at the same time it’s good to keep some kind of record of that moment in history.”
Built in 1969, the CBE’s former education centre on 5th Avenue and Macleod Trail S.E. was the first building developed as part of the Calgary’s urban renewal plan.
Occupying a city block, the site includes a large, outdoor space for public use and 10, six-metre tall Family of Man statues. The building, meanwhile, bears all the hallmarks of brutalist design — grey, blocky and almost painfully functionary.
Brutalism gained popularity in postwar Europe, a social response in which a “collective culture” developed during rebuilding efforts following the Second World War, said Dustin Couzens, architect with MoDa.
“Once the war ended there was a yearning to keep that sentiment in the cultural fabric, almost a socialistic sentiment in a democratic society,” Couzens said.
The building served as the CBE headquarters until 2011, when the public school board moved into its new building on 8th Street and 12th Avenue S.W., and was sold a year later to the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation.
In the decades following its brief time in the spotlight, brutalism has largely fallen out of favour with the esthetic sensibilities of the general public, though there is a renewed interest among heritage advocates, said the city’s senior architect.
“We have a limited number of those in Calgary and again, they’re not generally loved, but those of us who are heritage advocates we feel that it’s an important moment in the history of world cities,” said David Down.
While brutalism is enjoying a limited resurgence within architecture circles and heritage advocates, it’s unlikely the new developer will be keen on retaining the building, said Down.
“On a valuable downtown site which has the potential for a lot of density it’s often hard to make that case with these buildings,” he said.
While the fate of the building remains unknown, one-third of the site must be used as public space, and the statues cannot be torn down — though they could be relocated, said Down.
He noted only a handful of “bold, concrete” brutalist architecture remains in Calgary. Two of the more prominent structures, Century Gardens on 8th Street and 8th Avenue S.W. and the former Centennial Planetarium at 7th Avenue and 11th Street S.W., face uncertain futures, too.
The former requires mechanical, electrical and structural upgrades and could be levelled for a new development. The latter, which has heritage status, could become an arts and culture hub.
“The public has varying opinion on all of those sites, but I think they do represent a period that is seen as having value in the overall history of the city,” said Down.
“It was a heroic period in architecture,” he added. “If we do away with them all then we’re actually doing away with a period of our history.”
Architects keen to save the old Calgary Board of Education building on 5th Avenue are, from left, Dustin Couzens, Philip Vandermey, Kevin Nyhoff, Mairi Nyhoff, Ben Klumper and James McMenamin.