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.”

Leah Hen­nel/Cal­gary Her­ald

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.


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