Shun­ning clut­ter takes life out of streetscap­es

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - New Condos -

Does any­one other than ar­chi­tects and in­te­rior de­sign­ers really like min­i­mal­ist de­sign?

And per­haps more im­por­tantly, can one re­al­is­ti­cally live like that in our “buy, buy, buy, have, have, have” world?

Yes, min­i­mal­ism looks great when you are flip­ping through a mag­a­zine, or vis­it­ing a show home, but it doesn’t really cre­ate a sense of place.

It doesn’t tell you any­thing about the peo­ple who live or work there, or where it's lo­cated — it is cold and clin­i­cal.

Charm and char­ac­ter are cre­ated by a col­lage of rich de­tails and dec­o­ra­tive el­e­ments. By con­trast, the goal of min­i­mal­ism is to use the fewest num­ber of el­e­ments to get the max­i­mum vis­ual ef­fect.

Cal­gary has what I call a Min­i­mal­ist District — 48 blocks of mostly min­i­mal­ist of­fice build­ings from 9th to 3rd av­enues and Cen­tre to 8th streets. Such struc­tures mean a min­i­mal­ist street life, too.

It wasn’t al­ways like this. Look at any early 20th-cen­tury pic­ture of down­town’s 8th and 7th av­enues and you will see streets full of peo­ple, horses, wag­ons and cars, with store signs ev­ery­where. It looks like a to­tal gong show.

When it comes to ur­ban liv­ing and ur­ban spa­ces, I think the really in­ter­est­ing places are blessed with a nat­u­ral clut­ter of peo­ple, signs, ban­ners, buses, cars and bikes.

They are not places where we seg­re­gate pedes­tri­ans, tran­sit and cars to dif­fer­ent streets and not where bike paths skirt the out­side of the city cen­tre.

It is not the cars that are en­e­mies of street vi­tal­ity; in fact, they are an in­te­gral part of it. We need less seg­re­ga­tion and more in­te­gra­tion.

I was re­minded of this re­cently when I saw pho­tog­ra­pher Fred Her­zog’s im­ages of down­town Van­cou­ver in the '50s and '60s at Trepanier Baer Gallery (Her­zog’s Street Pho­tog­ra­phy ex­hi­bi­tion runs un­til April 28 at the Glen­bow Mu­seum).

Th­ese vis­ually stun­ning and in­trigu­ing pho­tos are a re­minder of what street life used to be like only 50 years ago — un­til we be­came too aca­demic in plan­ning and de­sign­ing our cities.

It made me think, “Where have all the blade signs gone?” Th­ese are over­head signs mounted on store­fronts that hang out over the side­walk so one can eas­ily see what stores and re­tail­ers lay ahead.

Blade signs work well for pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists and cars much bet­ter than signs that are flat to the build­ing’s fa­cade that can’t be seen un­til you are lit­er­ally right at the store and/or build­ing.

Side­walk bal­let

The 20th cen­tury ur­ban guru Jane Ja­cobs called it the “side­walk bal­let” — peo­ple jostling around each other, as well as those sand­wich boards and lamp­posts that sud­denly ap­pear out of nowhere.

It is not only the pedes­tri­ans, but the bikes, cars, taxis and buses jock­ey­ing for a po­si­tion in the streets.

Oth­ers have talked about the im­por­tance of “messy ur­ban­ism” — in other words, good ur­ban places are not the re­sult of master plans, but hap­pen over time and are a hodge­podge of ac­tiv­i­ties and de­sign el­e­ments. Such places are or­ganic, not prag­matic.

The side­walk bal­let’s en­emy is “min­i­mal­ism.” It is min­i­mal­ist de­sign that re­sults in build­ings that gar­ner no more than a quick glance at street level.

It is the “sig­nage Nazis” who don’t want signs to be too vis­i­ble, tak­ing too much at­ten­tion away from de­sign of build­ings. Min­i­mal­ist de­sign means min­i­mal street life.

Sim­i­larly, Cal­gary has in­ter­nal­ized most of its Min­i­mal District streetscap­e. Most of the shop, cafes, and restau­rants have been placed on the sec­ond floor out of sight of peo­ple at street level.

This cre­ates an os­ten­si­bly nice, clean look; we don’t want any of the clut­ter of doors, shop signs and win­dows, with peo­ple walking in and out at street level, do we?

It is min­i­mal­ism that favours one en­trance lead­ing to an aus­tere lobby. Imag­ine what the streets and av­enues of down­town would be like if some of the food court ven­dors were on the street?

Even in those few cases where the of­fice com­plex shops are on street level, like Bow Val­ley Square, they are not de­signed to in­ter­act with the street as the en­trances are all in­ter­nal.

Look­ing down the streets and av­enues of Cal­gary’s down­town, there is lit­tle to vis­ually en­gage the eye or the mind — to cap­ture your imag­i­na­tion and say: “I’d like to walk down that street to see ...”

For the most part, it is a ho­mo­ge­neous wall of glass, con­crete and gran­ite in var­i­ous shades of grey, beige and black.

Bring back the past

It is high time to bring back some de­tail­ing, tex­tures and dec­o­ra­tion at street level.

Let’s add some colour, maybe partly through more canopies and awnings (Holt Ren­frew used to have a dif­fer­ent coloured awing for each sea­son.)

Let’s cre­ate more win­dow dis­plays. Even the of­fice tow­ers could cre­ate win­dow spa­ces that could be used by lo­cal artists for mini ex­hi­bi­tions.

In­spi­ra­tion for how to add tex­ture and de­tails at street level can found in our his­tor­i­cal build­ings. Check out the in­tri­cate iron canopy over the Burns Build­ing on Macleod Trail at Stephen Av­enue; this is ur­ban beauty.

No­tice the de­tail of the colon­nade of the his­toric down­town Bay Store com­pared to the lack thereof in the of­fice build­ing colon­nades of the late 20th cen­tury.

Too of­ten the pil­lars of mod­ern of­fice build­ings are sim­ple cylin­ders with no or­na­men­ta­tion.

No longer does the pedes­trian’s eye en­joy the rich dec­o­ra­tive de­tails of col­umns like those that dis­tin­guish the grand en­trances of the his­toric Fed­eral Pub­lic Build­ing and Bank of Mon­treal built on Stephen Av­enue, both com­pleted in 1931.

No longer do new build­ings’ fa­cades have sub­tle de­tails like the Bank of Nova Sco­tia’s Art Deco carv­ings of prairie wild flow­ers, Moun­tie and First Na­tion fig­ures, as well as horses, buf­falo, guns and ar­rows.

Yes, th­ese are sub­tle street de­sign de­tails, but they are part of the ur­ban fab­ric that made wan­der­ing the streets of down­town in­ter­est­ing in the past.

They were crit­i­cal to cre­at­ing ur­ban beauty, some­thing that has been lost with the “rise of min­i­mal­ism” in the '70s.

I am not ad­vo­cat­ing we im­i­tate the past; in­stead, I want to chal­lenge ur­ban de­sign­ers to de­velop a new ur­ban sense of beauty, dec­o­ra­tion and or­na­men­ta­tion.

Mod­ern of­fice build­ings are of­ten set back from the side­walk in a stand­off­ish man­ner. They re­move them­selves from the street bal­let.

While The Bow tower of­fers up the pub­lic art of the beau­ti­ful Won­der­land steel mesh sculp­ture, this doesn’t really cre­ate any bal­let.

The same for the south­west plaza of Bankers Hall. It is full of pub­lic art, but there is sel­dom any­one there ex­cept the smok­ers. Just adding pub­lic art to a space doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make it at­trac­tive.

One of the best places to ex­pe­ri­ence the street bal­let that I have ever seen is the Kowloon District in Hong Kong.

There is a great mix of street types — from Nathan Road, a neon-lit main street (think Las Ve­gas with­out the huge ho­tels), along with Che­ung Sha Road, Apliu Street, and numer­ous other street mar­kets.

The streets of Kowloon are clut­tered. There is no sense of a uni­fy­ing de­sign; there are no bike lanes or pedes­trian cross walks.

Yes, it is a free-for-all. Yes, there are signs of all shapes and sizes — and yes, the streets are al­ways full of peo­ple, cars, bikes, carts and ven­dors mix­ing and min­gling.

I doubt there is/was a master plan or ar­chi­tec­tural guide­lines. There's no min­i­mal­ism here.

Last word

CI some­times think we over-plan, over­an­a­lyze and overde­sign our down­town streets, plazas and build­ings to the point where we have de­signed the life out of them.

This is not just a Cal­gary prob­lem; it is the same in Dubai, Toronto and most mod­ern sky­scraper cities. Per­haps we need less plan­ning, not more?

For other Richard White col­umns, visit our web­site un­der the head­ing: ‘More News and Views.’

Photos, Richard White/for the Cal­gary Her­ald

The Burns Build­ing, which was built in 1912, is one of the few struc­tures down­town that still has a pedes­trian canopy. These days, it’s left bare.

The min­i­mal­ist de­sign of the Cal­gary Telus Con­ven­tion Cen­tre.

Photos, Richard White/for the Cal­gary Her­ald

Boy Val­ley Square lacks the or­na­men­ta­tion that helps cre­ate ur­ban beauty.

Built in 1911, the Do­min­ion Bank Build­ing dates back to an era where ar­chi­tects tried to en­gage street pedes­tri­ans.

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