Shunning clutter takes life out of streetscapes
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.
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.
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?
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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.
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.