Photo by ecstaticist.
Western cities are built in this neat way where the downtown parts, middle parts (say, streetcar suburbs) and farther-out parts (what we might call “suburban” parts) are closer together, and often blended together. These are newer cities — newer than those in the east, and certainly those in Europe — so their tree-like “growth circles” are fewer and closer together. In a place like Calgary, these neighbourhoods surround the downtown core within close view of the cluster of skyscrapers, a proximity that seems subtly odd, but affords and interesting kind of urbanism.
South of downtown Calgary, the railway corridor cuts just below those skyscrapers — the same railway that stitches Canada together, making it seem a more formidable barrier than it is — beyond which is an old industrial warehouse district that has become, as these places often do, an entertainment and creative class district mixed with apartment buildings. Eleventh Avenue here used to be called Electric Avenue, lined with bars and clubs, but sometimes it had too much voltage so the city turned it a few notches down. Further south is 17th Avenue, a street of bars, restaurants and shops. It’s the kind of place where an inevitably spontaneous hockey celebration might happen, giving this strip the name Red Mile.
South of 17th is a remarkable swath of fairly dense residential housing that includes older homes and modernist (and newer) low-rise apartment buildings. Like Los Angeles, there is an unexpected and leafy kind of thick urbanity here, where a walk down a sidewalk could be beside an older home from the 1920s but abruptly switch to a postwar modern low-rise apartment building next door. The sidewalk experience is not at all boring, there are people nearby, sometimes one layer, sometimes more. Urbanity in western cities is subtle but when it works it’s kind of great, the buildings have more breathing room than those in the east. Once you get used to that, an appreciation of the place begins to grow.
In 2005, I was in Calgary for a week and became friendly with a Calgarian who whisked us in a minivan north across the Bow River to the Crescent Heights neigbourhood. Another nice mix of pre- and post-war residential homes, our destination was a party in a modernist bungalow. We’re taught to think these homes house nuclear families, but inside were some twenty-something professionals living communally, surrounded by expensive home entertainment electronics: a $20,000 video camera, the first domestic plasma TV I saw, and other toys for adults. Our host whispered in my ear “oil money,” which seemed to explain everything. Apart from this bit of Canadian economic culture I was seeing, the ability of modern homes to adapt to different modes of living, just as pre-war houses are used (think of rooming houses or student co-ops in Victorian or Edwardian homes) was something I hadn’t seen much of before.
As Robert M. Stamp writes in his fine book Suburban Modern: Postwar Dreams in Calgary the city embraced modernism late, well after WWII, but redefined it on their own terms and built residential architect accordingly:
They moved modernism out of the studios of the avant-garde producers and into the hands (and hearts) of the middle-class consumers, out of downtown art salons and design studios and onto the streets and into the suburbs…and redefined modernism to include modern homes in modern suburbs, with modern furniture and modern appliances and modern cars. For postwar Calgarians, modernism meant personal betterment, achieving all those material gains that had been delayed or denied by 15 years of depression and war.
So, like Montreal and Toronto, Calgary too is a great modernist Canadian city.
Shawn Micallef is a Senior Editor at Spacing Magazine and author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto