Mediated City

It is not entirely surprising that a comparison between the urban form of Calgary and the contemporary international airport is a good point of departure for coming to an understanding of Calgary. An earlier text written centering on the idea of the mediated public realm in contemporary airports seemed to present a connection with this article that could prove fruitful, but a colleague in the office reminded me that Rem Koolhaas had already made that comparison in his discussion on the “Generic City” in SMLXL. From this comparison, I knew right away that I was on the right track.

Calgary is a city wherein its most salient particularities are the complete manifestation of general, global tendencies–remember Rem Koolhaas, the great purveyor of global currents. Generic City, the city of sameness…passengers, welcome to Calgary! And so it is not farfetched to examine the transformation of airport space in order to guide our understanding of the transformation of the urban form of Calgary. By means of comparison, the genealogy of both environments is essentially similar: they both developed their fundamental forms based on the efficient and economical movement of goods. In the case of the airport, this translated to the movement of travellers and their luggage, while in the case of Calgary, this meant the separation and distribution of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. And in the contemporary developments of both environments, they have reflected and made manifest global forces without distortion.

In terms of the airport, no other public building has so fully embodied the social, technological and cultural transformations that we have witnessed in the past 20 years, and most particularly in the last ten. Airports are the gateways within the reconstruction of geopolitical boundaries defined by international travel. Of course this is not news. We are all aware that we enter international space and depart our own nation-state while still within our traditional geographical boundaries. This is the product of a contemporary cartography in servitude to global movement systems. We pass into international space as soon as the security sensors have accepted our conditional status as global citizens. And here the laws are different from our own, but shared with other members of this global citizenry. We can think of ourselves as being in two places at once, or within an isolated realm; an island that is a node within the immaterial global network defined by this new mapping. And yet if we understand that airports are the paradigmatic spaces of our global culture, it is not because they suggest or even define movement systems, like they did in times gone by, but because they clearly speak a global language.

If you were to wander the spaces of the Calgary International Airport, either the refurbished ones or the new ones, you would have difficulty seeing an airport in the traditional sense. Granted, there are gates and security checkpoints, but alas, they fade into the growing spatial milieu that is this new global language; a spatial language dedicated to the consumption of time, space, meaning, history, and pretty much everything else under the sun. What was once a building type created to express flight and travel has become a concentrated consumption centre, complete with hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping, security forces, parking lots, entertainment complexes, wellness centres, banks, and, if you wait a few more minutes, other consumer amenities as well. Imagine being able to purchase the souvenirs from places without the hassle of getting there, or buying the product of the local vineyard, markets and restaurants without the chore of entering dark, damp spaces, haggling over the price, having to smell the food being prepared, or even meeting the people of the area. As global citizens you are presented with the world at your fingertips, a world that is seamless and efficient, safe and secure, consistent and comforting. Like the majority of the public spaces of our society, this new airport promotes and markets personal freedom while offering no real freedom except for those who wish to consume–it is a mediated public realm–consumption without conflict, discussion without debate, travel without tribulation, meetings without menace, images without meaning. And it is the mediated public realm that is the topic of this discussion.

By nature of its conception as a seamless extension of global marketing strategies aimed at tourism and international travel, the airport necessarily operates to disseminate a similar product as other players in this system. And so in the same manner that Club Med promises to deliver perfect holiday memories through the creation of artificial “foreign” destinations that are essentially mediated experiences, airports are geared to provide dependable and easily consumed products, including travel and the legibility of its destinations. The outcome of this is predictable–the complexity and sophistication that is any city is flattened into a series of superficial images that propagate the lowest common denominator in terms of a particular place’s identity. And so Calgary becomes the beloved Cowtown or the backpacker’s paradise, both wonderful representations of the city if you are only there for a visit. Interestingly, these images of Calgary are very much like the ones that can be consumed via mediated information vessels such as the internet, travel brochures, and so on. Therefore, the potential that is the airport–as a public building, as a public space, as a gateway to our cities, and as an active record of who we are–becomes marginalized into a benign and transparent conduit of global interests.

Welcome to Calgary! Like the airport, the city has actively been cultivating its public realm as a mediated environment. Take a trip to Calgary and climb to the observation deck in the Calgary Tower. What you find before your eyes are the products of over 40 years of suburbanization: an eroded city core splattered with surface parking voids, a +15 pedestrian system that connects one generic office lobby to another through a landscape of franchises, large intra-urban highway connectors with concrete block walls that alleviate the pain the driver may experience from cutting through inner city communities, suburban sprawl as far as the eye can see, and in servitude to this urban expression, large consumer power centres, gated communities, and the ubiquitous park space with a few baseball diamonds.

Of course, it can easily be argued that all cities in North America share this suburban development model amongst other models or historical fabric. But what makes Calgary special, or in this case global, is the scale and comprehensiveness with which suburban development has been so completely embraced to the degree that a monoculture has been deeply entrenched.

The primary comprehensive step towards this city form was the City of Calgary 1966 Plan. It stated that “the first objective (of the Plan) is to convey almost double the number of automobiles downtown in 1986 as are conveyed today.” It should be noted that the Plan was so successful, by 1986 the city had actually surpassed the number of cars the Plan was predicting. In fact, in 2003 the ratio of people in Calgary to registered motor vehicles is 1.23. As a position, the Plan subscribed to the modus operandi valued in transportation engineering, meaning that the efficient conveying of vehicles necessitated the equally efficient organization of functions. As evidenced by the comparison of the existing land use and the proposed land use in the city centre, the Plan advocated the systematic transformation of the core, and by extension the entire city, into a mono-functional entity, demarcating and separating areas for work, living and recreating. To be fair, the 1966 Plan grew out of a postwar ethos where the efficiency and effectiveness of central governance meant the wholesale application of a limited number of planning solutions for a wide spectrum of urban issues. In Calgary’s case, the obvious focus on the optimization of automobile t
raffic meant that all other concerns were swept under the tarmac, with the result that the city became a space of transition, best experienced through the windshield, and without the capacity to frame and support other forms of public activity.

Today, the most convincing proof of this argument is that you can find yourself in the predicament of travelling from your home all the way to your place of employment via mechanical means of transportation without ever having to come face to face with anyone: home/ garage/car/walled highway/automated parking garage/elevator/office.

What will anthropologists of the future say when they come to grips with a city form that so fully denies human contact? Clearly, they will understand that we are definitely an individual-centric society, where our social rituals have retreated to the private domain of shopping malls, theme parks, and the suburban home. If city form removes the possibility of real contact between different people by erasing the public space of discussion and debate, then we remain entrenched in our own preconceptions, our biases, our intolerances. We come to live in a sanitized, prescribed and mediated world.

But this condition, as suggested, is presenting only the major institutionalized theme of Calgary and its development. More important, if much smaller in scale and more recent in their genesis, a number of new initiatives are changing the tide of development and turning heads within the public of Calgary. For example, the redevelopment of the former Bow Valley site, an urban design and planning competition won by Sturgess Architecture, and the Connaught and West Victoria Study, also by Sturgess Architecture, are large-scale urban design efforts that are reversing the suburban intellectual gridlock in Calgary and presenting in its place a more inclusive, engaging, and diverse urban model. On an architectural scale, Dale M. Taylor Architect and McKinley Dang Burkart Design Group’s design for the M-Tech building is recovering the civic responsibility of the fabric building of the city, and proving that the denial of any architectural content and value based on the pressure exerted by market forces is more closely related to poor efforts on the part of architects.

And finally, on another optimistic note and parallel to the new practice-centred initiatives mentioned above, are the theoretical and conceptual projects centred on the contemporary city developed by the students in the Architecture Program at the Faculty of Environmental Design. The commonality among these projects is the desire to radically rework the given suburban milieu and in its place posit a more socially minded, negotiable public realm, one that is not predicated on the separation of things, but on the healthy contamination between things–in other words, the unmediated experience of the city.

Marc Boutin was the 2002 recipient of the Prix de Rome. He teaches at the University of Calgary and is Principal of Marc Boutin Architect.