Preceding Traces

This past September saw another instalment of a city-wide event celebrating the visual arts, design, and architecture in Calgary. Under the banner Artcity, the festival presented the work of artists, architects, and critics representing the regional, the national, and the international. Alongside the usual gallery showings throughout the city’s core, the future home of the Calgary Institute for Modern Art (CIMA) on 6th Avenue provided a nucleus for the festival, housing many strong exhibitions.

A multifaceted component of the week-long event, Building/Art, presented the work of 15 emerging Canadian architectural practices, including several based in Calgary. Under the direction of the festival’s Architecture and Design Committee–comprised of Andrew King, Lawrence Eisler, Jocelyn Belisle and Angela Silver–the exhibition presented a diverse cross-section of theoretical and built work from landscapes and urban interventions to infrastructure and spec housing. Much of this work will provide the backbone for a publication titled Discrete City with essays by George Baird, Brian Carter, Chris Macdonald, Brian Mackay-Lyons, Michael McMordie, Marco Polo and Stephanie White as well as a photo essay by Angela Silver.

Text associated with the exhibition focuses on contemporary urban issues in the North American city and offers Calgary as a fairly pure example of this type of city due to its rapid growth in both area and population. Yet what is perhaps best revealed by this collection of work is that of a condition of architectural practice in Canada. Many of the works presented, such as Pechet + Robb’s Gran Table project in Vancouver and Adrian Blackwell’s Toronto installations, reflect the diverse ways architects and designers can impact the urban experience and engage in social discourse. Dereck Revington Studio’s proposed Luminous Veil suicide barrier for Toronto’s Prince Edward Viaduct emphasizes the role architecture can and should play in the traditionally banal and pragmatic arena of urban infrastructure. And practices such as Montreal’s Build and Calgary’s House Brand bring architectural life into the often bleak world of urban spec housing.

What seems to connect these widely diverse young practices is the element of potential–not simply the potential of skilled and talented practitioners, but that of the role architects can play in the continuous formation of that most complex form of architecture, the city.

In a public symposium moderated by Andrew King (Andrew King Studio), panel members Michael Carroll (Build), Peter Cardew, John Brown (House Brand), Graham Livesey (Down + Livesey Architects), Stephanie White and Michael McMordie centered their discussion around the role of the architect and the need for expanded influence and increased public discourse. Cardew stated that, having abdicated much of their traditional role in the process of building, architects need to go beyond small-scale criticism to increase their sphere of influence on the cities we inhabit. Indeed, in the budget-rich province of Alberta, many important urban projects happen without significant comment from the architectural profession, leaving only the usual public discussion about tax dollars or traffic concerns.

This exhibition and the anticipated publication highlight the traces of a committed collection of emerging talent in this country. By assembling and presenting this diverse body of work to the public, Building/Art offers considerable insight into the inherent potential that exists for architects to engage the larger urban context of Canadian cities.

Scott Pavan is a graduate architect practicing in Calgary and an instructor at the Department of Interior Design at Mount Royal College.