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TEXT Loraine Fowlow

The word “parkade” usually conjures images of plain concrete, low ceilings, and bleak but functional stairwells. Terms such as public art, civic gesture and architectural experience don’t usually come to mind. That’s been changing, particularly in Europe, but also in Canada–including Calgary. The reconceptualization of this utilitarian typology is eloquently demonstrated by a new parking structure on the campus of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT).

Designed by Bing Thom Architects (BTA) in collaboration with Marshall Tittemore Architects, the SAIT parkade began its evolution when BTA was asked to update the campus master plan. As principal Michael Heeney explains, “SAIT had building aspirations but limited land. Our team saw the campus’s sprawled surface parking and presented an updated campus master plan that consolidated the parking into a central location, freeing up valuable land for future expansion.”

Siting of the new concrete parkade taks advantage of a steep slope to the north, with three parking levels built into the hill. The roof–transformed into a soccer pitch–maintains the ground plane of Cohos Commons, fronting the Institute’s historic Heritage Hall.

The remaining visible ribbon of structure presented a challenge. The southeast corner of the parkade is visually prominent, particularly as seen from a nearby light-rail transit bridge. Both client and architect wished to transform the normally plain facades into an understated piece of art for the campus and community.

The architects sought a system that would simultaneously mask the facades while allowing natural light and air to flow through the parkade, reducing the structure’s energy requirements. They found this dual solution in Vancouver artist Roderick Quin’s Ombrae, a pixellated image reproduction system previously used only in small-scale interior artworks. Each pixel on a series of metal panels is partially punched and angled to reflect a different gradient of light. The resulting photorealistic monochromatic image shifts in tone depending upon the light source and the position of the viewer. Applied to the parkade, the oversized Ombrae panels are patterned with an intriguing image of clouds. Circling around the structure, the clouds appear to move and float by the hillside.

The jewel in the crown of this project is, unexpectedly, the main exit stairwell leading from the parkade to Cohos Commons above. Proportioned more like an atrium than a stair, it combines wood, concrete and light into a sublime experience. The addition of skylights to this slice of space introduces naturally lit wayfinding that lifts a normally mundane experience to one of surprising delight.

There is growing recognition among clients and civic officials that parking structures have a larger role to play in the urban fabric, beyond merely warehousing vehicles. The SAIT parkade received the Mayor’s Urban Design Award, an unusual honour for a humble parking structure. It is hoped that parkade design continues to inspire innovative approaches that make tangible contributions to the public realm.

Loraine Fowlow is an Associate Professor in the M.Arch program at the University of Calgary.