Prevailing Forces: M2 Mixed-Use Building, Calgary, Alberta

An angular mixed-use building is tailored to its quirky site on Calgary’s waterfront.

Occupying one of downtown Calgary’s last waterfront sites, the mixed-use M2 building presents a series of terraces that cascade towards the Bow River.

PROJECT M2 Mixed-Use Building, Calgary, Alberta

ARCHITECTs nARCHITECTS (design architect) with Riddell Kurczaba (architect of record)

PHOTOS Andrew Latreille

An eye-catching, angular new mixed-use building is the latest addition to the south bank of the Bow River in Calgary’s East Village, just a few blocks east of the city’s commercial core. The first Canadian work for Brooklyn-based nArchitects, M2 plays a critical role in fulfilling the riverfront redevelopment vision for the East Village, a neighbourhood that has taken shape over the past decade as a vibrant mixed-use hub.

The four-storey building provides an intimate and cinematic experience of the river that remains inexplicably scarce in Calgary. Looking down from its upper terrace, the architecture feels like an inevitable part of the city’s waterfront. Architect Eric Bunge, the Canadian-born principal of nArchitects (which he co-founded with Mimi Hoang in 1999) graciously suggests that the project’s success in this regard is not the result of clever design, but of clear thinking from regulators, planners, and the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, the City’s arms-length entity responsible for the East Village. “We just help move the ouija board,” says Bunge. “If we’ll take credit for something, it’s allowing those forces to prevail as design ideas.”

A series of terraces offers views towards the Bow River from the office floors and residential penthouse. The terraces create a stepped-back volume that transitions between the waterfront, with its pedestrian and cycling trails, and the more densely developed East Village district.

Historically, there have been many fingers on the ouija board of Calgary’s riverfront, and not all of them were pulling toward parks, trails, and people-focused development. Over the decades, the south side of the river has been home to residential yards, a dumping ground, and industrial storage. It’s been the site of serious proposals for a rail mainline and high-volume freeway. If it weren’t for strong coordinated opposition—led largely by the organized women’s movement of the 1950s—there would likely have been no riverfront green space left to capture the city’s imagination in the succeeding decades.1 More recently, even as the river parks became a deeply rooted part of Calgary’s identity, few buildings have managed to capture the potential of fronting onto the city’s rivers and river pathways.

M2 occupies one of the last unbuilt pieces of downtown riverfront property, a roughly triangular parcel formed as the Bow River bends to meet the street grid. To the north, the site fronts onto a broad reach of the city’s revitalized riverfront pathway. To the south, it faces an urban street. On its west edge, M2 shares a short lane with the Simmons Building, a century-old warehouse repurposed in 2015 as a culinary haunt for the rising neighbourhood. Surrounded by animation on all sides, the site has no obvious front or back.

Site Axonometric

The resulting building’s massing is largely dictated by the odd shape of this narrow parcel, along with riverside shadowing requirements. The four-storey building steps back on each floor, resulting in a zig-zag of long terraces overlooking the river and adjacent promenade. Programmatically, Bunge describes M2’s stacked uses as “a tower without a middle”—with a commercial ground floor, residential penthouse, and a small sliver of office space in between. In its form and program, the building bridges between the small-scale pedestrian waterfront and the much larger towers that rise immediately to its south.

Developer Kate MacGregor of Calgary-based XYC, who completed her studies in architecture at Columbia in 2011, spent much of the design period in Brooklyn, embedded with the nArchitects team. This unconventional way of operating was welcomed by nArchitects, which Bunge describes as an eclectic practice that is inevitably drawn to “weird projects with strong, progressive agendas.”

The combined insights of the developer and designers are evident in a building that plays adeptly with the site’s ambiguities and constraints. Bunge aimed to create an experience that “unfolds as you move around the building, encouraging and responding to the mobile observer.” The team settled on two distinct architectural treatments: one tailored to the urban streetscape, and the other addressing the river promenade.

The street-facing façade is carefully composed to integrate back-of-house functions, including a service entrance and two fire exits, as well as the main entries to a restaurant and to a bike shop.

The street-facing south elevation bears the weight of most of the building’s functional elements. The building’s core is pushed against this edge; it also accommodates the entrance to the underground parking and a range of other services. A black, two-dimensional façade scheme provides material continuity. Functional elements are graphically integrated, and the composition is accented with well-composed window perforations.

This strategy required purposeful orchestration, says Bunge: “At the root is a desire for the building to be understood in its most simple way. Servicing elements are integrated where possible, and masked where not possible. It’s all about working within the logics of the façade.”

A terrace wraps around the west elevation, creating a sheltering awning over a secondary entry to the ground-level restaurant.

Facing the river to the north, the building presents a more welcoming front. Silver aluminum composite panels frame long clusters of horizontal windows along the terraces. Part of the façade projects outward on the site’s west face, creating a covered laneway entry for the restaurant and producing a subtle gateway between the neighbourhood and the river. The cladding system is off-the-shelf, but deployed with careful proportions and thoughtful detailing. “We are rarely afforded the luxury of fancy materials,” says Bunge, “and so we have become attuned to making something special out of generic systems.” When seen from across the river, the shiny aluminum cascade of terraces presents a kind of urban porch—a bright and well-defined forecourt to the densely urban East Village.

A detailing study aimed to resolve the geometry of key elements at the intersection between the terraces and the main façade.

The name of the building—M2—was drawn directly from the site’s lot code in the East Village master plan. In a way, this tells the full story. Here is an architecture that finds interest in ordinary things, allows straightforward things to be straightforward, and is content to inherit the cadence of its place. To any designer, city, or business scrambling to find innovation in every corner, perhaps there is a lesson to learn. In Bunge’s words, “The main trick is to have only a few very good ideas.”

1 See Nelles, H.V. (2005). “How Did Calgary Get Its River Parks?” Urban History Review / Revue d’histoire urbaine, 34 (1), 28-45.

Matt Knapik studied architecture and urban design at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at the University of Calgary, where he has taught as a sessional instructor since 2011. He is an associate at Calgary-based O2 Planning & Design.

CLIENT XYC Design + Development | ARCHITECT TEAM nARCHITECTS—Eric Bunge, Mimi Hoang, Marc Puig, Amanda Morgan, Kate MacGregor, Tony-Saba Shiber, Albert Figueras.  Riddell Kurczaba—Kiko Qi, Pio Dayawon, Sameer Deshpande, Peter Schulz | STRUCTURAL Lex 3 Engineering | MECHANICAL Smith + Andersen | ELECTRICAL DesignCore | CIVIL Richview Engineering | INTERIORS Bozena Interior Design with XYC Design Corp | CONTRACTOR EllisDon | AREA 2,323 m2 | BUDGET $12 M | COMPLETION November 2019