Sinous Silhouette: Telus Sky, Calgary, Alberta

BIG’s Telus Sky energizes downtown Calgary.

PROJECT Telus Sky, Calgary, Alberta

ARCHITECTS Bjarke Ingels Group (Design Architect) with DIALOG (Architect of Record)

TEXT Trevor Boddy

PHOTOS Laurian Ghinitoiu unless otherwise noted


Telus Sky’s elegant form lends a distinctive presence to the Calgary skyline.


Books write books, and just as surely, buildings design buildings. This has seldom been as apparent as for the relationship between Bjarke Ingels Group’s Vancouver House and the Telus Sky tower that has now followed it in Calgary. There is more at play here than the two buildings having the same design team (BIG’s Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Christofferson), the same associate architect (DIALOG), the same developer (Westbank), and even the same structural engineers (Glotman Simpson of Vancouver). What is remarkable is the steep learning curve between the two designs, with refinements, clarifications, simplifications and rising confidence that coalesced into this hybrid office/rental housing tower in the very heart of Calgary’s oil patch. Vancouver House was a fine idea, but Telus Sky is a much better building.

To explain why I arrive at this critical judgment, I need to say something first about Vancouver House. I may know more about this tower than any other contemporary Canadian building. The developer commissioned me to curate an exhibition installed on the building site when Vancouver House was still in design development, even assigning to me the name for this elaborate show: “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a Germanic neologism of the mid-nineteenth century meaning “Total Design,” popularized by Richard Wagner and thereafter becoming a bedrock principle of the Bauhaus and most of the other modernisms that followed.

The tower’s pro-forma, or economic equation, is brilliant. Rising up from a low-priced, orphaned triangle of land adjacent an on-ramp to the Granville Bridge, Vancouver House steps out, floor-by-floor, to transform from a triangular plan to a rectangular one. This creates up to double the area of suites on higher floors, which in view-obsessive Vancouver net up to five times the purchase price per square metre of condo than those closer the ground. Achieving this required substantial structural gymnastics: a rare combo of horizontal and vertical post-tensioning. 

But this massing and structure exacted a price. The distance varies from a fixed core to each perimeter glass line as it incrementally cantilevers out, yielding some very tough resulting dimensions. In a small minority of unit plans, this led to dull strings of small rooms, doglegs, and other awkward layouts. DIALOG was assigned the difficult task of unit planning, made even more complex by changing marketing decisions, timed to tap a huge demand from the Mainland China market, driven by both investors and recent arrivals here. Things were so in flux that our Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition included no floor plans whatsoever—a rare absence in an architectural exhibition. But thanks to clever improvisations by both teams of architects, the developer, and their marketers, Vancouver House opened as the most valuable residential tower in Canadian history—a stunning real estate success story.

An approach that Bjarke Ingels calls ‘pixelation’ treats individual apartments as units of massing, resulting in a fine-grained volumetric expression.


Linking Vancouver House with Telus Sky is an approach to accreting residential units in façades that Bjarke Ingels has labelled “pixelation,” which treats individual apartments, not entire floors, as the key datum of massing. Both towers are often mistakenly described as “torquing,” when an examination of their plans reveals no such twisting. The illusion comes from seeing the receding lines of the variegated surfaces of each unit—pixelation in action. For Telus Sky, each floor is slightly rotated in plan and cantilevered from the one below, giving individual apartments their own volumetric expression on the exterior. The pixelation of units requires lots of corners (and their added expense), so one might say that these two towers have quite literally “cornered” the market. Both BIG towers use curtain walls (from German supplier SHUCO, manufactured in Korea), welcome relief from the window walls that make most Canadian residential towers look sheepishly the same, whether fat slabs backing onto the Gardiner Expressway or point towers in Yaletown.

Telus Sky occupies a rectangular base, tapering above its office floors to residential floors with half the floor area. This geometry offers increased light and views to residents. Photo by Ema Peter


Telus Sky does not require double post-tensioning, but the designers were forced to accommodate the reality of office floors being 1,670 square metres each, while the residential floors stacked on top of them are optimized to maximize light and views, with a floorplate just as long but much narrower, and crucially, each having just half the floor area of the office floors. The regional offices of telecom giant Telus occupy a minority of the floors in the rectangular office block. A grand urban plinth, they ground a 29-storey base that supports the small but efficient high-end rental units on the 28 upper floors, whose long faces rotate a bit towards the west with each step.  

Explaining the visual effects of Telus Sky, observers turn to metaphors, such as the pixelated seeded head of a sunflower turning to gain the light. A Telus executive describes the tower as “a cowgirl in a cowboy town,” and many locals note the “hips” where offices shift to residential. According to DIALOG’s senior architect on the project, Douglas Cinnamon, “Ours is the only tower in this part of downtown with balconies. It’s welcome relief, a more sensuous and sinuous form.” Certainly, this rotation and balconied pixelation dramatically punctuate a downtown dominated by hunky boxes adhering to the plains gridiron. Bjarke Ingels sums up the effect this way: “The texture of the façade evolves from smooth glass at the base to a three-dimensional composition of protrusions and recesses. The resultant form expresses the unification of the two programs in a single gesture—rational straight lines composed to form a feminine silhouette.”

At night, the tower is illuminated by Douglas Coupland’s Northern Lights, an dynamic LED-based work that is the city’s largest public art piece.


This is especially true because Fosters Architects’ The Bow, just a half block away, is also rotated to the west instead of adhering to the prevailing north-south orientation. Last fall, I walked with a group of my University of Calgary architecture students to see the visual dance between the two towers. None of the students figured out the actual reason why both buildings turn to the southwest: it is because of valuable-to-tenant direct vistas to the Rocky Mountains in this direction, Calgary’s equivalent to the North Shore and Georgia Strait views that drive Vancouver designs. Whether by feminizing downtown or just providing relief from the tyranny of dumb boxes on a grid, the pairing of these towers is spectacular. For high tech buffs (this is an engineers’ town), the views to the Bow from the north face of Telus Sky may even be more breathtaking than those to the foothills and snow-caps on the other side.

At one end of the lobby, an upscale café includes a curved wood ceiling and Scandinavian-inspired finishes and furnishings.


The very public lobby of Telus Sky sets a new design standard for entrances to Calgary’s downtown-wide Plus Fifteen pedestrian system. Other office tower lobbies and bridges tend to a safe corporate palette of blanched stone or panels, chrome and endless glass, having the now-eclipsed magazine aesthetic of two stops of over-exposure popular ten and twenty years ago. By contrast, Telus Sky boasts the darkest but friendliest lobby in town, with continuous benches along its entire length, both inside and outside, the latter lining a 7th Avenue C-Train platform. With its refined but simple Nordic detailing and dark colours, the Telus Sky lobby makes the people walking through it more prominent, via visual contrast. It reminds me of Arne Jacobsen’s 1961 SAS Hotel in Copenhagen—a pioneering tower-and-podium construction that Ingels shows off to all his architectural guests.  

The triple-height, dark-toned lobby includes continuous benches inside and outside, providing amenity to riders of the light rail transit system which stops adjacent to the building.


After one passes through this darkened space, the six-storey atrium beckons at its end, exploding with a torrent of Prairie light from above. Plantings set into curving fibreglass panels climb all the way up one wall. This is considered architectural choreography, with changing light and directions of view enriching the passage of every visitor. Looking up through the atrium, projecting angled stairs encourage Telus employees to avoid elevators when trekking to other departments. The stairs add further visual dynamism to this vertical white room, which the architects have dubbed “The Canyon.” The designers wanted the cantilevered stairs to be rounded, rather than angular, but the spatial concept is so strong it does not matter. Below them, a public stair leads to the all-hours Plus Fifteen system, and a set of amenity floors are shared by employees and rental residents alike.

A light-filled atrium accented by ferns and vines in white fibreglass planters contrasts with the public lobby space’s dark-toned finishes.
The atrium is criss-crossed by stairways that connect the floors of Telus’s offices, while below, a public stair leads to the Plus Fifteen walkway system that joins downtown buildings throughout downtown Calgary.


Jeremy Sturgess and I founded the Calgary architectural advocacy and lectures organization CAUSA in 1979, and many of our invited speakers were appalled by what they saw downtown then (Robert Stern, upon being driven down Centre Street past the river exclaimed, “Take me back to the airport!”) Not so Rem Koolhaas, who would become Bjarke Ingels’ early employer at OMA and had been my teacher in a term spent at London’s Architectural Association: when he accepted my invitation, he was totally exhilarated by the frenzy of construction, astonished by viewing the ballet méchanique of 28 construction cranes all moving at once. As his host and driver, he had me do a complete grid survey for him—west on 4th Avenue, east on 5th, and so on—while he took photos. In the 1970s, Koolhaas glimpsed Calgary’s boisterous, ambitious character, and his protégé Bjarke Ingels has now done the same—a near half century later—with Telus Sky.

Alberta-born and -educated, Vancouver-based Trevor Boddy curated the 2014 Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition on BIG’s Vancouver House, the 2017 Rethink Downtown San Diego for Bosa Developments, and Telling Details: The Architecture of Clifford Wiens for public galleries across Canada.

CLIENT 7th Avenue Sky Partnership (Westbank Corp., Telus Corporation, Allied Properties REIT) | ARCHITECT TEAM BIG—Bjarke Ingels, Thomas Christoffersen, Christopher White, Carl MacDonald, Stephanie Choi, Michael Zhang, Iannis Kandyliaris, Francesca Portesine, Alex Wu, Barbora Srpkova, Beat Schenk, Benjamin Caldwell, Benjamin Johnson, Brian Rome, Bryan Hardin, Carolien Schippers, Choonghyo Lee, Chris Gotfredsen, Daisy Zhong, David Spittler, Davide Maggio, Deborah Campbell, Dennis Harvey, Douglas Alligood, Elena Bresciani, Florencia Kratsman, Gaurav Janey, Haoyue Wang, Ho Kyung Lee, Iris van der Heide, Isshin Morimoto, Ivy Hume, Jakob Lange, Jan Leenknegt, Jennifer Phan, Julie Kaufman, Justyna Mydlak, Ku Hun Chung, Manon Gicquel, Mateusz Rek, Maya Shopova, Megan van Artsdalen, Michael Zhang, Mike Evola, Peter Lee, Quentin Stanton, Sun Yifu, Tara Hagan, Terry Lallak, Tianqi Zhang, Yaziel Juarbe, Yoanna Shivarova, Agne Rapkeviciute, Christopher White, Cristian Lera, Jack Lipson, John Kim, Lina Bondarenko, Nicholas Coffee. DIALOG—Doug Cinnamon, Robert Jim, Bruce Haden, Jacqueline Che, Nathan Erickson, Ken Johnson, Chris Lavallee, Sara Remocker, Stephanie Yeung, Wellington Hau, Rey Tadifa, Ivy Usi, Lisa Der, Alen Niznik, Kenton Wickersham, Brenda Skappak, Doug Carlyle, Stephen Hews | STRUCTURAL Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers (Anthony El-Araj) | MECHANICAL Reinbold Engineering (Doug Reinbold, Jason Edey, Bert Timmer) | ELECTRICAL Integral Engineering (Jubin Jalili, Ali Nazari, Gary Rhode, Colin Van Besouw) | SUSTAINABILITY Integral Engineering (Kevin Welsh) | ARCHITECTURE/INTERIORS COLLABORATOR BIG IDEAS| CODE LDMG Building Code Consultants, Gunn Consultants | TRANSPORTATION PLANNING Bunt & Associates Consulting Engineers | FAÇADES BVDA Façade Engineering LTD | ENVELOPE Morrison Hershfield | AREA 70,725 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION August 2021