Skateboards and Laser Beams

Shaw Millennium Park, Calgary, Alberta

Landplan Associates Ltd. Landscape Architects (Skate Park); John Brown Architect Ltd./Stantec Architecture Ltd. (Millennium Landmark); Gowling & Gibb Architects (Millennium Clock)

The creation and definition of relevant and vital public spaces in the North American city is a significant ongoing challenge. The nearly completed Shaw Millennium Park at the west end of downtown Calgary addresses a number of contemporary public space issues. The new park is built on the site of the former Mewata Stadium, which was an important Calgary sporting centre from 1906-98, including being home to the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders until 1960. The Shaw Millennium Park is the result of a concerted effort, beginning in 1996, by a number of public and private agencies to develop an appropriate commemoration of the millennium for Calgary. A brave decision was made by the organizing committee to include a major skate park as a component of the site redevelopment. Since its opening on September 30, 2000 the Shaw Millennium Park has been a spectacular success and in particular the skate park has been, according to Kyle Ripley, Project Manager with the City of Calgary, “more successful than anyone ever dreamed.” The site attracts up to 1,000 users a day and has become an international destination for skateboarders.

The park is situated immediately west of the Mewata Armory and the Calgary Science Centre, and is sandwiched between two major arterials that daily handle large volumes of traffic to and from the core. One of the significant challenges for the prime consultants, Landplan Associates Ltd., was accommodating access to the site. Currently most users either park in lots on the north edge and in the southeast corner of the site, or come by LRT from the east where a pathway through the Calgary Science Centre has been developed. Plans for a pedestrian bridge linking the Millennium Landmark in the centre of the design to the river pathway system to the north have not been completed, though this is a much-needed connection.

The park provides a more suitable definition of the west end of downtown, acts as a location for large outdoor special events and contains the world’s largest free outdoor skate park. The Family Park that occupies the east end of the development includes a stage and a large open grassy area for holding performances. The space is framed by a sweeping path and bisected by a water channel that emanates from a cascade fountain. A north-south pathway links the Millennium Clock Tower location, a spray fountain next to the stage and the Science Centre together. The Millennium Clock Tower, nearing completion and the subject of a controversial design competition, was designed by Gowling & Gibb Architects of Calgary. The project is a 21-metre tall obelisk fabricated of Alucobond housing a poorly-sized LED clock. As an interpretation of time it houses a GPS device that controls fibre optic displays in each of 12 horizontal reveals that encircle the tower. Other recreational facilities include basketball and volleyball courts.

The park also includes the Millennium Landmark, which acts as the focal element at the centre of the design. Initially designed by a group of students and faculty from the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary under the direction of Professor John Brown, the design was developed by John Brown Architect Ltd. and Stantec Architecture Ltd. and recently received a 2002 Prairie Design Award of Excellence. The Millennium Landmark follows the original site plan design by Landplan Associates Ltd. which called for a circular feature in the middle of the park that would accommodate a kiosk, toilets and maintenance facilities, and provide connections to various parts of the park and beyond. The design features a spiral ramp surrounded by 24 columns, which deflect 24 beams generated in the centre of the scheme by two high intensity lasers to produce a 300-metre high tower of light. This installation is the first permanent outdoor laser display in Canada and its construction required approval from civil aviation authorities. The result is a spectacular combination of laser technology and architecture.

Undoubtedly the most unique and provocative aspects of the Shaw Millennium Park are the laser display and the skate park. The skate park was developed through extensive consultation with the Calgary skateboarding community by Landplan Associates Ltd. in partnership with Jim Barnum of Spectrum Skatepark Creations Ltd. of Goldbridge, B.C. and Jay Balmer of Vancouver. The carefully modulated concrete topography features areas for beginner, intermediate and expert boarders, in-line skaters and BMX-ers. The beginner and intermediate areas include a range of bowls, skateable pyramids, rails, banks, curbs and drops. The expert section contains a daunting set of challenges including a half pipe, full pipe, clover bowl and street obstacles. A proposed snake run would bring the skate park up to 6,900 square metres in area.

The skate park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is typically filled with young males dressed in de rigeur boarding paraphernalia. It is particularly striking to witness the obvious camaraderie between the users of the skate park; fighting and arguing are noticeably absent. The intensity of use, the endless motion and sound as kids develop their skills, make it one of the most popular public spaces in Calgary. It is an ideal place for watching and participating; in particular the Millennium Landmark provides a platform for viewing the activity.

The notion of taking a renegade street activity like skateboarding, which typically adapts itself to found urban conditions, and placing it in a controlled environment is questionable. Nevertheless, the Shaw Millennium Park recognizes the place of this subculture in a larger society and provides an environment for boarders to demonstrate techniques and to share experiences. In this age of endlessly flowing surfaces, the sophisticated execution of the concrete landscape that constitutes the skate park is very seductive. Does it provide a precedent for the design of other kinds of public spaces, ones aimed at a wider cross-section of society? Does a space that caters to such a limited group and requires specialized equipment to use constitute a true public space? These are questions with no immediate answers; however, in a city where the most intriguing public spaces are parks, the Shaw Millennium Park is a worthy contribution. In conjunction with the existing Mewata Armory and Calgary Science Centre, the Shaw Millennium Park creates a heterogeneous ensemble of elements, spaces and constructions that provides the west end of Calgary with a wide range of public opportunities.

Graham Livesey, AAA, MRAIC is the Director of the Architecture Program at the University of Calgary and a principal in Down + Livesey Architects.

Client: Calgary 2000, Parks Foundation Calgary, City of Calgary Department of Parks & Recreation

Prime consultant: Landplan Associates Ltd. Landscape Architects

Architects: John Brown Architect Ltd., Stantec Architecture Ltd. (Millennium Landmark); concept design was generated by a team of students and faculty from the Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary led by Professor John Brown; Gowling & Gibb Architects (Millennium Clock)

Structural: Read Jones Christoffersen Ltd. (Millennium Landmark); CWA Structural Engineers (Millennium Clock)

Mechanical/Electrical: Wiebe Forest Engineering Ltd. (Shaw Millennium Park); Stantec Consulting Ltd. (Millennium Landmark); Acorn Consulting Engineering Group Ltd. (Millennium Clock)

Project managers: City of Calgary

Construction managers: Ellis-Don Construction Services Inc. (Millennium Landmark); Summa Management Ltd. (Millennium Clock)

Skate park consultants: Jim Barnum, Jay Balmer

Budget: Shaw Millennium Park, $4 million; Millennium Landmark, $1.3 million; Millennium Clock, $300,000

Completion: Shaw
Millennium Park, September 2000; Millennium Landmark, March 2001; Millennium Clock, in progress

Photography: as noted